Carie Devitt interviewed by Nick Kaiko.
I assume you were also just working the same position right now during COVID at the beginning, right?
So I started in my current position in spring of 2019, so I'd been in the position for a little while when COVID hit in 2020.
Would you say that much change, during COVID, like, from those months of experience you had prior to it?
Yes, a lot changed. We got sent home, so working from a home office was really different. And we shut down this whole program counseling space and we just did our advising remotely, so mainly pivoting to email and then advising over Teams, which is very different from how we usually meet with students face to face and then drop ins and that kind of thing. So that changed. That was a big change for our office.
Would you say it felt more impersonal?
Yes, meeting face to face is more personal, for sure, but it was nice to be able to use Teams and still meet and see students and have them see me. One of my things when I started to meet with students using Teams was I always kept my camera on. Regardless of whether the student had their camera on, they didn't need to turn theirs on, but I always had mine on. And I always said to students, I'm leaving it on so that you see that I am a real person, and I'm here to help you. Because I feel like with everything pivoting to online, it did become more impersonal for students and harder to make those connections.
This job was lucky in a way.
Yes, I can still do my job and serve students.
Right, It's just more complicated in some ways.
Sometimes we had to be a little bit more creative in how we got messages out to students and that kind of thing. But we were still totally able to provide all the services that we had before, which was great. We were lucky to be able to stay busy and stay connected with students throughout.
Were you guys shut down for most of the pandemic or only like a few first initial sort of, shocking months?
So, we were sent home in March 2020. We came back in March 2022, so we were not in the office for a solid two years, and then we came back in March 2022. And then Johnston Hall is getting a big renovation right now, and they had started that in the spring. So we came back in March 2022, and we went home again in May 2022, and we worked at home again for May, June, July, and we came back in August of 2022 to be face to face with students again. So we were away and then back and then away and then back. Quite a bit of change.
With me as well with Newmarket, we were going constantly back and forth to either purely online or not. At one point, they just closed the marks for us and told us to go home.
Yes. It was a bit of back and forth, and I would say that presented challenges. When you have one office and one desk chair and one monitor and then going home, it's hard to go back and forth, I guess, is what I'm trying to say.
Setting up my home office, I would say was a big challenge for me, because at home, I didn't have an office or a space to work.I also have my entire family living here. And I have a job where I have personal information and meetings with students that are confidential. So that part was tricky to find space.
I guess, in my opinion, routine as well.
You get used to one sort of way of doing it and then go back to doing it.
Yes, I got very used to working from home. Once I was working from home for two years solid, it was hard to then come back. Yeah, for sure. I'm a routine person. I like to know exactly what I'm doing day to day.
Would you actually prefer it online?
I wouldn't say that I prefer it. I'd say there were definite benefits to being able to work remotely and work from home. But from a student service perspective, being on campus is better.
Are there still online meetings students can choose?
Yes. So we still were able to continue to offer that, which we never did before. So that's a new change for our office, is that when we're booking appointments with students, we offer virtual or in person. So it's up to them. Which is nice, is if a student is not feeling well, not feeling up to coming to campus or we have a big snowstorm, we can still keep those meetings with students and meet with them virtually and meet with them from where they're at. So if the student had to go home and is living in another country or another part of Canada, we can still have meetings with them, which is really nice. Students typically leave at the end of the winter semester, and so in summer, we can still have counselling meetings and planning meetings and stuff, virtually, which is great.
I didn't know that wasn't actually an option before. I guess that's sort of one of the few benefits that came out of this whole thing.
It is. Yes.
Have the workplace environment, apart from masks and hand sanitizers, did much change in terms of procedures?
So when we first came back, we had a limit of how many students we wanted to have in the office at any given time. So we tried to be really aware of that 6ft different distance between students, and we tried to sort of space out where we would meet with students. And then Melinda and I, we have two program counsellors in this office, me and Melinda and then our front desk person. So we tried to arrange it so that if Melinda was meeting with a student, she'd meet with them out here. And if I was meeting with a student at the same time, I'd meet with them in my office just to try to space out people. Whereas before we would just meet in the same space. It didn't matter as much. But we tried to have that separation. And then in my office, my physical space changed. So I changed it so that I now have, like, a pivoting monitor so that instead of both looking over a laptop together, we can be looking at a monitor and sitting apart, so it provides a little bit more personal space.
Sort of like what they have at hospitals.
Yes. Like the ones mounted on the arm. I can just swing the monitor and we can both be looking at the big screen together to look at schedules of studies and planning and stuff like that.
But out here, our physical space didn't change. We didn't end up putting up a barrier or anything like that because we didn't come back. Things had settled down, and people had vaccines, and so there was no in-between period where we thought, if we come back, what are we going to do? Are we going to have a glass partition or whatever? But by the time we actually did come back, we didn't feel that it was needed. We felt masks were sufficient.
Looking at the place itself, it seems pretty spacious in its own right. I feel like letting them one or two students at most.
Yes. So that's what we decided to do. One thing that we did pre-pandemic is we used to have drop-in times so we could have ten or twelve students in here at a time. They signed up on a list and we can meet with them in the order they arrived. We stopped doing that. So now we just have pre-booked appointments to try to limit the number of bodies in the space at the same time.
It's more organized in a way, I suppose.
Yes. It's nice to have the pre booked appointments during your really busy times, though. It's hard to squeeze in, right? So drop-ins were good that way because some students have a question that takes two minutes and then you can just move on to the next student. You actually see quite a few more students in the time. We may change back to having drop ins, but for now, at the beginning of this semester, during the first week of classes, we actually did do drop in, and it was busy, but not as busy as it used to be, so we still felt comfortable doing that.
Did COVID-19 and the general work situation impact your family a lot?
It did. It hugely impacted my family. I had teenagers, so all of a sudden they weren't doing sports, they weren't seeing friends, they weren't doing anything outside and social and school pivoted to online. So their mental health took a dive for sure. Neither one of them did especially well with being isolated during COVID-19. And as much as they really like my husband and I, we couldn't fill the void of not having social interaction. So it was really, really hard. It was hard to be the parent, trying to keep things fun and light for teenagers in a time that was really, really challenging. My husband's job changed quite a bit too. He was used to travelling. He was very like travelling to an in-person type workspace and having to pivot to working from home, which was challenging for him too. It totally changed the way he did his job. So like four people in one space all trying to work online. We had to get faster internet, we had to get different monitors and the kids needed new computers and all that kind of thing so we had juggling a whole bunch of things.
Yeah, it definitely was really challenging. Definitely. I feel like that's probably the biggest challenge. It's not that you dislike each other right? It's just such a big change and a bit forced as well.
Very forced! So my kids didn't get to sort of have that, graduated independence, longer times away from home, later curfews, graduated independence, they didn't have that. There was nowhere to go so we couldn't sort of introduce later curfew times and stuff like that. So by the time sort of things eased up, my son was in grade twelve, so he went from being too young to go out on his own to being too old to have a curfew. So it just went full blown from now you can't do anything to now go and do whatever you want. So that part as a parent was really hard too so it couldn't sort of meter out the freedom. It just all came fast toward the end of the pandemic.
I myself experienced a bit of that as well. And I think the ones who actually had it worse were the people just a couple of years below me. Because as I was leaving high school, right, as things were settling down finally and I could go to Guelph, I noticed that the students, and especially the grade nines and tens who were basically online fully for the last three years or so were like completely I really don't have a better word for it. unhinged. They were extremely hyperactive and kind of rude even. I can't even blame them. I think it's just because of the...
Socializing etiquette in the classroom. All of those little things that you learn gradually as you mature, all of that without the time.
They basically didn't even have a chance to mature.
I think in high school right now, we've got a lot of students in grades eleven and twelve that are less mature definitely than they would have been otherwise. Yeah.
Because of those things like graduated independence and sort of easing toward and learning the nuances and social and all of those things.
I think that's going to be a challenge for maybe even the next couple of generations perhaps. And I guess that would probably be the most challenging aspect of the pandemic I assume?
With my family definitely. Just trying to be supportive and I found it personally difficult to be everything to everyone right. So I still had all of my roles of mother, caregiver, cleaner, cooker, everything else that I do at home. But now I was a best friend, game player, emotional support, social. Like everything else, it's really hard to juggle all those roles and be working. I can't even imagine people with six-year-olds during the pandemic where you're also playmate and trying to teach and fun and do all that stuff and working full time. At least when my kids were teenagers, they could go and read and play game video games and watch TV and be on their own a little bit. Little kids I think would have been really challenging.
if you did have a toddler that you had to be with you at all times, would you still be able to do your job?
I don't think so, no.
Right. Because I think even if it's a toddler it will technically break the whole confidentiality.
Yes, and some kids need more time and attention in doing their own school work than others. Right. So I was lucky that way. Both my kids actually enjoy school and they are fully functional, so they could do independent work. But it would have been much different story if I had younger kids.
Would you say that there's been any, say, positive things that came out of the pandemic?
Yes, online meetings. That part was good. Going through something like the pandemic together with a team, makes your team stronger. Melinda and I had already worked together for a long time because I had worked in this office before I was in my current program counseling role. So we already knew each other really well. But going through something like that and all the changes and the learning curve and picking up new things, new skills, new rules and policies, we did all of that together and that made us a much stronger team. We are really close as a result; you kind of go through a trauma or difficult situation like that and it builds ties for sure. That's one positive. Our office being able to offer to students virtual meetings, I would say that's definitely a positive too. And another positive is sort of the fact that although we were still meeting students and providing service, working from home, to me it did give more of a balance to my life and allowed me to learn this job better. So I mean, in here it's different. It's a different pace than being removed and working from home. So I had that mental space to be able to learn the job and the rules and policies and stuff like that better. And then I guess the other sort of from a personal note, although my kids did struggle throughout the pandemic, we were closer as a result, too. We had a lot more family time than anybody bargained for, but in the end, we are really close with our kids and so to me, that was a positive. All the games nights and movie nights and all that kind of thing was kind of awesome.
That was great. Yeah. I feel like actually that a lot of people can also relate to that with the whole bonding exercise. Like you said, I guess calling it a trauma would be sort of accurate, right? I mean, it is a huge event that impacts a lot.
A huge event, right. And impacts people so profoundly that, yeah, we're changed by it. And so our relationship for sure.
I was wondering because you do advice students on the sort of uni stuff as well, right, of course. But did you notice any specific changes and trends of what they were actually asking you?
Yes, and thank you for sending questions ahead because I had to think about it. We're already in a reflecting back situation right now, so I actually made some bullet points to cover. The Respondus software, so the Respondus online exam stuff, that was an issue for some students. A lot of students had computer issues where we never heard about complaints about computers before. That was something new. Co-op students. I work with a lot of Co-op students in my program. About half of my program are in Co-op. Co-op. There weren't as many Co-op jobs during the pandemic, so we had to do a lot of academic resequencing to figure out how are we going to get these students employed so that they can get their Co-op experiences. A lot of the Co-op students had remote work. So yes, they got employed, but they were doing remote work from their home, not able to network as well. Not able to get as many positives out of the Co-op experience. Because you’re isolated on your own, right? So we were fortunate that in the environment sector, most of my students are working in the environment sector, there were still Co-op jobs for the most part, but working remotely. They wanted to do field work and get out there and get in with environmental consulting companies and stuff like that.
kind of loses most of the benefits of Co-op.
Yes, I mean, they still have work experience, so that's not a total loss, but it wasn't what they were expecting or bargained for. We had more deferred exam requests, so just the nature of things. And then students were struggling to access counseling and medical appointments in a timely way. So that was an issue. The sheer volume of students needing to see medical professionals and counseling professionals meant that they were overburdened. So students not being able to access that in a timely way, students staying motivated with online courses. That was a lot of feedback I got from students, is like, “I didn't come to university to sit by myself in a room and watch a computer screen”. So that was definitely a topic that came up a lot. There was flexibility, though, for students who wanted to live away from Guelph and still do their school work. So I don't know if it's a positive, but it was definitely students trying to plan, okay, well, if I can't come, what's offered online, like, can I sort of change up my schedule studies to be able to take advantage? We had international students with Visa and travel issues so trying to come up with online courses for them to try to continue. And the vaccine mandate, of course. Students choosing not to get vaccinated, right? Have students like, “okay, I'm not getting vaccinated, so I can't come to campus so what are my options” Right? All of a sudden we have to pivot and really look at what you still need and that you can take. Field courses were canceled. And international exchanges were canceled too. So we had a lot of disappointed students who were hoping to travel as part of their undergrad and that didn't happen. And then students worrying about jobs after the pandemic and whether there were going to be enough jobs out there. So I would say we probably had a little more conversations with students exploring masters and postgraduate opportunities because of the uncertainty of the job market after COVID. how's that for a list?
Amazing. Thank you very much. It's great, thank you. Would you say then I imagine probably there were a lot more students coming asking for actual help and guidance?
Yes. The tricky thing is that we got, I would say it felt like more e-mail traffic than before. There were good and bad things about that e-mail traffic. We had time to think about our answers before blurting it out, which to me is good, I'm a thinker, but sometimes students didn't really even know what their question was, or they sometimes didn't phrase it easily in an e-mail. And you lose tone, you lose nuances when you're just communicating by email with students. So that was challenging. Whether we had more questions overall, I don't know. It's really hard to tell because I would say overall, student appointments were less. We didn't have drop in, so we had just appointments. They were maybe on par, but maybe slightly less. So definitely more e-mail. It's really hard; we don't have numbers to compare student contacts that way.
Yeah, that's fair. Just notice a general trend in online stuff as well.
Right, more online, more e-mail, for sure. And then really more specific questions that we've never had to answer.
All right. Like Respondus, which is now being phased out.
Yes. The Respondus monitoring, not the software. Right. The Respondus, I think, is still being used , but not the monitoring where they watch you. Lots of change.
You mentioned renovations in Johnston, what were they exactly?
Yes. So, our space hasn't changed, but they converted multiple offices down this south wing of the building. The Alumni space, the lounge and kitchen, the washroom, they're putting wheelchair-accessible washroom and that was converted from an old vault. So, there's like a vault where we used to store things in, and they got rid of that and changed that little space to have an accessible washroom. So there was lots of dust and loud noise and smells from the varnish and the paint and stuff like that. So they started that project in the spring (May 2022). So we decided, it is not as busy foot-traffic wise in the office in the summer because students go home. So, we decided, okay, we already were set up to work at home, so we'll just go back home and avoid all the dust and noise. Unfortunately, the project did not wrap up in the timeline that they originally thought. So we came back in end of August and for a September sort of startup, the construction is still going on.
Which is interesting from a historical perspective. Like, when did big renovations happen? Now. We do hear drilling. There's still, like, hanging doors and finishing up the projects and stuff out there and the varnish smell and stuff like that. We don't have access to kitchen, so the kitchen and lounge are still under renovation. So we have a teeny tiny little fridge back there and a little microwave that we've been using. And for the most part, staff in the OAC Dean's office isn't physically here. So, we're here. There's a couple of staff that work down this hallway. Our boss is the Associate Dean Academic. He's here, I think, two days a week. And his assistant is here part time as well and working from home still because of the construction.
Right. Not really because of COVID Right?
But I feel like the project started sort of and then the delays. I don't know if it's because of materials or the labor shortage or what all contributed, but now we have, like, a March-ish estimation for finishing.
So I guess it's sort of still responsible, just indirectly.
Indirectly, exactly. Yeah.
I see. That has been very great. Very interesting. Thank you very much.
You're very welcome. I'm just seeing in my notes here if there's something else. Do you want me to cover a little bit more about how my job changed and things changed?
Yes, sure. If you have anything to add on, I'd be more than happy.
So obviously early in the pandemic, there was a lot to keep up with changing rules, and all of a sudden they had, temporary rules to try to cover up how things were changing. So, things like if students were putting in academic review requests, all of a sudden, they didn't need supporting documentation because we found that students weren't able to access counselling and weren't able to get doctor's notes like they could before. So, there was more leniency on some of the rules which was just trying to pivot and still support students. Lots of temporary rules. Yes. So, to me, that was really hard to keep on top of because in March 2020, when the pandemic hit in earnest and we were sent home, I had only been in the role for about ten months.
So, I was still grappling with the volume of information that I had to know to do my job. And then suddenly, we were getting new rules and memos from the provost. So, I found that pretty challenging. And then one thing that I haven't mentioned yet, is that part of my job is to do recruitment events. So, for high school students coming to university, we have events to try to get them excited about coming. All of a sudden, we couldn't have them come to campus to open houses and that anymore, so we had to flip to online platform.
I think I saw the virtual seminar for that, actually.
So, we all of a sudden had to learn how to do that and the best way to share our information on a very one-way channel. Same with staff; same with faculty. So, we had to get faculty on board, like, “hey, come to this online recruitment session and share everything, you know, and on video.” So that was a big learning curve for a lot of people and yes, something that we never could have anticipated having to do. So, we're now back in person for recruitment events, which is nice, but we have campus day coming up at the end of March in person. So, I've been in the role since 2019, but I've never done in person campus day because the last one was March 2019, and that was right before I started in my role.
So now we're back and, you know, the recruitment admission people are like, okay, so we'll just kind of go back to how it was. I've been in my role for almost four years, and I've never done that.
Right. It's basically a whole new concept.
Whole new concept. But then having to alert people, like, don't just assume because I've been around forever that I've done it this way. We pivoted, we did it online for several years, so now it's back in person. So having to figure out what was done before and how am I going to make it my own and present it. So that's different and kind of a weird thing is that people assume that everybody remembers how it used to be.
But so much time has passed and new staff, so you can't assume that what was done before is remembered.
I fall into that trap a lot as well, actually. Right. I mean, some things I just accept like masks thing that just sort of everywhere now.
But by the time we bring back regular drop in his office, no student will have experienced what it used to be like.
Right. It basically is brand new.
So anyway, that's kind of an interesting thing to think about. And then another just big change that happened over the pandemic was the new student planning system. The web advisor changed during the pandemic too, which changed our whole way of advising students for the better. I mean, I think the system is good, but it was a big thing to learn online and potentially resulted in less students having questions, which is good. We want students to be able to understand their schedule. This is the whole point of the student planning system that actually shows you what you need to do to graduate. But yeah, that was a big change. And so when you were asking your question before about like, did you have less student volume or more, things changed, right?
It's hard to compare.
It's not comparing apples to apples, how it was before and how it was now, because little changes like this happened.
Right. With dips and raises.
I just thought that was worth mentioning because that did change how we do our work too. Not pandemic related, but it happened during that, right?
Yeah. And you've mentioned that there was a lot of temporary rules, right? Like, I assume it related to the mandates?
Yes, the vaccine mandate, for sure. But yes, things like having supporting documentation and how exams were run and little rules like things like course delivery format changing and the difference between asynchronous and synchronous virtual learning. And how is that different from distance education virtual learning? So new terms, some things were temporary and some things I think will persist after the pandemic. And it was hard to know in the early days, this is temporary? Is it going to stick? And then things like online exams, we've never had any online exams, even distance education courses. They had to come to campus to write the exam. So now it's different and so many more online exams. And if you had an exam and you needed to defer your exam, was the exam in the same format? Could it be on-line? That’s what I mean by little nuances and terminology changes and stuff like that.
Right? Yeah. You also mentioned that you had a couple of months into the position before the pandemic. But it still was pretty fresh in your mind. So I imagine it's like you learned the main bulk of what you were supposed to know and then things change. Right. And then a bunch of things changed, some were excluded, and there's like a million new things you got to add as well.
Exactly. So big learning curve, for sure. And then months go by and you go, okay, was this a new change because of the pandemic or is this something I hadn't encountered before?
Now I got to figure out what are the rules, you know? Yeah. We're trying to be more accommodating. So what's the hard rule and what's the real practical and applied? How are we rolling this out?
Thank you very much, then. One last question, if I can.
Yes, go ahead.
Would you say that COVID-19 or the pandemic or this whole experience changed your life? As in, like, personally affected you for the better or for worse?
Yes, honestly, I don't know that - it is so tricky.
Yes, I understand.
Looking back, there were so many very challenging things we went through, but honestly, all told, I feel like my life is very similar now to what it was before. One thing that has changed for me is prioritizing social get togethers and family and really learning to say no to the stuff that I'm not prioritizing, and learning to really, focus in and make sure I make the people that matter a priority. That's changed. This is a yes to everything, of course. And then now, post pandemic, I was used to not having as many demands on my time outside of the house. I have a lot of demands on my time inside of the house, but externally, I have less demands. So now I'm being a little more choosy about how I'm spending my time outside of the house. And that's how it works.
Thank you for answering, because I know it's a very difficult one right. And don't really know how I would answer it myself.
Am I changed? Yes and no. I feel like ten years from now, will I even remember all the nuance? I think that's why I wanted to be involved in this project, too, is because my memory is not going to be great ten years from now at all. And must be like, oh, yeah, that happened. It was wild.
I understand. My sense of time was already dissipating with COVID as well.
Yes. It was good to have these questions ahead so I could think back and say, when did I start? When did things change? When did we come back? Because the timelines do get fuzzy as time goes on.
History, so important.
Yes, no problem. Nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you as well. Thank you very much.