Erica Gibson, Interviewed by Stella Shaughnessy
Stella: What year were you in, and what were you studying when the pandemic was declared in March of 2020?
Erica: I was at the end of my first year of the DVM program in OVC, so basically my fifth year at the University of Guelph. This was my first year of vet school—because we aren’t semestered, it was an entire course load that we lost access to in-person.
Stella: Were you involved in any extracurriculars on campus? Were you working? Where were you living?
Erica: I was the captain of one of the OVC hockey teams at that time, so I remember being uncertain about whether we could continue with the season or not. We didn’t know if our hockey tournament, The Challenge Cup, which is normally a big event within the OVC, would even occur. During this time, I was not working yet, just focusing on my degree. I was living with my roommate, who graduated that year.
Stella: What do you remember from the week of March 13th, 2020 (the week the shutdown began)?
Erica: I know it definitely depends on the situation you were in, but I remember most of my graduating class trying to move their jobs/post-undergrad programs to where they were they planned on quarantining. Everything happened so quickly. Someone I knew really well, actually, was moving back to Texas because of the outbreak. When the lockdown happened, I remember him packing his car with as much of his stuff as he could fit because he didn’t know if he’d be back again. He ended up leaving so much furniture and clothes that I had to sell because he couldn’t get it back to Texas. It was crazy.
We definitely had no idea of the extent to which this would go. I remember hearing about it in class, and my classmates and I felt like it was scary but didn’t think it was too serious. I remember thinking, “oh well, at least I have 2 weeks to study for my finals!”. I definitely thought of it as a ‘short break’ rather than something much larger. I remember it quite vividly.
Stella: How did the initial shut down affect you? Where did you go? What happened to your study?
Erica: I was on my own in Guelph because my roommate had moved out. I remember there being a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen next—constantly waiting for emails on communication of what the next step was from the University.
We still had to finish our exams—the OVC was committed. I think I remember having like 8-10 final exams. It was a lot. My sister was also diagnosed with MS during this time. I remember it feeling like everything all at once. I didn’t want to prolong my time to graduation, so I just kind of pushed through. I’m not sure if that was the best decision or not.
It was a quick pivot; we transitioned to online learning very quickly, so we could get things done. It was hard because OVC is a really competitive school to get admitted into. During this time, there was a lot of drama in OVC surrounding the introduction of the pass/fail credit option (choosing to have either a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ on your transcript). The OVC is strict on grades, so I remember panic in the undergrad weather whether people wanted to transition to this type of grading system.
Stella: Did you return to in-person classes for the 2020-2021 school year?
Erica: OVC was pretty conservative with going back to in-person. A lot of the professors wanted to stay home, and we all accommodated. We had a few labs running, but they would often be made smaller, separate rooms, or made shorter to divide up groups. We tried to attend as often as we could and were given rapid tests so we could test before coming to campus.
Stella: Yeah this reminds me of something someone in my class mentioned this week—students in OVC had to “declare” their bubbles, which determined who would be in their labs/classes. Do you have any experiences with this?
Erica: Yeah, this was a thing—you could declare who you were living with and stick with them throughout the semester in your classes/labs. At that time, I was living with my now-fiancée, who isn’t in OVC, so I couldn’t do this.
Stella: How did you find online learning at the beginning?
Erica: It’s actually really interesting, I found that I actually ended up doing better academically with the switch to online classes. I found that having everything online allowed me to do my work when I was ready/prepared, or on 2x speed. Learning at my own pace, on my own time, was really helpful academically. This meant that there was never an excuse for me not to attend lectures, so as far as boundaries for my time, that didn’t go very well. I would constantly be doing things late at night because I figured that since I was at home in my office, I might as well just stay up and cram everything in. There was little separation between work and personal life. My partner and I found that, as we would be doing work during the day at an arm's length away from each other and needed to close our laptops and start making dinner to “transition” to personal life.
Stella: What was the most challenging aspect of the pandemic for you?
Erica: Honestly, I think the hardest part for me was lacking control. I am someone who always likes to have control, so for me, the anxiety of uncertainty the pandemic brought was difficult. I was shocked at how many rules were put into place, how little control I had over travel and going out. I remember having so much hope when the vaccines were introduced because it was like a light at the end of the tunnel- like “finally, something might change”.
I remember the most troubling part was imagining if the world would ever “open up” again. My grandparents, at the time, were living in Florida. I remember [my family] couldn’t get [my grandparents] home, because we never knew when the most safe time would be for them to travel. That was the worst. The constant uncertainty was terrible.
Stella: Were there any aspects of pandemic life that were positive for you?
Erica: From the perspective of personal growth, I feel like the pandemic gave me a reset on everything I was involved in. Before the pandemic, I was definitely over-committed to everything in my life. The pandemic gave me the opportunity to, for example, stop volunteering four days a week. I felt like I needed to be doing so much all the time, and the pandemic allowed me to take a break and establish how I wanted to re-introduce my responsibilities and obligations into my life. Since the lockdown, I take much more time for myself, and volunteer less than I used to. This has been good for my mental health.
Stella: What was your experience of the Omicron outbreak in December/January 2021 and 2022?
Erica: This was definitely one of my lowest moments during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Omicron outbreak happened, it truly felt like the pandemic was never going to end. The University cancelled our White Coat Ceremony, which was a really big deal. I had been dreaming about becoming a vet since I was four years old and had finally gotten myself into vet school and then the pandemic hit. Losing the White Coat ceremony felt like losing all of my hard work—I had dedicated, literally, the last 25 years of my life towards this. When this happened, it felt hopeless, like the challenges of the pandemic would never end. After OVC students found out that the University planned on cancelling the ceremony, we all started freaking out and emailing the school. We asked them to reconsider their decision, and they ended up finding a way.
Stella: Oh, wow. So, do you think the University of Guelph rescheduled the White Coat Ceremony for OVC because of all the student feedback?
Erica: I think so, yeah. The students fought to compromise—we wanted to make the ceremony happen and were willing to do whatever it took. We suggested rapid tests, not including family, to the school. I think the most upsetting part about it for students was that the university cancelled it in January, months before the actual event was supposed to take place. It felt like they weren’t willing to compromise or find another way to make the ceremony possible.
I definitely think the in-person event was made possible because of the student feedback. It was hard, because we obviously had to put safety first (during the ceremony, we all had to wear masks) but I was just glad we were able to compromise and make the ceremony happen.
Stella: How did COVID-19 impact your friends and family?
Erica: My sister was diagnosed with MS during the beginning of the pandemic, which I guess would’ve happened either way, but was definitely significantly harder to deal with because of COVID.
My grandparents were probably the biggest factor for me. They’re in their mid-80s, so I was obviously really worried for them. They lived in Florida, and I remember calling them on the phone during the peak outbreaks and they would say things like “yeah, we were just at the grocery store, and nobody was wearing masks”. I was thinking “great, I don’t even know if they're going to make it back to Canada alive”.
My other grandparents worried me too. We stopped having family gatherings. Actually, this year was the first year since the pandemic that my extended family could actually get together. We would always be emailing each other like, “oh, so-and-so just had an exposure to COVID”—that was like our new normal. That was really terrible. My grandparents even got to the point where they told us “We’re not going to live for much longer—we’d almost rather risk exposure than keep spending time alone”.
I did actually have issues with friendships because of COVID too. When we had to pick a ‘bubble’ to be in, I ended up losing a friend because their circle became too large. I remember whenever someone would go home and our quarantine of two weeks would reset, and it just felt never-ending.
Stella: Looking back, how did the pandemic change your life?
Erica: This is definitely a loaded question. Obviously, the economy is wild as a new grad. The way of life has completely changed. It has definitely made me think twice about basic things, like international travel. It’s interesting to think about the things we take for granted.
I think that there are definitely a lot of positives that came out of the pandemic. I love that people can work from home, and I’m glad that people have started talking about mental health more. That was huge. People have realized it’s more important to spend time with family, for example, rather than commuting. Companies have recognized that productivity is the same, or better, when their employees work from home. This was so awesome. People have the ability to prioritize what is important to them.
There was such a significant divide and politics with the pandemic, which was tough. It was a good reminder of how much work we, as a society, have to do. It was a huge event that had impacted so many elements of people's lives. Hopefully, it has prepared us to better handle large-scale events like disease. It definitely impacted my life, for better or for worse. I try to look at [the pandemic] as a period of growth, rather than pain.