With virtual learning changing students’ day-to-day lives, support from Ryerson doesn’t seem to be changing along with it.
Every Monday, my phone buzzes with a notification of the latest weekly wellness email from my program. At the beginning of the semester, I thought they were endearing; short reminders on time management, mindfulness and determination, along with links to inspirational speakers.
Now they’ve lost their charm. In mid-October, while I was writing midterms and submitting assignments from my parents’ basement, with essays and exams approaching, these succinct messages began to feel like salt in a wound. How is a 200-word email on “connectedness” going to help me manage one of the toughest and loneliest semesters of my university experience?
COVID-19 continues to highlight the gaps in support for Canadians, from unpaid sick leave to unemployment assistance. It has also highlighted the gap in mental health support for university students, which has been exacerbated since the pandemic. A joint study from McGill and the University of Toronto found that students without mental health issues before the pandemic are hardest hit by social isolation, and are facing increasing anxiety, depressive symptoms and stress.
Statistics Canada data from April has similar findings, with 64 per cent of respondents aged 15 to 24 reporting declining mental health during the pandemic. Young adults seem to be bearing the brunt of COVID and social isolation-induced mental health issues. This leaves a unique opportunity for universities to rethink the role they play in supporting their students.
Petitions by students at Ryerson have called for the university to reduce tuition for online courses and offer a pass/fail course credit option, similar to the one made available in Winter 2020. While both petitions garnered a few thousand signatures each, Ryerson has not acted on either. Earlier this month, the Ryersonian reported that the university reaffirmed it will not offer students a pass/fail course credit for last semester.
Alexandra Fiocco, a psychology professor at Ryerson, said online learning presents a slew of new challenges for students who are learning to balance classes, studying and readings all from home. Fiocco said it’s a learning curve that “takes motivation and behaviour regulation,” which is especially challenging to students without a home environment suited for university learning.
Ryerson has a dedicated webpage for student resources related to COVID-19, including links to academic accommodations and counselling, both of which have been moved fully online. Also, included in the COVID-19 support page is a link to ThriveRU, a Ryerson-wide initiative focused on encouraging students to build resilience and well-being practices.
ThriveRU resources vary from tip lists for resilience and success, to flash cards on topics from positivity to mindfulness. But how effective are they in addressing real student concerns?
Sam Harley, a fourth-year journalism student, said he thinks much of the wellness messaging from Ryerson is just empty words, and can even cause harm to the students it is meant to help.
“They seem like quick fixes or patch jobs rather than actual help,” he said. “I find the emails repetitive and actually contribute to my anxious thought pattern.”
Harley even sent a request to be removed from the mailing list for these emails, but was unable to after because the emails come directly from one of the school’s co-ordinators, Bev Petrovic.
Petrovic, who is the student affairs co-ordinator for the Ryerson School of Journalism, is responsible for writing the weekly wellness reminders from the school. She said her goal with the content, even if it only helps a few people, is to encourage students to take time to prioritize themselves.
She said student complaints are usually few and far between, and that “people are going to email [her] if they really like them, or if they really hate them.”
Her advice to students who aren’t fans of the content? Simply don’t read it.
Fiocco said messages and email reminders of mindfulness and well-being practices are only effective if students are willing and able to participate in them, and that if students weren’t willing to use wellness practices on their own, notes from the university are not likely to get them to start.
The meaning of mindfulness has been also commercialized and marketed to the point where students might be resistant to it, viewing it as toxic instead of helpful, according to Fiocco.
Ann Rauhala is a professor in the School of Journalism and has also run mindfulness meditation sessions through the school. She says it is a practice which has the capacity to help students struggling throughout the semester. In the fall of 2020, Rauhala saw first-hand the toll online learning was taking on her classes.
“Student anxiety was through the roof,” she says. In her experience, students are normally very receptive to mindfulness practices within the school environment. During last semester, though, Rauhala said her efforts were met with “resistance.”
Mindfulness is a practice that is meant to create space in your life. Taking time to pause and sit with yourself. But for me and other students who are calling for more concrete support from our university during the ongoing trauma of a global pandemic, being told to sit down and take a deep breath falls flat.
With larger issues of tuition, grading and increased student stress, the best way to make students feel supported is to let them feel heard, something that cannot be achieved through mass emails.