Sara McGonigal Interviewed by Spencer Hicks


I'm sorry, I don't know too much about you, except that you are or were a former OAC or OVC student. I'm not exactly sure which, I'm so sorry.

Yes, no worries! Yes, I was. I studied environmental science, but I just graduated.  I'm working and living in Toronto, but I lived through COVID and everything during university. But I was interested to know what was going on. So what course is this for?

This is Invitation to History. That’s the big project, to record people on campus, especially their thoughts and their experiences during it all.

Okay, neat! Are you in your first year?

I should be in my second, but I took an extra semester just to catch up. So this is my first time on a University campus.

Yeah, cool. I think my old Program Counselor just reached out to a few of us to see if we were willing to do it. So I said, why not?

Well, thank you so much for volunteering!

Yeah, no worries!

So anyways, you said you’re in Toronto now? May I ask what you’re up to these days?

I’m working currently as an Environmental Scientist for an environmental consulting and engineering company downtown. So my job focuses mostly on contaminated sites, so I’m mostly writing reports on on-site assessments and potentially remediating contaminated sites. But I had a really similar co-op job during university, so that's what led me to this position.

Oh, I’ve seen a few around when I worked construction, and there’d have to be all these soil tests and such.

Yeah, I’ve worked on a lot of construction sites before, especially with drillers. So, I’d come by and collect the soil and so on.

Nice! So I have a list of questions here, some of which I’ll use, others I won’t. Some I’ll simply make up on the fly.

Yeah, sure!

So number one, and I think this is important to know; what year were you in and what were you studying when the pandemic was declared in March of 2020?

It was my second semester of my second year, and I happened to be on a co-op term, but I had a couple of school semesters that were still kind of COVID-ey, you know, a couple fully online and then one partially. And then my last one was basically all back to in-person.

Nice, so you got to finish pretty normally then?

Yes. But I think it worked out well for me. I was in a co-op position and then when it hit I got the announcement that school was closed and everything, but that was my very first co-op, and it was a position on campus. It was the School of Engineering, as a watershed researcher. But I was working in GIS so it's computer work so when the time came they just set me up with a laptop and said OK, just do it from home now. And yes, I had that one co-op, and then a couple of other semesters I was on another co-op, so I felt the bulk of it was during my co-op terms, which sucked but at least I got my later semesters able to be decently in-person. So, in a sense, I didn't miss out too much on school. But yes, I was online fully for a couple semesters for sure, but it was just co-op, and I was living in Guelph, simply working and living in a student house with my roommates.

How would co-op work online? You said you were doing Environmental Research of some kind, so I’m just curious how that worked.

Well, all my co-ops after that were in-person and pretty much considered essential work. My next one was in a lab, so I had to of course go in-person for that, but that’s one specific case. The co-op was mostly computer work. Are you familiar with what GIS is?

Is it Geographic Information Systems? I remember that from Grade 9 Geography.

Yeah, it’s mostly different software programs, working with maps and layout projections and such. So we would put together these maps from field data that other people collected. So the engineers would just consult me on that sort of thing.

So it sounds like you were able to work from home super easy for the most part. So for co-op, it didn’t really affect you too much on the pandemic front?

Yes, the first semester wasn’t too bad. In a lot of ways, it was still very isolating, because where I had once been working in an office, I was now stuck at home, But it was really just that first semester for me that was bad.

Nice! And were you involved in any extracurriculars on campus?

That semester? No, because with COVID and everything, it got to be too much for my schedule to handle. But before COVID, I was in a few. But once the pandemic hit, they all moved online, and I never really got back into them; it became just one more video call I had to do and felt like a chore. What I had enjoyed from them, that being the socializing aspect, had disappeared, and it became a lot less appealing to me, unfortunately.

That makes perfect sense because the whole point is to be able to interact with people in person. And in co-op, you were working at the time? I’ve never taken a co-op semester, so I apologize that I’m unfamiliar with how the whole situation works.

Yes, essentially every semester is a work semester, but you can arrange the schedule however you please. But it does, of course, lengthen the amount of time that you’re at school because 4 years of school can become 5 and a half years, because of the need to shuffle things around. And there are a lot of job boards that reach out to the school and will hire students, but essentially it's just work related to your major, and also counts as a full-time job. So I would have school in the summer, and come the fall I was working in a water toxicity lab, only 20 minutes away, which was very convenient. And in the winter of 2021, I was online again, and in the summer I went back to the lab. I liked it because it felt like a semi-normal school experience. From late ‘21 to early ‘22 it was a mix of in-person and online, and since I was a 4th year in small classes and labs, I was able to have that experience that COVID was still depriving people of.

Nice! Being in those small classes must have relieved all that isolationism for you a bit, I’m sure.

Yes, I think it depended on what classes you were taking because other 4th years I knew were 100% online. I think just got lucky, and it depended on how your instructors wanted to teach. I had one class where the professor did everything in person, but there were only 11 people in it, and she noticed if you weren’t present.

I can imagine! And you said you were living in Guelph, right? Was it a residence or a house, as you mentioned briefly?

Yeah, 1st year I was in residence, but COVID hit in my 2nd year and I was staying at that student house with some girlfriends I had made, and I stayed there every year after.

Okay, cool! And how did the first initial wave affect you? Did you move anywhere? I know you stopped with the extracurriculars, did it affect school or your co-op in any other way than what you’ve mentioned?

Yes, I guess so. I decided to stay in the house, as it was a better working and living environment. I definitely preferred it to moving back in with my parents, although I know a lot of people who did just that. The campus and town just felt empty, with students leaving or not signing leases if they didn’t think it would be in person. Even at the house where I was staying, which had once always been busy, it was just me and one other roommate. Some moved back in the summer, and eventually, they all moved back, even when school was online.

So it didn’t feel quite as remote once people realized it wasn’t going away quickly? That must’ve been an excellent return to normal.

Yes, because the house was just so quiet.

And at the start of 2021, you said everything went online pretty much?

Yes, pretty much everything was online then. All the teachers and so on felt way more prepared for the pandemic as opposed to the closing months of 2020. I suppose they had had time to adjust. Because before I had heard so many stories of professors just giving up, not doing final exams, and telling their students to just write a little paper instead.

Yes, no one really knew what they were doing.

Yes, the rules hadn’t really been cemented, for how to regulate online exams and so on. But after that, they learned how to do video lectures and there were stricter protocols in place.

Yes, you could sort of take advantage of the system in those first months after March 2020.

Yes, because you would have tenured professors who had been using the blackboard for the past 30 years and were suddenly expected to know how to monitor a class online, or teach things like Chemistry through video format. So I can understand them having a hard time.

Yes, it was such a big change. Thankfully I haven’t had any online University classes yet, but I can tell there are some people that make you wonder how they would’ve survived a Zoom call.

Yes, and there were a lot of people complaining about technical difficulties, not being able to hear the audio, etc.

Yes, in my first semester, I had an Anthropology professor who wore a mask at the front of Memorial Hall and whose microphone didn’t work, so no one could hear a word she said.

Yes, but there were some changes I liked as well. Before the pandemic, the atmosphere was very unforgiving, but with all the unprecedented changes, professors and the like were much more forgiving and posted recordings for people who were sick or who couldn’t make it. It made University more accessible in my view.

Yeah, there’s definitely way more leniency. Even with this interview; I had to push it back because of appointments, and my professor was kind enough to give me an extension.

Yes, I think that’s how it should be. I can understand due dates, but some are so unforgiving and don’t really reflect your intellect, only your punctuality, and there should be a balance.

You can’t have things perfect, of course. “If you ever find anywhere perfect, don’t go: you’ll ruin it”, as my father always says. Anyway, what were you doing in the summer of 2020? Were you working?

Yes, so with the co-op timetable thing, I was actually doing a full academic semester. So my classes were entirely online, though I did work part-time in a lab, and this was all during the summer.

Wow, you poor thing. A full course load in the summer? I can’t imagine it.

Yes, but in a way I kind of liked it. The co-op was my 9 to 5 and the after I would work as a bartender, as opposed to simply working all summer. And since the campus was pretty deserted in the summer I could go on walks and bike rides, and tan outside while watching an online lecture. So I think I made the most of it. I definitely enjoyed that peace and quiet that COVID brought, at the very least that was one good thing about it. Obviously, we all had complaints that we weren’t getting what we paid for out of the University, but I think that everyone was thinking that.

Yeah, that’s rather scammy in my humble opinion.

Yeah, but some teachers tried to make it still hands-on for us. For instance, I had one teacher in Environmental Microbiology who gave us projects that we could do from home throughout the semester. She had us gather soil and feed it different things to see what kinds of microbes would grow under what conditions. So we’d feed the soil things like wood pulp and even Epsom salts, because they contain potassium, and so on

(Conversation on microbes expurgated from the transcript, as interesting as I found it.)

Did you ever catch COVID that you know of?

Definitely once, although I speculate. I believe I had it once in February 2020, before we really knew how to identify it. All my roommates had it as well, and it just felt like a really bad flu. And then fast-forward all the way to around Christmas time and the first bit of 2021, when Omicron was going around when the numbers were very high, and most things were online. It was a week before Christmas, and I woke up with a tickle in my throat and didn’t feel 100%. So I called my parents to let them know of the situation because I didn’t want them to catch it. So I went to the drug store to get a rapid test to double-check if I was actually ill or not. But in every store in a 20-minute radius, they had been sold out! And to book an appointment, the soonest availability wasn’t until over a week! So my Dad ends up driving from Caledon, which is over an hour away, with a test for me. Sure enough, it comes back positive, and I start feeling worse and worse. I never thought I was going to die, but I never felt so sick in all my life. I was just in bed for days; I never blew my nose so much in my entire life. And then one day I started feeling better, and the protocol stated that I needed to isolate for a while afterward, and the schedule lined up perfectly for me to still be able to see my family for Christmas! I didn’t make anyone else in my family sick, so I think it had passed by then. It was my own little Christmas miracle.

How nice! This isn’t one of the questions I was given, but I think for historical posterity it is quite a good one to know; do you have any more humorous anecdotes, or anecdotes in general, of how the supply chain collapsed and it affected you? You already mentioned the rapid test kits.

Yes, I remember plenty. Even with the rapid tests, many were being given away for free, but many people were being greedy and hoarding 10 or more. Or there were many instances of people “Doomsday prepping”. You’d see all these memes of people in Costco with mountains of toilet paper and canned beans. And I knew people that worked at Costco and they commented on the ridiculousness of some people. Or another supply issue was nitrile gloves when I worked in a lab. We never ran completely out, but so many people wanted them that we only ever had so many, and one day we were down to one last glove before the supply truck came to re-stock the lab. Even for random lab equipment, the supply chains were slow, and this equipment had absolutely nothing to do with COVID. Even in my current job, we are always still low on supplies to test groundwater, and I find that quite strange. I suppose it’s the Butterfly effect, affecting foreign workers overseas.

Yeah, we don’t often think about how vulnerable our supply chains are. I still remember when the Suez Canal was blocked for a little bit, how it caused so much panic and delay for a while. But anyway, I was going to ask you about the Omicron variant and if it differed in any way from your regular experiences.

Yeah, I think that was when I got sick that Christmas, not to repeat that whole story. No one in my family that I know had it, but seemingly everyone I knew in Guelph was sick in some way, it was just crazy. But there was also a sense of hope going into the New Year, so that was nice.

Yes, I was very ill around that time too, as was most of the family that I lived with. We were all just bedridden, utterly lethargic. It’s nothing you question your mortality over, but you just feel awful.

Yes, I’d agree, although I was definitely feeling rather morbid and miserable all alone at home.

I totally agree. Now you’ve mentioned a few already, but were there any more aspects of the pandemic that were good for you?

I guess the culture shift at the University, such as being more accommodating of illnesses. Especially with people with disabilities; having the option of a recorded lecture was just so much nicer. I also loved the outdoor patios that restaurants had outside during the summer

Yeah, those were so cheery, especially with all the lights and everything! The downtown area never looked better and more alive, than I can recall.

Yes, and even the quiet and remoteness was nice for a time, although I would hate it long-term. And it could be a good excuse from getting out of a social event I didn’t really feel up to.

Yeah, before COVID some of us were too reckless, and with COVID some people are way too cautious. I think finding that balance is essential to going back to normal. Anyways, I have one last major question; has the pandemic changed your life permanently in any way, do you think?

Well, it's a bit hard to answer because I can’t see that far ahead, and I need to wait for the dust to settle. There are definitely things I question now, like the quality of my education and the opportunities I was deprived of with everything that occurred. Places are hiring a lot less, I’ve noticed; it was a little difficult finding a co-op job one semester. I think companies are a little more cautious about who they hire these days. And it just makes me think if my life might have taken a different direction, or people I would have met had all this stuff not happened. I don’t really have a story of a great, life-altering event. I was pretty set on what I wanted to do and didn’t let the pandemic derail me too much. But I can’t say the same for many people.

Well, it's admirable that you kept your eyes on what you wanted to do and didn’t let it affect you any more than necessary. I don’t have any more questions, really, but is there anything you wish to add?

I can’t think of too much else to say, but I’m really glad I could help with your project!

Yes, thank you so much for sharing your valuable time!

You’re so welcome, bye!

Yeah, goodbye!