When the pandemic forced most Nova Scotia universities to move to online learning for the fall term in 2020, a landmark event in the student experience — orientation week — was also forced to go virtual.
With Nova Scotia in Phase 4 of its reopening plan and many restrictions loosened, student unions are once again able to offer new students a more spirited introduction to university life.
Nick Harris, student union president at the University of King's College, said King's tried to make the virtual events engaging last year but it simply wasn't the same.
He said the student union has a week of events planned starting from move-in day on Sunday and running until the following Saturday.
"This is an opportunity for human connection once again," Harris said. "And that's what I'm really excited about. Zoom fatigue has been real over the last year and eight months."
Next door at Dalhousie University, Madeleine Stinson, the student union president, echoed the feeling of excitement at a return to more normal student life on campus.
Their orientation programming started on Saturday and runs until Tuesday.
She said it's good to see people on campus and to get a sense that school is starting again.
"We've gotten, like, city buzz back that you get every fall, but that we were very sorely missing last year, which is really nice to see," Stinson said.
Mount Saint Vincent University is anxious to give new and returning students the best on-campus experience possible but in a safe environment, according to Mayankkumar Joshi, the vice-president of student life for their student union.
"So we are working on both sides, we want to give them some fun events but at the same time, we also want to try to give them the health and safety precautions," Joshi said.
The student union representatives said masks will continue to be required at all indoor events until at least the end of September. Physical distancing will be in place and gathering limits will be observed.
While the gathering limits are not expected to be a challenge for institutions with smaller student populations like King's, for larger institutions like Dalhousie it poses more of a challenge.
Stinson said Dal is running programming in rotations but has already reached capacity for every event planned. MSVU is facing similar challenges and Joshi said the student union is doing what it can.
One unexpected problem that he identified is that because students weren't able to have an in-person orientation last year, there are now second-year students who are having their first experience of campus life.
Those same students would normally provide a pool of orientation leaders for new students this year, but Joshi said they needed to be guided first before they could take on the role of introducing new students to the campus.
Students who missed out on the orientation experience in 2020 will have a chance to make up for it to some extent at some institutions.
King's will be offering second-year students half-price tickets to this year's orientation events.
Harris said there will also be events specifically catering to second-year students who will have a chance to meet their fellow students from across the country for the first time.
While new university students are finally getting something closer to a taste of campus life, their student union representatives are aware that the delta variant could change things.
But there is still an air of optimism that Nova Scotia will escape another wave.
"I'm hopeful that the province of Nova Scotia has done really well and will continue to do really well and students won't have to go through what we did a year and a half ago," Stinson said.
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