As post-secondary welcome weeks get underway, students navigate making new friends, vaccine policies

A virtual frosh was expected last year, just six months after the pandemic hit. But this week, as the second September in a COVID-19 world begins, students are still facing a new reality, around the time they thought it may have been over. 

With limited in-person events, the first-year experience on Hamilton-area campuses still looks quite different

Institutions like McMaster are opting for a hybrid virtual/in-person orientation week. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Parents heaving furniture out of vans. Orientation leaders dressed in neon. Anxious, excited students gazing across campus for the first time. 

These are the scenes that usually greet students come the beginning of their post-secondary experience. 

But in the age of COVID-19, the quintessential university and college welcome weeks may look a little different.

A virtual frosh was expected last year, just six months after the pandemic hit. But this week, as the second September in a COVID-19 world begins, students are still facing a new reality, around the time they thought it may have been over. 

At campuses in the Hamilton area, like many others in Ontario and elsewhere, COVID-19 safety measurements have expelled frosh expectations, like concerts, clubs, and party buses. 

It's another milestone bypassed in the shadow of the virus.

Making new friends, online

Fiza Sehar, an incoming engineering student at McMaster University, never thought she'd be starting her university year still with the pandemic. 

"Last year, I thought it would be done in four or five months," the 18-year-old said. "We're just waiting for it to be over so we can have somewhat of a first year." 

Sehar is grateful for McMaster Facebook groups, which allow students the chance to mingle virtually and post about themselves in hopes of striking up friendships. But it still isn't enough, she said. 

"Once you meet people in person, you form actual, deep connections rather than just through social media." 

Fiza Sehar is an incoming first-year student at McMaster, majoring in engineering. (Fiza Sehar)

So far, she's made online friends but knows those relationships would be made stronger in person. 

"Right now, I'm just communicating with everyone from McMaster through emails and texts, so it's kind of hard." 

Thousands of first-year students across the Hamilton area, like Sehar, are being tugged between online platforms and in-person events. McMaster starts its hybrid Welcome Week on Wednesday. 

Other schools, like Niagara College, are limiting orientation to virtual events only. 

Niagara College is expecting to welcome around new 4,500 students this fall. Mohawk College will see around 6,500. McMaster has around 28,000 undergraduate students in total, although it is unclear how many are new each year. 

All three are among the many post-secondary schools that announced earlier in August that proof of vaccinations would be required to attend campus this year. Redeemer University followed suit on Aug. 27.

Making the most of it

Despite the changes, some students are out to find silver linings. 

Ryan Kumar is a software engineering student assisting with McMaster's Welcome Week this year. Entering his second year, he says that students are excited to mingle in any way they can after a year of being cooped up inside. 

With a positive outlook, he's certain incoming students may feel the same. 

"They want to get out there, they want to get to know each other… something's better than nothing," he said. "We have to try and get used to the situation for now as it is and try to make the most of it." 

Ryan Kumar is a second-year student at McMaster, majoring in software engineering. (Ryan Kumar)

According to Kumar, Welcome Week will include different booths, video events chatting with first-year students, and various other activities planned throughout the week. 

Kumar describes himself as a "social bird" and that starting his first year online was a "letdown." He decided the only thing left to do was jump into social activities at McMaster. 

After running for student council, he was able to connect with upper-year students and professors. But with McMaster campus closed and last year's virtual orientation, he admits that "no one was happy with an online year."

"Now that second year is coming around, everyone's looking forward to it, and things are getting back to normal… but overall, it wasn't the best experience being online." 

His advice for students worried about making friends during the age of online classes and virtual orientation? 

"Talk to one another, because you never know who you're going to be friends with… Just take a leap of faith, introduce yourself. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the person is going to reciprocate those feelings." 


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