The chapel at Trinity College is quiet these days – except for a few weeks in the fall, all services since March have been on Zoom. The same hush extends over the whole college, and over most of the universities and colleges in Ontario and beyond. Students have had to adjust to a bewildering succession of changes over the past year, many abruptly having to abandon residences in March and almost all switching immediately to online learning formats (with their instructors, in many cases, staying one step ahead of them). The summer was a period of enormous uncertainty, of suspended and competing realities. For many, it was impossible to find the summer employment they would ordinarily have relied on for their next year’s expenses, and they were not eligible for CERB or EI; at the same time, loosened restrictions in many places created a hope that universities and colleges might re-open on a near-normal basis in September.
After a few weeks of mixed remote and in-person teaching early in the fall term, however, all instruction (except for labs) moved fully online, so that even the greatly reduced number of students living in residences found themselves in front of computers much of the time. Institutions continue to offer recreational and extra-curricular activities, and counselling and support services, all in online formats. In some ways, this makes more of the benefits of academic life accessible to students living off-campus, or with their families in other cities, provinces, and even other countries, but the combined weight of Zoom fatigue and isolation with the usual exhaustion of student existence has serious emotional and spiritual consequences for many. And for students in health care, the performing arts, or in high-performance athletics, many aspects of their programs have been suspended altogether, so anxiety about completing degrees and diplomas on schedule, and launching careers, is particularly acute.
Some students, of course, are making the most of living at home, but it can be difficult to live in their childhood homes without reverting to childhood patterns. For any whose families fail to support them in their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or their career choices, or for those in abusive family situations, lockdown can be a traumatic experience, and opportunities to earn money to move out and live on their own are drastically curtailed. Many graduate students support themselves as sessional instructors and are having to deal with all the issues and expectations surrounding online learning. A great many foreign students live with heightened worry about the pandemic situations in their home countries, and sometimes with concerns about their family’s health or even with circumstances of grief and loss.
In this context, campus chaplains work hard to maintain contacts and opportunities for group interaction in a variety of formats – online liturgies, Bible studies, discussion groups, meditation sessions, and purely social gatherings – without adding to students’ overall fatigue, and to be available for one-on-one conversations in whatever way is most helpful to students. We monitor carefully whether students might be in need of more formal clinical counselling, or whether they might benefit from being connected with congregations in the wider community.
What can congregations offer students in the current situation? If the student has been part of that congregation because of a previous family connection, it may be as simple as maintaining contact, and reaching out periodically to ask, “How are you doing?” “Is there any kind of support you would like us to offer you?” At the same time, it’s important to remember that the process of individuation, of distinguishing themselves from their parents, may also involve a separation from aspects of family life like church attendance. And of course, it’s crucial to be aware that students may have more problematic or conflictual relationships with their parents than other members of the congregation necessarily realize, so that our commitment to making churches safe and loving environments may be best expressed by offering young people the space and distance they require to develop in healthy ways.
Congregations that have recently welcomed students to their online gatherings must be sensitive to the variety of needs these students bring – they may be seeking to explore spiritual questions, or simply find a supportive community, but they may also be hoping for one-to-one connection or practical assistance. The importance of this last element cannot be overestimated: for all the spiritual, emotional, and psychological stresses of the pandemic, financial hardship remains for many students the most difficult and intractable thing about this crisis. Anything which church communities can do to alleviate this practical need, whether in the form of parish bursaries, care packages, or referrals to services, can be a genuine witness to God’s love, helping students find the security to live fully, discern their vocations, and accomplish the work they have to do.