Student Narratives During The Pandemic And Documenting Diverse Realities

As a student who continued studying throughout the pandemic, I was lumped into this cohort of people who were all struggling (or benefiting) in similar ways, but each held a different perspective. By sharing a common identity — being a student — our experiences were often grouped together, despite their variation. I work on campus, am the President of HerCampus Waterloo, hold an executive role in my sorority, and am a full-time student. That is my narrative and it is equally as important and relevant to that of my peers. 

I am writing my two-part honours thesis on aging embodiment and intergenerational lesson sharing, so I have dived deep into how narratives are constructed, internalized, and expressed. I’ve learned to value individuality in data over cohort commonality and chose to give each older adult narrative the focus it deserves. I am also enrolled in ARTS 490, the Global Engagement Seminar (GES) and this term’s theme is “Pandemic” — a very timely choice for us as students and academics. The course instructors, Dr. Shana MacDonald from the Department of Communication Arts and Dr. Shannon Majowicz in the School of Public Health and Health Systems, have organized a really interesting melange of science- and arts-based content from diverse fellows. 

In preparation for our upcoming summit, I reached out to my assigned fellows to understand their perspectives as working professionals in different fields during the pandemic. Their disciplines each document information in different ways or mediums, but both contribute to telling realities. 

Rebecca Rideal, a historian, author, and the director of the HisFest history festival, shared her perspective with me via email. 

How will the role of historians differ in this pandemic compared to others?

“It’s really hard to say. I imagine future historians will have to draw from a much more diverse range of sources, which will be predominantly online.” 

Why is studying past pandemics important to understanding COVID-19? Are there any connections to other plagues?

“I think looking to past pandemics can offer a strange kind of reassurance. When you are living through something as transformative as a global pandemic, it can often be hard to see how things will end. Looking to the past can show us that people do get through traumatic events. While history doesn’t repeat itself, it can also provide patterns for us to be aware of when ‘big’ events take place. With pandemics, for example, disease often goes hand in hand with ‘othering’ and targetted xenophobia. This is something we can all be mindful of.”

Any thoughts you have on COVID-19 and student experiences?  

“From a research point of view, I think the pandemic has underlined how important it is to make texts and literature available online. One of the great frustrations for me as a historian and plenty of other academics is not being able to go into archives to conduct research. I think long overdue conversations about accessibility have been brought to the forefront of conversations too. While I can’t speak for students, I have noticed much more attention being given to ensuring people take care of their mental as well as physical health. These are difficult times, so it is reassuring to see people checking in on one another.”

Rebecca’s understanding of how pandemics have played out based on history really emphasizes how historical event documentation is critical to acknowledging the realities of living through and overcoming something so traumatic and monumental as a present-day pandemic. 

I also got a chance to ask Denise Balkissoon, the executive editor at Chatelaine magazine, some questions about her experience as a journalist through the pandemic. 

How does race and ethnicity play into the challenges and barriers of online engagement?

“Well, we know that racialized populations, especially Black and Indigenous populations, are more likely to live in poverty, and that people in poverty are less likely to have good access to the internet and devices. I haven’t been affected by that personally, but I’ve seen it play out in the public school arena and it’s enraging. In terms of activism, I think people are very tired right now, and very tired of screens, and not necessarily going to take the time to email politicians in the same way that they would show up for a rally or demonstration. I’ve seen a few attempts at digital protests, and I can’t say they’ve gotten the social media traction that actual bodies on the ground would.”

Do you as a writer or other journalists consider how different readers absorb your content?  

“... At Chatelaine, we are making a stated effort to increase diversity among our freelance contributors by spending 40% of our freelance budget on Indigenous, Black and racialized writers, as well as working to ensure geographic and LGBTQ+ diversity as well. This will improve our journalism, and help us produce stories that are relevant to an equally diverse array of readers.” 

Any thoughts you have on COVID-19 and student experiences? 

“... The constant movement between online and in-person schooling has been awful for elementary-aged kids. Overall, the Ontario government’s lack of interest in making all schools as safe as possible has increased the stressors that educators and students have had to endure at all levels. It’s a shame.”

Denise wrote an insightful article about resilience, or lack thereof, in children that has been a helpful resource in developing our group project on Instagram, @pandemicprofiles. Despite my group’s focus being university students and Balkissoon’s writing focusing on younger school-aged children, the lessons about suffering and putting certain groups of people last, like students, was an instrumental teaching. 

My experiences as a fourth-year writing my thesis and participating in the GES have really solidified how being a student is such a unique identity to hold. It’s ever-changing based on your program, term of study, school, and definitely the actions of your administration. With the pandemic, a lot of decisions about schooling were made for students and not with them. While made to promote health and safety, it furthered the narrative that students have to abide by all their administration’s decisions. University is a time to expand and explore who you are and the pandemic has changed this experience for us all. The reality of being a student is different, especially from person to person, so why shouldn’t we document these changes just as we document cases? 

This understanding that student narratives were uberly relevant to pandemic understandings but oftentimes quieted was what sparked us to create Pandemic Profiles, a multi-media community for university students to engage with their peers, access relatable resources, and encourage change. After a survey of student experiences, our group has put together a document that students can take to their university’s administration to request change. Soon to be available on our page, the document demonstrates the uniqueness of student experiences and that their journeys in university, despite the sacrifices and modifications, matter. 

The ARTS 490 Summit, the culminating event of the course, will be happening on April 7th. Open to the public, this event will feature a panel discussion with the fellows and the presentation of each student project. More about Rebecca, Denise, and registering for the summit can be found on the GES home page.