Sarah McGonigal Interviewed by Sophia Lupke
I would like to begin with asking you what year you were in and what you were studying when the pandemic was declared in March of 2020
I was in my second semester of my second year, and I studied environmental sciences.
What was your initial reaction to the pandemic?
Probably similar to most people, like “oh should we be scared”, “is this a little thing”, or “oh we have a couple of weeks off school.” Kind of a mix of just more un-sureness I guess, but curious to know what will come of it. At the beginning, the initial day we were like what's going on, should we be hanging out today, did the school get closed? It was a bit concerning, it was just the topic of every conversation for a while.
Were you involved in any extracurriculars at the time?
Not that semester. I was before but specifically for that semester I was on a co-op term when it first happened and the co-op was on campus. It was a research project for the School of Engineering. So, I was still living in Guelph and commuting every day up until that happened, but specifically, I did not have time because I just worked late every day.
How did you find your Co-op was affected by covid, was it completely shut down?
I remember that a few other people who worked in the lab with me were unsure if our work would be affected the same way as for other students that were in classes. We each had an office space instead of being in a big lecture hall. I think that at that moment there were not any official rules. First, they said no classes. I still wanted to work because I was not sure and my boss did not say anything yet. The other person I worked with and shared the office space with was also there. We were like, “do you think we should ask about what to do or if anything is going to change?” Or “do we wait it out, should we say anything?” And then within a couple of days, they told us, “yeah, take it home.” They gave us laptops instead of a desktop computer, so I could keep doing the work at home, but the actual team was pretty spread out. People from other universities were working on it. We had these weekly meetings that were already over Microsoft teams, I feel like we were already adapted a little bit where we would meet online virtually to begin with. In that sense we were a bit prepared.
How did you find continuing with your Co-op online?
It was interesting, and I would say boring. I never really got ready to leave the house or go to work. I think a lot of people felt this in the beginning too, like “oh I get to wear pajamas”, but then it just got boring and less motivating to get up and do your day's work. So yeah, I did work all day in my room. A lot of my roommates were back home. So, my house was empty. Definitely an isolating feeling, and I had one roommate at the time. But yeah, we made it work. Honestly, it felt boring doing the same thing, or maybe that was the work itself I was doing at the time. I did not have anyone to chat with in the workspace anyways.
You were living off campus at the time, with other roommates?
And then, a lot of them you said went home?
Yes, it was just two out of the five of us for a while and then some would come occasionally. Then in the summer, there were three of us, because a couple were working in Guelph. Then, the next school year, the house was full again. Even though school was online and I was back to class, virtually at least in the fall, the house was full again. It gives you more sense of being away at school. So everyone came back. Even though classes were online at least I had my roommates back the next school year.
And what was school like when you started again in the following September?
So, I think that the first semester was completely online, where all of my classes had a lab component. They tried to make it online. Everything was done from home, I guess there was a mixed opinion on this. I would say I preferred it pre-covid. It was more engaging and you got to work in a lab. Since then, professors are more willing to either record, upload, or have materials more accessible. They made things a lot more accessible in a few different ways. I felt like that has been rolled over until now. Which makes working around things a bit easier, or scheduling around things. I would not have to leave so early to try and find a parking spot but at the end of the day, it still felt unmotivating to just sit in front of a computer instead of the work you would be doing in person.
Did you find your experience of online learning changed over time?
I think a little bit. Being on a Co-op for the first semester I was not there or taking classes the moment that it hit. I heard lots of stories of people whose professors were not super knowledgeable on how to upload, record videos, or share their screens. They felt the second half of that semester fell short. When I started the next fall, I think a lot of the instructors came more prepared, ready with cameras and everything. I think they all got it over time. Most people knew, or thought to upload their recorded videos, which definitely made things more flexible. If you were sick one week you were able to catch up on lectures. Where I think before covid the attitude was more like, “oh well that sucks”, “find someone's notes” or you know, you just have to deal with that.
Would you say that the pandemic affected your student experience, overall social life, and even the level of education you were receiving?
I think yes, well definitely yes. When talking about the social things, there is a very different feeling, before and during the lockdown period and the online school. I think I was lucky that I had my first year and half a second year to meet people and have a friend group and have roommates to move in with. Thankfully I had those friends, but during Covid, I did not really meet many more people or get to make friends. If you were someone who was going out and socializing it was shamed or looked down on. Especially during the times when it was really bad, and then when you are stuck home. You feel like you are doing the right thing but it can be isolating to not get that same experience. The couple clubs that I was interested in or a part of when I was not in Co-op, I did not feel the benefit of sitting in another zoom call, so I stopped participating. I did not feel like sitting in another video call in the day.
What was your experience of the omicron outbreak in December and January of 2021- 2022?
That is memorable to me because that is when I first had covid, and in a way I felt so lucky to have gotten sick just a couple of days after my last exam. It was pretty close to Christmas time, and I heard of so many people getting sick and missing exams. I was so happy I got through the whole exam period and stayed healthy. Then a couple of days after I said goodbye to all my roommates, they were going home. I had a part-time job on top of the school, and I think I had a couple of days of work left. I was planning on going back home, and then I started to not feel so good. I had a tickle in my throat. I was worried, I do not want to go to my parent's house if I am sick. I remember wanting to get a covid test, and every facility that handed them out in Guelph was completely sold out. I called everywhere I could, and to get a testing appointment was after Christmas. It would have been the 27th or 28th. My dad was able to get one of the at-home tests, and he drove to Guelph to drop it off, so I could use it. It came out positive. I am trying to remember what the rules were at the time, and I think it was five or seven days to isolate, and then if you go in public to wear a mask. I remember there were exactly that many days until Christmas day, whatever the guideline was at the time, or what they suggested so you would not be contagious. I waited out all alone in my house in Guelph, all my roommates were gone for Christmas. Thankfully, Christmas morning I was able to drive home. I did not even go into public for a little while longer, but at least I was able to go back to my parents. Personally, it affected me and I was so sick in bed for about a week. I just remember hearing so many stories on the news. In my circles,and in my friend groups, probably more than half of them had covid during that Christmas/holiday time. So, yeah, it definitely was really impactful.
What was your initial reaction when you found out you were sick? Were you scared, or how did you feel?
Yeah a little. I guess disappointed, or frustrated. I wanted to do the right thing and not get other people sick, but then that means I am stuck in this room alone, for a week during the holidays. I would say that was my reaction. I was not scared at first because so many people I knew had pretty light symptoms. You hear the odd terrible story of people not recovering or having lingering symptoms. I think that I was a little more scared when I started to get very sick. In the end, I recovered and was fine. But yeah, more frustrated or disappointed. I guess the time of year too, the holidays.
What would you say the most challenging aspects of the pandemic were for you?
Maybe more mental health, or social life. But also just meeting my needs socially and getting to see people, and going out. Having certain expectations in your personal life, and them not coming through. I felt totally fine adapting to online learning, and I had a few Co-op semesters during covid time. I think I only had one completely online semester, and then I had one semester that was half-half. But,I just had so many Co-ops during that time that thankfully a lot of my courses were still in person, before and after the pandemic. I think that part of it was just you are expected to stay home. You know, you are only in university for a few years. I felt like I missed opportunities for that stretch of time.
Do you think there were any aspects of the pandemic life that were good for you?
It is hard to say, I guess it is overall so negative. I do not want to be too happy about certain things, but there were things that were convenient in a way. I may have mentioned it earlier that it was nice to have instructors post recorded videos. Just to be able to go back to study using them, and a lot of them became more flexible with deadlines. I remember before Covid if you missed something for being sick you had to get a doctor's note and it was a whole big process, but I remember they waved the doctor's note. Which at one point I think I asked for an extension because I was sick, not with covid, a flu or something. They were very willing to accommodate, and to say, “yeah get it in when you can”. I think in some ways it made things a bit more accessible, and maybe normalized having support when you are out sick, rather than, “oh you should have come to class” attitude. Which, even if it is not covid, just for having the flu. I think it is good to stay home to not spread it.
How would you say Covid 19 impacted your friends and family?
I think my friends would probably be very similar to me, where everything was moved online, and they missed a lot of their school. I think for a lot of my friends, or my roommates, we had a house in Guelph and at least sort or got to experience some of the student culture. At least in the city. Some people who were living on campus at the time were forced to move home. It might have been harder for people who started a year or two after me - they missed a lot of those opportunities at the beginning of university. And my family, I think a lot of people were really scared at the time, it affected people's jobs in my family, how much work they have, or the business they have. And yes, always talking about it, talking about it on the news, we were all scared to go out when there are all these crazy reports on the news. And I remember every time I would come home my parents would have the news on the tv. Which was so annoying to me, because it was always terrible news and so many people had died, and so many people caught it. So, it took up a lot of mental capacity at the time, thinking and stressing about it.
Looking back how did the pandemic change your life?
I think it changed my trajectory in school. I do not know what the alternative would have been, but probably just the people I would have potentially met, or maybe classes I would have enjoyed a lot more I might have benefited from some courses more if they were to have been in person. It is hard to say exactly, not knowing what could have happened but feeling like some opportunities were lost. Thankfully, I tried to be resilient through all of it and I managed to finish school and pick up Co-ops. One thing I can think of is during Covid, I was applying for Co-op jobs and I think it was the first time I was applying for Co-op jobs after Covid hit. I remember before Covid, looking on the job board the day it opened and there would be 50 or more jobs, for example, looking to hire someone in my program. I remember I looked on the job board the day it opened, the next time I was looking for a job during Covid, and I am not kidding there were three jobs, and it is for everyone in my program looking for a Co-op. So, it was so hard interviewing for months. Then I think I just got so lucky and ended up getting offered a job just a couple of weeks before the next semester started. I know so many people who did not get a Co-op job. So, I wonder what job I would have gotten if I had more opportunities during that time. That was lost, since people were not wanting to hire Co-op students when work was slow.
Do you see Covid, do you think as more of a positive or negative experience?
I think I have to say, overall negative. I mean, I can think of some ways it may be benefited me. To work hard in some ways, but some university courses were a little bit easier because they were online. But, overall I think the amount of people that were sick, I have to say negative.