A Deeper Sense of Community

What are first year and remote students feeling in a new school context?

This year at Redeemer is different than ever before. With group projects now only possible over Zoom, desks 6 feet apart, inter-dorm interaction discouraged and covid safety taking over every part of our lives, how are Redeemerites finding community? In particular, first years and remote students are in a unique position. 

Do you remember those initially awkward dorm dinners, your hype LAUNCH teams, the Decade Dance, and all those things that helped you get out of your shell in first year? You would find your friends in those shared moments of newness, and pick the people who would become “yours” for the next four years. First year students aren’t really having these experiences, so how are they feeling about their sense of community at Redeemer?

It’s a common consensus that Covid regulations have made it harder for students to meet new people, but the response I got to asking if first-years have been finding community was almost overwhelmingly positive. Sebastian Caldwell, an international student from Hong Kong especially praised the kindness of everyone from students to profs here at Redeemer. This sentiment was echoed by many others, saying that everyone is so friendly and welcoming despite the sometimes intimidating stares coming from behind the masks. It feels pretty easy to walk up to someone and introduce yourself just because of the hospitable atmosphere that is fostered here. 

Redeemer is a school that likes to advertise how students leave having known their profs and classmates personally, and really emphasizes the draw of the smaller classrooms. Although necessary, the distancing measures in place kind of seem to take away from this perk. Is there anything Redeemer could do to make friendships grow outside of the classroom? One first-year student, Geoffrey Guichelar, points out that the way masks tend to muffle people’s voices and make everyone look the same (blonde, tall, Blundstones, you know what I’m saying??) means that “classroom chit-chat is really cut down.” These classroom interactions are really important for friendships but seem to be impossible. There are solutions though:

I’ve heard rumours of picnic tables being put in the dome as a community space, as well as the rec room being opened. Spaces like the quad have proved to be invaluable right now with the Muskoka chairs, relaxed atmosphere and lack of masks. It’s a place where students can meet, do homework and hang out without being afraid of Covid. If more spaces like this could be created as gathering places for friends, this would be a huge step to making the coming winter look a whole lot less sad. 

Robyn Postma offers some words of hope for any first year looking for deeper relationships in this crazy time. “I think as first years it can be hard to make friends whether we are in this challenging season or not. I do believe that these added barriers have created another complicated level of getting to know eachother but I hope that the effort we have to put in allows us to develop deeper relationships than we would have without these added barriers.” We can use this time to learn more about each other in more creative contexts, and maybe learn to appreciate the importance of every single person that we walk past each day in the halls. We can use this time to create a deeper sense of community than ever before. 

Let’s not forget the online students though. “Do our remote students have anything to say?” I’m sure you’ve all heard at least one of your profs say that. As the first generation of online students at Redeemer ever, they certainly do have something to say about this. It seems that remote students, with the exception of first years, have been enjoying their experience.

Most online students are still feeling connected to the larger Redeemer community, whether it’s through ministries, working on campus or just the many years of building up relationships on campus. It seems even Covid can’t get in the way of those deep friendships. Mayita Caiza even says “it is weird to say but I feel more part of the community than I have in previous years.” I think that just like Robyn said, relationships are becoming more intentional and that intentionality is serving everyone better. 

Another student points out that it’s a really cool opportunity to be able to take classes from anywhere and to be able to schedule your classes around your days instead of your days around your classes. It makes life easier and takes away a lot of the distractions that come with being in class with friends. There’s definitely highlights to this way of learning being introduced into Redeemer’s ways of teaching. The technology we have to do this is such a blessing and has provided many people with a new way of learning that may even suit them better. 

This isn’t to say that things have been going perfectly for the online students. Glitches with cameras and mics in class have made it hard and sometimes impossible for our remote students to come to class. Paying attention is certainly hard when you can’t see or hear your profs. Not to mention that not being able to see your classmates is pretty tough. Online students have also brought up the lack of connection they feel with fellow onliners, suggesting that maybe things could be done to form better relationships there. Game nights, or study groups or online forums could be introduced where remote students can meet and share their experiences and tips to make class more enjoyable.

First year online students though, have been having a rough go of it. The close knit community that is built here at Redeemer is so attractive to any first year hoping to make life-long friends. This, however, is kind of lost over Zoom. Not having had the chance to make friends on campus before, combined with the exclusion of remote students from the rest of the class, means that first year remote students haven’t really had the chance to meet their classmates. There simply just does not seem to be any way for online students to be any more included than they are and that can be rather discouraging when you don’t know anyone in your classes. 

This exclusion from everyone else seems to just be the way to live life right now, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing for students who before have really appreciated Redeemer’s sense of community but now don’t feel any part of it. One student suggested that maybe if classrooms had two cameras, one pointed on the prof and one on the class could lead to a better sense of what’s going on as a whole. Also maybe having the in person students log in to Zoom as well would increase the sense of inclusion for people unable to be in person. So next time you happen to be in a group with an online student, take the extra time to find out their name and learn something about them because that sense of inclusion means so much when everyone feels so far away. 

The world is changing and Redeemer is too, but we have been blessed by this opportunity to still live and work and play so close to so many other people. Masks, social distancing and technology that doesn’t allow us to be fully present definitely limits the amount of interactions we have, but we are living in a very hopeful context. We’re one of the few schools in the country open in person and full of people creatively looking for ways to form friendships despite these barriers. So take courage and be hopeful. Take those few extra steps each day to reach out to a stranger or remote student, because all of us are craving a deep connection to community right now and it starts simply by saying “hi.”