Online Learning from 3,624 km Away
University can be difficult to navigate at uncomplicated times. But when international students faced the need to learn from distances of 3,624 km because of COVID, the university became less about navigation and more about surviving the online learning experience.
International students represent 23 percent of the student body of the University of Windsor. Even though the pandemic has made learning difficult for them due to travel guidelines and health and safety concerns, several international students begin their studies in 2021 still from home. These students haven’t been afforded the “normal” on-campus student experience like visiting the International Student Centre for in-person events, studying in Leddy Library, or just hanging out with friends. Terrifying. They are learning through a screen, and even though they could get into a university in their home countries, they still believe in the path they chose for their education.
According to a study, Canada continues to be the number one country worldwide known for the quality of its schools and its educational level. It was ranked first for the second consecutive year in educations.com’s 2021 rankings ‘Top 10 Places in the World to Study Abroad,’ beating the US and the UK.
So how can international students learning from afar still make the most of their student experience? I suggest finding ways to get involved on campus, and I’m going to provide some examples of how you can get the best university experience (and make your tuition worth it) even if you are 3,624 km away like me.
International Student Centre
The International Student Centre (ISC) is the number one resource for incoming and returning students, but even the center struggled when the pandemic started in 2020. I had the opportunity to interview the Director of the ISC, Beth Oakley. She described the difficulties their team experienced using the expression “fly by the seat of one’s pants,” which means to rely on instinct rather than logic or knowledge.
“We assessed as we went, we brainstormed, we had sympathy and empathy for what these students were going through, and we used that to consider what we could do to make their lives a little bit easier.”
The first focus point for the ISC was how to help students understand the new travel guidelines due to COVID with the International Arrivals program, where students receive assistance from the moment they decide to book their flight.
Nowadays, the team’s focus is more on social programming. You can be part of events like virtual bingo and trivia, hang-out sessions, talent shows, Amazon gift cards giveaways, movie nights, and mentor opportunities to find out what it’s like on campus and what you can expect when you get here. Yet, the response is not the best, says Beth Oakley.
“The feedback hasn’t been like sensational. It hasn’t been like, where, you know, we have 50 people at this event, but those that do engage with us, they report that they are enjoying it, and it does make a difference for them.”
But why are students not showing up? Some reasons include the time difference, the awkwardness that represents turning on our cameras and microphones, and some students don’t know where to look for opportunities. That’s why this article idea came to me as I was trying to find some ways to get involved at the university while studying from Mexico.
The ISC’s social media is now the best resource to find those opportunities to get involved, but it wasn’t always like that, says Beth Oakley.
“Prior to COVID, we just managed like all of us old people in the ISC, the Instagram and Facebook, but now we have two students who we’ve hired, who are dedicated. That’s their job, communication through social media and planning events.”
Personally speaking, If I hadn’t started following the ISC’s social media (@uwindsorisc), I would never have had a chance to be one of The Lance’s journalists. ISC and UWindsor (@uwindsor) social media accounts continue to post campus opportunities and events, so I would encourage anyone to keep an eye on that. But if you are worried about the time difference, the ISC delivers the opportunities in different time zones.
Lastly, I wanted to find out whether the ISC is planning programs and events for when students arrive in Windsor in the upcoming months, and the response of Beth Oakley was all my ears wanted to hear. They are planning a lot of events that involve adjusting to Canadian life. For example, some international students have never experienced snow before, so the ISC is working on an event based on the 1st significant snowfall for the winter semester. Knowing that I won’t be the only one arriving in Windsor in the next few months is something that calms my nerves, and knowing that the university will continue to make us feel welcome is something that any international student appreciates.
I want to thank Beth Oakley for sharing what has happened behind the scenes during the pandemic. If you would like to get in touch, she encourages students to come to the ISC to volunteer at any time and check the UWindsor event calendar for upcoming virtual and in-person experiences.
For the next part of the article, I would like to share some personal tips on things I have been doing to enjoy my university experience after almost two months of online learning from Mexico. I hope this can help you increase your student experience too.
- 1.- Sign up and attend programs during school breaks
- The Office of Student Experience offers a variety of programs to ease the transition for incoming first-year students throughout their first year as a Lancer. This summer, I was part of the Community Building Program and the Transform Program. While taking part in these new initiatives, I had the pleasure to meet upper-year students Mariam Morra and Kalie Chapman, who shared why they chose to be mentors this past summer.
“What interested me most about the Community Building Program was how genuine it was. I could sit with incoming first-year students biweekly and help them adjust to the shift of university. I would have loved for someone to give me small tips and tricks to navigate through my first year, and luckily I was able to provide that as a mentor through the Community Building Program,” said Mariam.
“What interested me the most about becoming a mentor would have to be the direct relation I felt when I was a first-year student, feeling alone in this change. Even though it was just the next step of my education, entering university felt like I was leaving behind everything I had worked towards, as though I was completely starting over, alone in dealing with this change. Ultimately, as a mentor, I could be a friend, not a teacher or someone who affects their grades, but a friend,” said Kalie.
Having been part of both certainly helped me see the community that exists at the university, and it made me realize that we are all willing to help each other at every step of the journey. For all updates on these student life programs, make sure to check the Student Experience department on social media @UWinStudentExp.
- 2.- Join a club
- The University of Windsor has many clubs that you can take part in to enhance your social experience. I know this tip may be a cliché. But in some countries, this part of the school experience is not usual. It can make you feel less overwhelmed about making friends and getting to know people. From cultural to religious to hobby-oriented, the University of Windsor has a student group or club to fit many needs. You can check the University of Windsor Student’s Alliance (UWSA) website to join a club today!
- 3.- Discover volunteer opportunities through social media
- Volunteer experiences can give you a chance to learn new skills like communication, leadership, and team collaboration. It’s a great way to meet your peers, socialize and make new connections. I would highly recommend checking the Alumni Association, Student Success and Leadership Centre, and the Career Development & Experiential Learning websites where you can get a chance to volunteer. Some of these organizations are still meeting virtually, so you can contact them to see if you can help them in any way. I’m sure they would appreciate the help.
- Another way to find volunteer experiences is through social media. As I mentioned before, I found the chance to be a journalist at The Lance through Instagram. We spent a lot of time using our phones, so keep an eye on those opportunities all over UWindsor’s social media that you can find at the Office of Public Affairs & Communication website.
- 4.- Try to take advantage of studying online
- Not everything is bad. We have to see the positive side of things. By staying at home, we have the opportunity to enjoy our families and country a little more, save on accommodation, meals, and transportation, so make sure to check the Online Student Support website to find more resources and online learning benefits. Additionally, check Rebecca Haddad’s article here at The Lance to see why studying online is not as bad as we think from the perspective of an upper-year student.
I hope with all this information I have helped you calm your nerves a bit, and reminded you that you are not alone in this change and that the decision you made to study in another country was the best option for you. I look forward to meeting you all on campus very soon!