Campus life back to a “virtual normal”

By Wendy-Ann Clarke, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News]University campuses are a lot quieter this fall semester as lectures and student club activities have transitioned in large part to the online space.

At the University of Toronto, the Newman Catholic Students Club continues to hold virtual events and offer a masked and physically distanced welcome to visitors looking for information at the Newman Centre in downtown Toronto.

In August the executive team chose Italian Catholic computer programmer Blessed Carlo Acutis — beatified by Pope Francis earlier this month — as the club’s patron saint for the 2020-21 school year. Inspired by his deep love for the Lord and the Eucharist and his use of technology to share that love, he was the perfect pick for the team that remains optimistic about the student ministry despite the continuing COVID-19 crisis.

“The main thing that our student club is dedicated to is socials and service to create a sense of community among Newman students,” said Maria Gamboa, in her second year as president of the club. “Last year we would do things like sports socials, pub socials and Christmas socials but unfortunately, since we can’t do that anymore, we’re looking at more ways to move those online. There’s definitely opportunities out there and options that we can choose from.”

In early October the group celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in a virtual four-hour chain rosary devotion. A statue of Mary was set up surrounded by candles and a camera as the session was streamed via Zoom.
Gamboa says the virtual vs. in-person experience has been different, but considers the group’s first online rosary service a success.

“I think it was really great that we got to start our year off in prayer,” said the third-year student majoring in Christianity and culture. “It was really powerful, and it was a good way to bring the community together, uniting everyone through prayer in such a wonderful way.”

To simulate the casual drop-in atmosphere of the in-person Newman Centre, online socials have been organized and there will be “office social hours” via Zoom. This will provide students the chance to meet new people, play online games and cultivate new friendships.

Campion College, the Jesuit institution federated with the University of Regina, has also found a silver lining in the transition to the online space. While adjusting to the new normal, the school, like many across the nation, has been investing in new equipment to make the experience as seamless as possible. The virtual experience so far is off to a promising start.

Five classrooms at Campion have been outfitted with smart screen computers, boom microphones and cameras to facilitate lectures taking place via Zoom. While smart classrooms like this have been on the radar for some years, it was the global pandemic that accelerated progress, which staff expect will have a positive impact on their institution beyond COVID-19.

“Technology and software has proven essential for allowing education to continue during COVID-19,” said Dr. Tom Phenix, dean and associate professor of Psychology. “The adoption of these tools has not been easy, but faculty are discovering new ways to perform their work and some of these new approaches will likely outlast this pandemic.”

As the only Canadian Jesuit undergraduate institution, Campion has a hope that this will accelerate virtual collaborations in the future. New technology will allow Campion to connect with other Jesuit institutions across the world and also provide online options for students who occasionally are not able make it to school due to the harsh Saskatchewan winter.

Shannon Kotylak, Campion’s director of marketing and communications, says that while by no means has this replaced the in-person experience, the university is happy to be able to continue to educate students, and hopes it will enhance education down the road.

“The possibilities have really opened up,” said Kotylak. “Everyone starts thinking and getting excited about what kinds of things this could mean and how we could reach so many more students and people with this knowledge that could change a life.”