Saman Saeed was looking forward to travelling home to Pakistan to see her family once her final exam was done and the winter semester was over.
“That was the plan, to go back in late April or early May,” says Saeed, a first-year life sciences student at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
But when emergency measures and travel restrictions came into effect, she had no choice but to stay in Canada, where she is now focusing on finishing the semester and getting ready for summer classes.
“Everyone was feeling a little lost at first, there was a lot of uncertainty,” says Saeed. “Like everyone else, I was unsure of what was really happening.”
In the first few weeks, she made use of online counselling services, kept in contact with family through video chats and tried to focus on studying for exams. Then a little bit of relief arrived – a small gesture in the form of a care package put together by U of T Scarborough staff and students.
“It was so nice and definitely unexpected,” says Saeed of the care packages that were delivered late last week. “It was really helpful to get that type of support right as we were studying for exams.”
The care packages included a gift card and personal items like facial tissue, energy bars, chocolate, cookies and juice boxes, as well as exam prep materials like pencils, highlighters and study tips and information packages from student services on campus. A total of 340 packages were delivered to students remaining in residence.
More than 340 care packages were delivered to students remaining in residences at U of T Scarborough (photo courtesy of U of T Scarborough)
“We wanted to offer our students a reminder that they’re not alone – we’re here for them and we care about them,” says Amber Wood, manager of residence life at U of T Scarborough.
Several departments, including the Office of Students Affairs & Services, Health & Wellness and the Academic Advising & Career Centre and Student Housing & Residence Life contributed items and funding to the package.
“Senior staff members from student affairs, student life, athletics and residence chipped in to help organize and assemble the care packages,” says Wood. “It was a community effort.”
Despite physical distancing rules, Wood says residence staff are available on campus to deliver food, provide programming and answer questions students in residence may have. There are also health and wellness counselling services available to students 24-7, which includes online services for students who have any questions relating to academics, services or how the pandemic may affect them.
When emergency measures started going into effect in March, staff from residence, student life and athletics immediately started doing wellness checks with students remaining in residence. The goal was to connect with each student by calling them to see how they were doing.
The Office of Student Affairs & Services has also provided sponsored meals to students and arranged for food trucks to come to campus.
Nadia Rosemond, assistant dean of student affairs and student life, volunteers in helping assembling care packages for students living in residence (photo courtesy U of T Scarborough)
Meanwhile, residence life is looking at how they can offer programming once exams are over and the summer semester begins, including planting crops in the residence garden, online board games, remote movie watching parties and virtual cooking lessons.
Devlin Grewal and Aaheli Mukherjee are both residence advisers at U of T Scarborough, a position filled by more experienced undergraduates who offer guidance and support to first-year students living on their floor. They say the most important part of their job is just being there for students living in residence.
“We want to be emotionally available for our students,” says Mukherjee. “At the moment there isn’t a lot of opportunity to talk to someone in-person, so we are there in case students want to talk to someone.”
“Many students living in residence are locked out of their home countries, so it helps to know they have a place to stay and the support of people around them,” adds Grewal. “Our goal is to make things as comfortable as possible and make the best of the situation from day to day.”
Ashley Cheung, a first-year international student from Hong Kong studying social sciences and humanities, says, like most students in residence, she’s been spending her time studying and watching Netflix.
She says it was scary when the pandemic first broke, but the mood has become more settled in residence – in part thanks to the help and support from staff, RAs and her fellow students.
“I was touched to receive a care package – it can be tough for us to get out and get food at the moment, so it took a lot of pressure off us during exam time,” she says. “We’re all trying to focus on something other than the coronavirus, even if it’s for a few minutes.”