I’m graduating from university in June this year. It’s a moment that I’ve been looking forward to since my first year at the University of Toronto. Beyond the joy and accomplishment that’s supposed to come with finishing off my degree in Literature and Critical Theory, this moment was of particular significance to me as a first-generation immigrant. My family immigrated to Canada from China when I was 13 months old, and I’m the first person in my family to attend post-secondary. My convocation ceremony would’ve been a huge milestone for my entire family.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Classes were cancelled, as were in-person exams and extracurriculars and formal year-end events and conferences and convocation ceremonies and a whole list of things that I, and many others in the class of 2020, were looking forward to.
Though I support the social distancing measures that have been put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, I still feel like I’m grieving. I won’t be able to complete research projects or tie up any loose ends on campus. I wasn’t able to say goodbye, possibly for the last time, to my friends who have put together frantic last-minute travel arrangements home. And though I know I’m lucky—I’m safe and healthy and I have a home to return to—the emotional toll of being cut off from campus life has been heavier than expected.
“I completely understand why classes needed to shift online and agree with and support the decision, but I feel kind of cheated in a way,” says Sukaina Jamil, a journalism student at Ryerson University. “We’ve had the experience of enjoying the end of four years of really, really hard work taken away from us. Not being able to see friends, or people who I know I likely won’t ever see again now that I’m graduating, is a really upsetting feeling.”
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Thomas, an international relations and contemporary Asian studies student at the University of Toronto, also has been feeling “not great” since classes have been cancelled. “I am out of a job, my classes and grades are in flux, I won’t be seeing a lot of my friends for the “last time.” I know it’s superficial but I do miss my partner—Facetime just is not the same,” they said. “It feels dystopian, but I also recognize that’s a lived experience of many people.”
On top of the mental health toll that the disruption in normalcy has caused, me and my peers in the class of 2020 are worried about our futures. Many of us have recently been let go from our jobs, have had summer internships cancelled and have had grad school plans put on hold. Handling the logistics of moving back home suddenly, trying to set up a workspace in your family home to attend virtual classes and complete coursework and trying to figure out future plans like post-grad jobs and grad school housing has made the disruption even more fraught and full of uncertainty.
“[It’s been] challenging to apply for housing without the chance to visit the campus in person,” says Meg Jianing Zhang, an English student at the University of Toronto, who recently accepted a grad school offer in the states. “I have NO idea what will happen if US/Canada borders are not opened by September.”
The stress and anxiety that comes with employment insecurity is already stacked high on Gen-Z’s shoulders—the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated it. Personally, I’ve lost my main source of income because of the coronavirus and have been on the hunt for a post-grad job in journalism since November 2019. I don’t know when, if ever, in the foreseeable future I’ll be able to find a job.
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This stress and anxiety is also much worse for low-income, BIPOC and first-generation students, who often have to balance part-time jobs, housing inequality and student loan debt on top of classes. These are the students who rely the most on campus employment programs and summer placements—many which have been cancelled.
“I understand why [summer internship offers] were rescinded but I find it really saddening because I am a low-income student that has had to fight for every opportunity I get, and I’ve been fairly successful at it so far,” says Thomas.
“My dad is an immigrant, and I grew up low-income. My family poured their everything [into making] sure that I was able to be successful in university and was able to have as much of a “normal” university experience as possible. My success and ability to get my Bachelor’s degree is as much my parent’s pride as it is mine,” says Anika, an early/middle years education student at the University of Saskatchewan.
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I miss my friends, my profs and my routine. Hell, I even miss the library. Most of all, I’m scared for my future.
But even in these most uncertain of times, I’ve found hope and solace in connecting with my peers. In writing this article, at least a dozen members of the class of 2020, from all across the country, have reached out to me and shared their stories. I’ve found comfort in the fact that across Canada, everyone is going through the same thing. While I have felt so alone, and so anxious, I know I’m not the only one.