As the countdown to the first day of school begins, post-secondary institutions in Canada are getting ready to host their first fully in-person orientation week for incoming students — a rite of passage that was postponed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Maddie Fines, a first-year student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., it's a chance for a fresh start.
"I'm really looking forward to just branching out and meeting new people," she told CBC News.
This excitement is felt among all of those involved in orientation — from students to volunteers and staff. After two years of Zoom introductions and virtual tours, student life is finally ready to return to something more normal this fall.
Mahsa Eskandari, an associate vice-president of programming at Wilfrid Laurier University Students' Union in Waterloo, Ont., spoke to CBC News about the importance of orientation week.
"There's a lot of this culture that surrounds [post-secondary], especially with the orientation week. I think for a lot of people, that's one of the most exciting times," she said. "You come to campus and you feel the energy, you feel the space, the spirit that everyone kind of has."
Welcoming back in-person orientation
For those involved in enhancing the campus experience, orientation week is the busiest time of year, said Andrew Bisnauth, manager of student life and campus engagement at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). He has been planning about 150 events over the last four months.
"We do have about 11,000 students that are coming into TMU," he said. "I do anticipate that we're going to have a lot of students [at orientation], pretty close to what we had in 2019."
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This year, the downtown Toronto university added drag brunch and a body positivity fashion show. It's also teaching incoming students about organizational tools and time management skills, as well as hosting a wellness week.
Mental health is becoming increasingly important to incoming post-secondary students, such as Fines, of Dundas, Ont. She said the number of wellness centres at Trent "is incredible" and will help her adjust to living away from home for the first time.
At Wilfrid Laurier, Eskandari said the school's orientation program has changed from a team competition format to a community format. This year's focus is on building social connection and social belonging, helping students reconnect after the challenges of the past two years, she said.
During the past two years, when the pandemic forced orientation week events to be held virtually, attendance was low —making this year key for schools.
"I don't think I went to any of the events. I probably went to the first Zoom [event] on the first day and then stopped going because it wasn't as fun as I thought it was going to be," said Ana Duvnjak, a third-year student at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
Eskandari said she can see why students didn't feel a need to connect. "It's also probably not what they had been hoping for when they would think about what their first year looks like."
Even when orientation went hybrid, Duvnjak said she still found that the predominantly virtual approach wasn't engaging for students. "We had a lot of kids on the first day, and then everyone just started to slowly taper off."
Toronto Metropolitan University's Bisnauth said virtual fatigue was a major reason online orientations didn't work, with both organizers and students struggling to socialize.
"How do we find those tools that can bring students together, to still build that community, to build some of that friendship so that we're lessening the impact of having to be online?" he said.
However, Eskandari highlighted an unexpected pattern that came from virtual orientation.
"We've seen a lot of students who maybe didn't have a fully in-person orientation week tend to volunteer a lot. Because not only do they get to help the first year in their transition to university, but they get to experience maybe some of the things that they didn't get to," she said.
This was exactly the case for Duvnjak, who was a second-year orientation team leader in 2021 after her online orientation the year before.
"I was upset in first year that we didn't get a proper orientation.... I feel like a lot of people were hoping that not only would we get to take part in orientation, which is super fun, but it would kind of make up for missing ours."
Zach Groves is another student who had a completely virtual orientation, so when he became orientation co-ordinator at the University of Toronto, he was apprehensive.
"It's very scary. That's the first thought, I would say, because, like, whenever I think about planning orientation, I just think that, like, I never saw this," the third-year student told CBC News.
Lessons learned going forward
Julie Seeger, an architecture student and orientation co-ordinator at the University of Toronto, said the university is cutting down orientation ticket costs so that it can reach as many students as possible.
It's also taking advantage of online resources and planning a variety of events for different comfort levels, since some students don't feel ready to return to in-person events.
"We're trying to also include a good number of things that are inside, things that are outside, things that require more close contact versus things that are more relaxed, distanced," Seeger said.
The University of Victoria will be keeping a hybrid model, hosting a virtual Q&A session, campus tour and social programming along with in-person orientation. There will also be a series of Zoom webinars and drop-in "speed friending" and trivia activities.
Emily Huynh, manager of student life and engagement at the British Columbia university, said COVID-19 helped its programming become more inclusive for students who cannot be physically present because of health considerations, they're uncomfortable being in a large group or they're coming from another country.
"[We're] being really conscious of and considerate of the ways that we can make our programming more accessible and more barrier free," she said.
International student Monisha Vinod, of Bangalore, India, is an example of that. She used the online orientation at the University of Alberta last year to prepare her for school abroad.
"It was like a course that we had to get done before reaching Edmonton, and it was really organized well," she said. The course assisted her with any travel documents and work programs she might need, but it also helped her become familiar with Canadian culture.
"I saved all the links before arriving here to where I could go hiking and things like that. Information was given about the national parks," said Vinod, an MBA student. "Edmonton is the city of festivals, and I bookmarked that and kept it for July and August this year — and especially the food festivals and the music."
The orientation program also gave her information on where to buy a winter jacket at a reasonable price and how to budget during her time in Edmonton.
Vinod compared notes with other international students, and she said they generally found the online orientation helpful — especially those who arrived late due to visa complications and missed the welcome week.
"They have those resources, and they can still be ready when they come here. So I think the university has realized that, and that's why they've got both options," Vinod said, adding that she thinks the school should continue offering online orientation once pandemic restrictions are no longer needed.
"I think it's actually one sort of positive piece that's coming from programming in this way through the pandemic, is that we're better equipped to do so and sort of have multiple offerings available for students," the University of Victoria's Huynh said.