An Academic Year Gone Too Fast – Thoughts on a UofT Online School Year

My second year of undergraduate studies wrapped up last Friday with my last final assessment (a.k.a. exams). It was not a year any undergraduate University of Toronto (UofT) student, either first-year or fourth-year would have expected, with a full year of online learning. As a second-year undergrad student, I gratefully have had some experience on campus prior to the pandemic in March 2020 and had my share of campus life. I look back at this year with mixed emotions… not only because of the downs of online class, but also to the ups of the online university experience. Today I want to share five things I learned, a mix of pros and cons of this past online school year – a school year to remember.

  1. Mornings are so different! – I remember all my years through elementary and high school, waking up at about 7:15am to prepare breakfast, get dressed and head out to the bus – in elementary school it was the school bus and all through secondary school, it was the TTC. Thankfully I did not live too far from any of the schools. Even in high school, while I lived outside of the Chaminade College School catchment area, I only had to take the 35 Jane bus, or sometimes even better the 935 Jane express bus to get to school. On top of that, the high school monthly “late-starts” were always a treat. It often meant a morning to sleep in a bit and less crowded busses. When I got to University, things were a little different – St. George Campus was in Downtown and my public transit rides doubled the time that it was back in high school. But “late-starts” came more often, depending on the schedule, though 9:00am lectures were sometime dreadful with the TTC. I remember missing morning lecture twice due to “seas” of people being stranded at Keele Station on two separate occasions. However, with online classes, the stresses of Toronto transit were gone and I could wake up 30 minutes before class and have breakfast without any rush as class is just a floor below my bedroom.
    Tip: Avoid participating in lectures from your bed to avoid tempting yourself to fall asleep during lecture or tutorials. If you have an early morning class, go to a room with a lot of sunlight and actively participate in lecture or tutorials there.
  2. My classmates, how are they doing? – One of the luxuries of an in-person class is that you get to know your classmates, whether it be in a lecture hall or tutorial. I have made connections with people that I have still kept throughout this past academic year. Unfortunately, an online Zoom class doesn’t allow much interaction with your peers, even in a tutorial session. The biggest question is still in my mind, “How do you approach a classmate on Zoom?” Everyone is a rectangle on lecture, and you ask yourself, “Should I private message X?” I found it helpful to know someone from a specific class. I even had study buddies for some classes, but not every class was so – I would look through the names on Zoom and would not know anyone or how to contact them. In an in-person class, all of that little stuff: sharing contact info, asking for a study buddy would be easier. The lack of interactions with classmates also left me hanging in regards to how I was among the rest of the class, particularly for more difficult courses. I would ask myself after a not-so-good assessment and think, “I am doing okay among the class, or am I on the lower end?” In an in-person class, I would ask those questions directly to people around me so I know where I am in the course and whether other learning methods are needed. An online experience felt in a sense, isolating, in that regard.
  3. Participation in extracurricular activities – Compared to first-year, I really considered participating in events hosted by the Newman Catholic Chaplaincies and events hosted by Trinity College this past year. One of the barriers that seemed to prevent me were the excuses, “I am too busy,” or, “I have to get home early,” or just the pain of having Friday class from 9:00am-10:00am and having to come back to campus at 7pm for an event… Having online Zoom events eliminated all of that and I have participated in a Faith Study, several Trinity College mental health events and socials, as well Newman’s Frasatti Men’s Group meetings on Mondays and other Catholic events hosted by the Newman Centre. This is one of the dimensions I wish would continue after this pandemic.
  4. The Hard Truth – While I learned this already last academic year and throughout high school, I was once affirmed again this past year how there are some courses that no matter how hard you put your effort in, you will still find it difficult. One of those courses for me was Modern Symbolic Logic (PHL 245). Even though Professor Alex Koo did a good job at explaining concepts, I found it difficult to do symbolizations in multi-place logic. The start of the course was easy to grasp with sentential logic, but gradually increased in difficulty with the single-place and multi-place predicate logic… Even though I spent the time to do the exercises and follow the pre-recorded lectures, by the night before the exam, all I could do was try my best and ask the Holy Spirit for inspiration. I am a firm believer in prayer – not to abuse prayer as if God were a vending machine, but that when you have done all that you can, you know you are weak but has strived to do all that you can, you say, “God, I know I am weak in X, and so I ask You for your help.” You put in everything you got, and I believe, in some way or another, God will put in the rest. That does not mean a formula for an A+ on an exam, but I think, even if it were an “okay” mark, I would think to myself, “Things could have been much worse if I had much pride in me, and not let the Holy Spirit work in me.” You won’t be good in everything, and that’s a hard truth to accept. I learned though, online or in-person, you will face those courses and all you can do is put everything you got on the assessments.
  5. SMC Professors are the best! – I have been blessed to have so many great professors, all great in their own ways. You will come to know that there are professors who are stricter than others, and some who give you a mark of 3.99/4 which is frustrating. However, I dare to say that out of all the professors I have had throughout this half-way point of my undergraduate career, I have a deep admiration for the professors at St. Michael’s College (SMC). Even though I am pursuing a double major in Ethics, Society and Law (ES&L) with Philosophy, I am also pursuing on top of that a minor in Christianity and Culture. While I can make due with a Bachelor of Arts with two-majors, upon taking two SMC courses in my first-year, both First Year Foundation Seminars (the little gems of first-year UofT!), the small classes really allowed me to get to know the professors and many classmates in ways I would never imagine at a campus as large as UofT. My first-year Sociology course had over 900+ students in Convocation Hall! My admiration for SMC professors, as well as the Christian course content prompted me to take two more SMC courses, one was a Christian history course, and the other about Catholicism and Education. Not only did I enjoy the course content of every SMC course so far, but every professor I had from that College genuinely cared about their students. They would check-in with their students, recognizing these challenging times. That did not mean that they lowered their expectations in anyway for their course, but simple questions or whiteboard-activities that asked students of their mood or their views thus far of a course shows that these professors really wanted their students to succeed, and I have seen that in the SMC professors specifically so far. Not only so, SMC professors really make use of “guest lectures” from within their faculty in the Christianity and Culture courses – meaning that, I would likely encounter another professor I have taken a course from previously in another course for one or two classes. If the “guest lecturer,” then you will have the opportunity to hear a lecture from them and know a bit of what to expect if you land in their course(s) down the road. I really hope to take many more SMC courses in the future and look forward to critical conversations with SMC professors. This opinion may be biased due to my interests, but honestly looking beyond the course content, I admire the SMC professors in their pedagogical style.

There you have it – a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime academic year in the books that was over in a blink of an eye! Now, let’s see what September will bring…

About Vincent Pham

Vincent is a humanities student of the University of Toronto’s Trinity College of the Faculty of Arts and Science. He hopes to pursue a double major in Ethics, Law and Society, and Philosophy.
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