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COVID realities painful for university students

UNBC residence assistant witness to struggles of remote learning
05 UNBC Svetlana Boykova mug
Svetlana Boykova, a first-year post for the UNBC Timberwolves basketball team, works on the university's Cranbrook Hill campus as a student residence assistant and she talks to students daily about their struggles dealing with remote learning while the pandemic continues.

Remote learning and online lectures are the way of the world for university students for as long as it takes until pandemic lockdowns are lifted and that is taking a toll on students.

Restrictions on group gatherings mean empty lecture halls and a dependence on laptops and internet conferencing to learn course material, which adds to the pressure for students trying to get the grades they will need to advance.

International student Svetlana Boykova sees the effects of that stress every day she’s on the job as a residence assistant at UNBC’s Cranbrook Hill campus.

Boykova, an accounting/finance major from Moscow, Russia plays basketball for the UNBC Timberwolves, sees her teammates and coaches daily in practice and during weight room training sessions but most students don’t have a chance to make those face-to-face human connections. Class lectures are remote, either pre-recorded by instructors or live on Zoom link-ups and students direct their questions to their professors using email.

“This semester for me is strange because all of my classes are without lectures or recorded lectures so basically it’s just me and my textbook,” said Boykova. “But I know how to organize myself and for me it doesn’t matter, face-to-face or online, I’m OK with everything.

“Not every professor is prepared for classes online. Some professors have problems with the camera or the microphone and some can’t make it interesting. Sometimes the connection is bad and sometimes you don’t understand what is going on.”

The 24-year-old balances two part-time jobs with her school work and basketball commitments. Boykova already has a railway engineering degree from a university in Russia which taught her time management skills and that’s helping her deal with a heavy course load.  But for many students, especially recent high school graduates just finding their way as adults,  the self-discipline required  to tackle remote learning is a huge obstacle they are still learning to overcome.

“It’s a lot of pressure now for students,” she said. “When you’re young, if you don’t understand what to do you panic and you don’t have people around who can help you with this.  Resident assistants (organize) events for students and in September, October and November  it was good for them. They were going to face-to-face events and doing something  to meet new people. Now, all of this is online.

 “Everyone is just tired of being on their laptop all the time.”

The problem is compounded for international students, especially those not fluent in English. For some who have come from  warm climates in India, Nigeria or Brazil, who are not used to winter, as mild as it has been, going for a walk on icy paths, snowshoeing, skating or cross-country skiing is not their idea of fun.

“Canadians enjoy outdoors but a lot of international people do not enjoy it,” said Boykova. “A lot of places are closed in Prince George and for the people who don’t enjoy outdoor stuff it’s hard to find something to do. In the wintertime, my favourite place is my room.”

The two student residence buildings on Cranbrook Hill campus at UNBC  have a combined capacity of 522 but right now there’s only about 100 students living there and the  building feels empty to Boykova. Just one guest is allowed in the rooms at one time and they can’t be from outside the campus cluster and isolation is one of the consequences. She and the other residence assistants have regular meetings to discuss strategies to improve student morale and they have connections to mental health service professionals on campus and in the city to support students showing signs of depression.

Boykova’s grasp on English has grown exponentially in the past two years from being surrounded by English-speakers everywhere she goes in the city but the language barrier was a struggle that first year when she started classes in September 2019.

 “For example, in a midterm you have 50 minutes and I spent 25 minutes just translating for myself, but it’s just experience and I understand it takes time,” she said. “My goal was not to get an ‘F,’ everything that’s not fail will be good for me. When you have problems with language it’s not just about how much you know about this class, it’s about how much you know about English as well.”