Graduating in a pandemic, these N.S. students reflect on what they've learned in a 'chaotic' final year
Students describe growing up fast as the pandemic limited their final years
The pandemic has made it an "unpredictable, chaotic" year for Eric Marchand, but it's also been one where he learned a lot.
"I absolutely did have to grow up this year and to really be on my own, and figure things out by myself," said Marchand, a fourth-year nursing student at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.
"In a way, it's been a great opportunity to see what I can handle, and see what's within my capacity," he told The Current.
Marchand is helping to pay his way through college by working as a care assistant in a local nursing home, a role that has played a part in his decisions throughout the pandemic.
"As health-care providers, when we go out into the community, there's always the possibility that we are carriers, which means that we have to be really careful where we go," he said.
"That in and of itself adds a lot of responsibility."
Cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia have remained low compared to the rest of the country, at just over 1,500 throughout the pandemic. The province experienced a spike in the fall that began to subside in December, and led to stricter guidelines, including the end of the Atlantic travel bubble. St. FX kept the majority of its classes in person in the fall, but students were required to sign a waiver about returning, and a code of conduct form, and would face disciplinary or academic consequences for breaching health protocols. University events that would have required larger gatherings have been cancelled.
Marchand shares a house with another student working in health care, as well as a student with asthma.
"Once the first wave hit, we made a unanimous rule that there would be no guests in the home. It was the safest and most responsible decision, but it does make it feel more isolated," he said.
He's missed being able to talk about the stress of work and study with friends and other people in his program.
Marchand would normally work at more than one facility, but under public health guidelines could now only work at one. He agrees it was the right move to limit the spread of the virus, but it put him under financial pressure.
Despite these difficulties, he says the past year has reaffirmed why he originally wanted to become a nurse: to help people.
The pandemic has also taught him to get comfortable with the uncertainty in the world, and the things outside his control.
"I've always been one to have fairly rigid thinking, and a very low tolerance for uncertainty," he said. "So COVID has propelled me into this place where I really have no choice but to get comfortable with it."
Find your own path
For fellow nursing student Lauren Stirling, COVID has "put things in perspective."
"You never know what's going to happen in your life," she said. "You really have to take advantage of the time that you have, and the people that you have to spend it with."
Stirling and her friends were all sent home from university when the pandemic struck in March, but returned in person in the fall. She's spent this academic year in a bustling house with six close friends.
"When we came back in September, we were so, so grateful just to be here and be with each other. And so I think that we will carry that energy going forward."
Living together has helped with isolation and lockdowns, Stirling said. The housemates hold themed parties just for themselves, and have held "room crawls," like a bar crawl, that just moved from room to room at home.
"Even if COVID's happening and there's 100 things you can't do, there's still so many things you can do that are going to be, like, really special and meaningful," she said.
Stirling and some of her housemates are now thinking about moving out west this summer, in search of adventure — within the limits of what public health guidelines allow.
"Graduating from school, I think a lot of us had plans to travel and try new things. But this is, like, something exciting to look forward to," she said.
One housemate who won't be joining them is Sarah Elliott, who took a lighter course load this year so she could act as student union president. Elliott is studying for a degree in public policy and governance, and will return to St. FX for a fifth year and graduate in 2022.
"COVID has shown me where you're at right now doesn't need to be the finish line," she said.
She says she's learned that she can take time to think and evaluate what's the best path for her.
"It doesn't need to be the same path that everybody else is on because, you know, clearly, the world is very weird."
'You've just almost passed the storm'
As a student who came to Antigonish from the Bahamas, the pandemic has made it harder for Azaro Roker to be away from family, who he hasn't seen in two years.
"I'm trying to work my butt off to continue to excel and succeed and do the best, or what's right for the family," said Roker, a fifth-year student taking development studies and religious studies.
"It's been extremely tough, but I look at it in a positive way to say at least something good is going to come out of this."
Roker also has dreams of becoming a professional basketball player. He's part of the X-Men, the university's team that trains under high-profile coach Steve Konchalski, who retires this year.
While Roker said it hurt that the 2020-21 competitive season was cancelled, he's grateful to still be able to play on campus.
"These are your brothers, you get a sense of unity, you get a sense of bond — you battle through a lot of wins and losses, and I guess you just build a stronger brotherhood moving forward towards the future."
He says the pandemic has shown him that he possesses a lot of strength and mental fortitude, that he can draw on in tough times.
"It's taught me that no matter what, keep persevering and keep pushing through, because you've just almost passed the storm, it's almost over now … we've just got to keep going forward."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann and Mary-Catherine McIntosh.
This story is the part of Canada's Road Ahead, The Current's series talking to Canadians about how the pandemic has changed their lives, and what comes next.