C/O Travis Nguyen

How McMaster’s first-year students attended a welcome week amid a global pandemic

Welcome Week is a week dedicated to incoming freshmen, allowing them to participate in activities that encourage forming connections with their classmates. Though it is such a well known event amongst university students, only one year of students can attest to attending such an event in the midst of a global pandemic.

The freshman entering McMaster University in the year of 2021 have found themselves trying to adjust to university life in the midst of the pandemic. Despite the pandemic, they began their year with a welcome week with socially distancing guidelines. 

“Daily screening: all attendees must complete the COVID-19 provincial self-assessment within one hour of their intended arrival on campus. Participants will be asked about the completion of screening upon arrival at the event,” stated the Student Success Centre on their COVID-19 guidelines for on-campus events.

On the Welcome Week website, seven distinct guidelines were set out to align with the City of Hamilton guidelines. This included having only 100 people at each outdoor event, including those hosting the events. Alongside this, students were required to wear masks at events where social distancing was difficult to maintain.

During the week of Sept. 1 to 8, 2021, first-years gathered all over the McMaster campus to meet their peers. The week followed a hybrid format, mixed with online and in-person components. Students were able to schedule their ideal welcome week schedule with the McMaster Welcome Week website

“Coming out of a year of fully online school basically, Grade 12, it was just really nice to walk outside and see people, just interact with other people. Being in the center of this more social environment after so much isolation,” said Nazifa Tasnim, a first-year engineering student.

This hybrid approach was appreciated by students as it allowed them an opportunity to meet classmates. Tasnim was open to admitting that virtual aspects of the events were often a little harder when it came down to meeting new people.

“There were virtual events that I signed up for but more or less it was only fun sometimes because I would have my friends, who also lived in my residency building, in the room with me doing the games. In terms of meeting new people, the virtual events were really hard when it came down to knowing anyone. The physical interactions were better in terms of getting to know someone for the first time. At least that’s what I think a lot of people feel. Definitely how I feel,”  said Tasnim.

All of these events were run by upper-year undergraduate students. The large majority chose to volunteer their first weeks of university to help guide their younger classmates. To prepare these upper-year students for their roles, they had mandatory training and this year, training was marginally different as they had to factor in COVID-19.

“We had a COVD-19 awareness training that was done via Avenue to Learn. We also had an in-person training that also went over COVID guidelines and all the social distancing rules. I found that they were relatively efficient because during the event all the guidelines were enforced,” said Angelina Zhang, a second-year science representative

Despite being older than the first-years, many were second-years, students who had also been new to the physical campus. Zhang shared how her online experience impacted her role as a Sciclone.

“As a second-year representative, during Welcome Week 2021, while not having any in-person events for my first year I feel really rewarded doing this. Because I am helping the first years this year to have a better Welcome Week experience than I did last year,” said Zhang.

Different faculties had a wide variety of events. When speaking with an arts and science representative, they talked about how they adapted to Welcome Week amid COVID-19.

“In terms of the planning specifically, all the faculties got together once a week for two hours with other administrative people throughout the whole summer to go through training, plan the events and get the student input side of things. For us specifically, it was two to three hours every week and we worked together to bounce ideas off each other,” said Nicole Rob, co-planner for arts & science Welcome Week events.

Rob proceeded to explain how COVID-19 guidelines affected each faculty differently.

“Every faculty is different because we have different numbers of students. For example, Arts & Science, as well as [the] Indigenous Studies Program, are the two faculties that have the least amount of students.

[The arts & sciences Program] has an incoming cohort this year of 68 students. Whereas there are faculties like Science that have 1,700 coming in this year. So what we can do and what type of events we did plan looks a little different for each faculty because of those numbers,” said Rob.

First-year students were allowed the opportunity to reside in the residence buildings found all over campus. This allowed for events that pertained to helping them meet and bond with their roommates.

“I live in [residence]. I do think it helped improve my Welcome Week experience mostly because there were a lot of [residence-specific] Welcome Week events. In those groupings, I got to meet people who also lived in my building or surrounding buildings, which meant that there were more people that I would get to see often, and would already know their names,” said Tasnim.

As one of the many planners of this week-long event, Rob shared what her favourite part of Welcome Week was.

“I think just seeing all of it come together was really cool. With COVID right now everything is fairly uncertain and it is hard to even envision an in-person event at this point because it has been so long since we’ve seen big gatherings of people. It was nice to be able to give the first-years that experience, as someone who had a fully online Welcome Week. As a second-year it was cool to see the first-years be able to enjoy a bit of the in-person experience,” she said.

Overall, Welcome Week was one that was truly historic. Despite the stresses and inconveniences brought about by COVID-19, Welcome Week this year was a huge success and an appreciated welcome for the incoming class. 

C/O Rosie Merante

The Silhouette: Please introduce yourself.

Rosie Merante: I'm Rosie Merante. I'm doing nursing at McMaster [University] and it's just the basic Bachelor of Science for your RN [Registered Nurse certificate]. I've had placement every semester, except for one that got pushed to the summer because of [the COVID-19 pandemic]. But I've been in placement for the full three years. . . First year I was in long-term care, second year I was at Joseph Brant [Hospital] in Burlington and I was in the orthopedic surgical unit. Then I had Idlewyld Manor for long-term care. I was in the secure unit there, so it was kind of the [more agitated patients] with dementia or Alzheimer's. Now I'm [in] mental health and forensics.

What do you do [in that placement]?

I just started last week . . .but I got a really good grasp because I was there for 14 hours. Those are the shifts once a week. It's not as much physical head to toe assessment that I would have [done] last year because it's more focused on mental health and these patients have been there for a long time, years even. . .But the majority of it is vitals, doing rounds. It's high security. We have to watch them since they're all coming right from the court system and they weren't deemed fit to stand trial due to their mental illness. It's mostly just that and then most of the assessments we do are mental status examinations and things along [those lines]. We're making sure that they're not going to be a danger to themselves or others and that they're taking their meds and everything's okay.

Do you know how it would have been different if it weren't for COVID-19?

I think now that the regulations are lifting, I'm already noticing some differences from my past placements. We no longer have to wear face shields or get tested every other shift. One thing that I noticed is relationships with people. Obviously, with the pandemic, people are still always going to be paranoid about getting close together and having visitors. So the visiting policy is way restricted right now. They allow one visitor per day for each patient but it's still a big difference from what it was before. I think that's such an issue, especially for mental health. I feel they should lessen the restrictions or increase the amount of visitors allowed because these people are already going through so much, and even if a lot of them don't have family or friends, the ones that do and can receive that support. I feel it would be as beneficial as medical treatment if they could actually see people they love and care about. A lot of them are depressed too because they can't really go out as much and do things that they used to. And they're confined [and] they get privileges to go out, to go around the hospital, to go outside to do things if they're on good behaviour. There's obviously a lot of precautions we have to take but they're allowed to leave. And now, with [COVID-19], that's reduced a lot. A lot of them just end up at the front desk and they're like "Do I have my privileges? Yeah? Look, I want to leave. I'm so bored." That's also kind of what I noticed. At least in the mental health aspect, I think the biggest impact is on the visitor policy . . .At the long-term care homes, I was at three of them, I noticed a big shift with [COVID-19] because of the visitors, privileges to go outside, and for even people from outside to come in and do activities with them, as well as just the residents being close around each other, it's not as good as it used to be. There's a lot less socializing and togetherness, there's a lot more confusion because they don't necessarily understand what's going on and that actually increases some of their behavioural symptoms. They can be very agitated because they don't fully understand why they need to wear a mask, why they need to stay inside, why certain people can't come in [or] why their family stopped visiting. It's hard for them to grasp these concepts on top of the memory loss. That's also what I noticed at some long-term care placements. I'm seeing, just observationally, what seems to be a higher incidence of depression in the elderly.

Is there anything that you're really looking forward to in your current placement?

I'm really looking forward to getting to know [the patients]. The patients aren't in and out, they've been there, so knowing their stories, knowing them more personally, so I can help care for them better.

Do you have any big takeaways from your experiences in your program or your placements?

I don't know, there's so many of them. One of them is to treat the patient or think of them, not in an unprofessional way, as someone from your family or as a friend. Be empathetic. Remember that they're not just a patient. They're a person with dignity and they're your client. It could be your mother, your grandmother. You need to treat them with respect and dignity. I know that the culture of long-term care homes, at least, is very poor quality care. They [the patients] need so many more RNs and [personal support workers] so that they can be more valued and treated with more dignity and respect.

C/O Stephanie Montani

Supercrawl may look a bit different this year, but the important pieces remain the same.

Since it began in 2009, Supercrawl has become an integral part of not only Hamilton’s arts and culture community, but the city’s larger community as well. The festival showcases local talent in a range of areas from music and theatre to visual art and fashion, and also offers space to vendors and food trucks. One of Hamilton’s signature events, the multi-arts festival truly offers something for everyone, bringing together people from across the city and featuring the treasured memories and traditions of many.

“[Supercrawl] started as a small grassroots experiment on James Street North, putting local people together—artists, vendors and businesses—and seeing if we could potentially draw some more people than were at the time coming to the local area. And from there it grew,” explained Tim Potocic, the festival director, in an interview with CFMU. 

For many students, Supercrawl’s mid-September timing lends itself to being the perfect introduction to the Hamilton arts and culture community.

“[T]he timing of Supercrawl has always worked out really nicely with new students . . .  it ends up being an amazing time for new students moving in and we've seen them come to the event. It's like their first weekend in Hamilton and this huge thing is going on and there's a massive circus in the middle of downtown,” said Lisa La Rocca, the festival’s vendor coordinator.

Typically, Supercrawl takes place during the second weekend of September. Planning for each weekend is a year-long affair, with the team starting to think about the next year almost immediately after the festival wraps up. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Potocic, La Rocca and their team to pivot quickly and search for new ways to continue to present and promote local artists—not only for those in the music industry, but also for those in visual arts, fashion and theatre.

We are ones to try to push through anything,” said La Rocca.

With the available funding, they launched several virtual events while keeping a close eye on the latest developments and changes to provincial regulations. They have offered livestream events, including a fashion and drag showcase, talk conferences, theatre and music concerts, and their murals have also continued to be displayed on James Street North. 

"We've been utilizing the options that are available to us and have shifted to livestreams when we couldn't do shows in-person, and when we could do in-person, we're doing socially distanced hybrid performances with a livestream component—it's been challenging with lots of cancellations, rebookings and attempts at execution, but we're still going strong!” explained Potocic in a statement.

When small outdoor gatherings were finally possible in Sept. 2020, Supercrawl launched its Skytop Live Concert Series with a cap of 100 physically distanced attendees. Visitors were provided a face mask and screened for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure upon entry to the venue. La Rocca noted all the protocols worked well and the events ran smoothly.

“I’m really proud of how [the Skytop Live Concert Series] was managed and done. I think that people that came felt safe and felt like it was appropriately managed for the situation we were in. The bands felt great to have a performance opportunity in front of an audience,” said La Rocca.

The organizers of Supercrawl have also opened a venue of their own, Bridgeworks, on Caroline and Barton Street, to continue hosting small live concerts. Their latest free live concert series kicked off this year’s Supercrawl and lasted from Aug. 20 to Sept. 26. It ran both in-person, for up to 50 attendees at Bridgeworks, and as a livestream online. The 50 live audience members were chosen through a lottery from a list of those who had signed up to see the show. 

So far, the reception to the Bridgeworks concert series has been filled with excitement and positivity. The artists were also overjoyed to see the live reactions of audience members. To cater to everyone’s comfort levels, Supercrawl will continue to offer opportunities for both on-site and online viewing of the events, public health guidelines permitting.

“We're going to continue also offering live streams, even when we can have more audience, to make sure that everybody who wants to see it, with their different comfort levels, that our programming is available to them. We're going to do that for as long as we can still offer it. And we did see, offering the audience tickets [for our events these past few weeks], some people were more comfortable still watching it at home. And that's totally fine,” said La Rocca.

Part of Supercrawl’s success in maintaining its large presence during the past year can be attributed to its mature and rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic. From their online events to smaller in-person concerts, none of it would have been possible without timely decision making and attentiveness to public health guidelines. 

In a continuous effort to protect the health and safety of the artists, staff, volunteers and audience members, this year, following its announcement that as of Sept. 1, Supercrawl and Sonic Unyon mandated a proof of full COVID-19 vaccination with Government of Canada approved vaccines or an official documentation of a negative COVID-19 test conducted within 48 hours prior to entry to the event. 

The vaccination mandate came into effect after much deliberation with other arts organizations about how to best approach the coming months as restrictions continue to be lifted in Ontario. They examined other businesses' responses to changing guidelines and worked closely to develop new policies. Shortly after Supercrawl’s vaccine policy update, the Government of Ontario also released its statement on COVID-19 vaccination mandates. 

“There's been a lot of really good examples of the community, the artistic community and music community working together to figure out what's going on to make sure everybody is informed and on the same side,” explained La Rocca.

While there has been a great deal of change in the format of Supercrawl and how the festival operates over the last two years, the most important pieces have remained the same. The festival continues to showcase a range of remarkable local talent, while offering the community a number of opportunities to come together and connect, whether it’s in person or virtually.

Another core piece of the festival, and part of its particular appeal to students in the past, is the opportunities it offers for exploration and discovery and those opportunities are something the festival organizers have also strived to carry forward.

“We really just want everybody to feel like they can be involved and are involved in and can enjoy Supercrawl programming. I think that is the most important thing; we try to find something for everyone. That's in music genres, but also in representing as many different artistic genres as we can . . . we really want everybody to feel like there's something for them to see and something for them to do,” said La Rocca.

Supercrawl has become an important part of the Hamilton community and the student experience over the years and even throughout the pandemic they have continued to offer opportunities for people to come together, explore and enjoy themselves. Moving forward, the festival will continue to showcase local talent and offer these crucial community events in any way they can and in the upcoming months Supercrawl fans still have much to look forward to, including more music series, two new murals and an exciting outdoor event to be revealed in the upcoming weeks.

Adjusting to the “new normal” is a necessary step for our mental health

By: Ardena Bašić, Contributor

For more than a year, restrictions imposed on us due to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced us to change our way of life. Habitual activities like parties, work and exercise have either been moved to virtual platforms or missed altogether. The need to decline an invitation due to the health risks of socialization can be called “the COVID excuse.” While the word “excuse” may sound harsh, it better represents the completely reasonable need to decline an invitation that could be perilous to one’s health. 

However, as the pandemic slowly improves and vaccination rates rise, how much longer can this excuse last? This is an especially important inquiry considering the impact that a lack of social activity has had on our health. By no means am I advocating for risking your health, but the need to support your mental health must be balanced along with our distaste for modified gatherings, such as virtual or outdoor socializing. With laws and regulations loosening, it’s time to move away from “the COVID excuse” in order to restore our social lives, health and return to a new normal.  

For many, the pandemic took away whatever level of social life one had maintained beforehand. Regardless of whether one was more introverted or extroverted to begin with, there was now no choice but to minimize social gatherings. Although virtual meetings were always an option, they were certainly not the same and discouraged many from trying such methods. For a prolonged period, we could return to the excuses, expressing that “it’s not the same” or questioning the point of even planning such events.

These responses are certainly understandable, as anxiety and fear about the potential of getting COVID have been omnipresent for quite some time. Yet, while these exchanges were beneficial in easing some fears and flattening the curve at the beginning of the pandemic, they now may be doing more harm than good. 

Despite an emphasis on resources for mental health during initial lockdown periods, research still found that staying at home and personal distancing increased the prominence of depression, anxiety, insomnia and stress. When coupled with avoiding evolved ways of socializing, these behaviours simply compounded the general stress of the pandemic and led to severely worsened states of health for many. 

The routines we took for granted on a regular basis, when drastically pulled out of our lives without warning, had a major impact on our wellbeing. 

It is now clear that some semblance of our previous lives, even though they may have to take place in a virtual format for the time being, is necessary for our overall prosperity in life.

Although it will take time, we need to gradually make our way into the “new normal” that may share some qualities of how we lived before, while evolving to include public health measures that are keeping us safe. This will be the key to bettering our health, as well as ebbing continuous fears about the virus. For example, instead of weekend brunches, try outdoor hikes. Outside activities are recognized to be safer in minimizing the spread of the coronavirus and the fresh air and exercise is always invaluable. Moreover, trips to the theater can be replaced with software that allows one to stream movies while on a group call. Of course, this is not the same as in-person plans. 

However, the benefits to be gained from any socializing, whether it be virtual or real, trump any reservations about new methods of seeing our loved ones. 

All in all, COVID-19 has completely changed the way we live our lives. Even though it may be easier to continuously blame COVID for avoiding pre-pandemic activities, it is vital to our wellbeing that we gradually work our way towards new routines. Even though it may be difficult at first, there is comfort in knowing that everyone is in similar situations and we can work together to construct a comfortable, safe and happy post-COVID world. 

C/O Unsplash

How I found light during such a dark time

By: Ana Mamula, Contributor

I remember being on campus and getting an email saying school would be off for a week due to COVID-19. Little did I know we would still be close to the same circumstances to this day. The pandemic brought every individual’s nightmare to life; we couldn’t see our loved ones or family, people were dying or getting sick and it became difficult to even go out for essential supplies. I felt like I was living in constant fear every day. 

I expected the pandemic to have such a horrible effect on me. How could it not, given the rise in mental illnesses, the death rate, and the difficulty in providing for your family? Don't get me wrong, I was scared. I was and still am so terrified of seeing the world shift overnight to a new normal that we were automatically expected to adjust to. My heart continues to go out to anyone or anyone’s family who has lost their life to this virus. 

Sometime in the months I spent at home, my mindset shifted. I wanted to create some light from all the darkness that surrounded us. As someone who enjoyed my own company, I also felt that getting accustomed to the shift in socialization wasn’t as difficult for me. 

During my days at home, I was forced to really sit with myself. I started delving into habits I didn’t previously have time for or that I had pushed aside. I began truly taking the time to take care of myself and my wellbeing by working out, journaling, doing yoga, going on walks and cooking. The pandemic even helped a few people with mental illnesses. In fact, an article by The Washington Post explains that the many stressors of life pre-COVID immensely affected one’s mental wellbeing.

When those stressors were largely removed, even in the form of losing a job surprisingly, some individuals felt relief.

Similarly, I was forced to sit with my thoughts, something I rarely had time for prior to the pandemic. I had the time to reflect on myself, my life and take stock of everything I was proud of. I started looking ahead and rethinking my goals for myself, even taking the time to create a mood board. Not only did I reflect on the present, I had time to think about what I wanted to change in my life plan.  

Although this may seem all positive, of course, the pandemic was still immensely heavy and hard. I still had difficult days and I hoped for things to go back to normal again.

At the same time, I found so much peace within myself and grew so much as an individual that it all became a little bit lighter.

All of the activities the pandemic left us with were self-love activities and I feel as though for myself as well as for others, it made us grow in a way we never knew we needed.

Additionally, an article by National Alliance on Mental Illness found that due to the lack of expectations from society during the pandemic, many people have found that they’re more at ease while having to stay at home.

While the pandemic has helped me with reconnecting with myself, my heart always will go out to those who struggled immensely. All I can hope for is that there are others like myself who have found comfort in the unique circumstances that we’ve found ourselves in.

C/O Yoohyun Park

Although many hoped for an in-person year, hybrid learning continues to have mental health impacts on students

Since March of 2020, almost all McMaster University students have been unable to attend in-person classes, access on-campus services, or engage in extracurricular activities on campus. However, this fall, for the first time in over a year, students finally have the ability to return to campus for some in-person activities. 

“[McMaster is] focusing our planning on providing safe and meaningful in-person experiences for you this fall,” said a fall 2021 update for students published on April 30. 

Avery Kemble, a second-year student at McMaster, expressed an appreciation for the reopening of campus, citing the mental health benefits of learning around others and being able to access communal study spaces. 

“I think the vast majority of students want to be on campus. It is so isolating to be by yourself, doing school in your room for twelve hours a day. Being able to go on campus is so helpful for me, and I’m way more productive in a library than I am on my own,” said Kemble. 

For Camille Lisser, a first-year student, this hybrid learning environment is her first experience learning at McMaster. Lisser explained that even though she only has one tutorial in person this semester, being in residence and having access to spaces on campus allows her to learn with other people. 

“My roommate is also in [Arts & Science], so we’ve been trying to join a lot of the online [classes] together, and that’s been really helpful because one thing that I’ve really missed was being able to [attend class] sitting next to someone,” said Lisser. 

Lisser and Kemble both noted that along with the mental health benefits of learning alongside other students, there are also mental health benefits associated with being around other students in a social context too. 

Despite the mental health benefits of the return to campus, there are also mental health challenges associated with the return to in-person learning. 

After a year of online learning, returning to campus has created challenges such as COVID-19-related anxiety, stress associated with a change in routine and increased social exhaustion. 

“During Welcome Week, I was super tired, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so tired. What I think now is that it’s because there [were so many social events], and it was coming from a very non-social [time period] to a very social [time period],” explained Lisser. 

Kemble pointed out that, for second-year students specifically, another significant mental health challenge is the lack of social connection between students because they spent their first year online. 

“A lot of us still don’t know anybody in our program,” said Kemble. 

According to Kemble, McMaster’s second-year welcome events were seen as an attempt to combat this mental health challenge. However, due to the low registration capacity for those events, many second-year students were not able to access them. 

C/O Yoohyun Park

Turns out, we’re not all in this together

By: Hadeeqa Aziz, Contributor

cw: mentions of Islamophobia, racism, and violence against minority groups  

From our Wi-Fi routers working overtime to keep up with multiple Microsoft Teams calls running, to accidentally disclosing our not-so-pleasant thoughts about a class over unmuted microphones. The pandemic has definitely proven to be a difficult transition. With that, most of us have been striving to transform our new-found schedules into well-oiled machines over the past year and a half. 

The pandemic has been hard on everyone and adjusting to the “new normal” has embedded itself in our conversations as a catch-phrase of sorts. The transition has especially proved difficult for university students, who now have to navigate through remote learning in addition to managing their regular course loads. 

Nonetheless, we’re all in this together, right? Or better yet, “we’re in the same boat,” aren’t we? This is where most are mistaken.

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that for most problems that are seemingly shared among everyone, they are highly discriminatory in how they choose their victims and to what extent.

The issues faced by students during online learning are no exception.

Although most students have continued their studies from the comfort of their at-home learning environments, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all of them. An article by The Harvard Gazette noted that online-learning has been particularly challenging for first-generation, low-income students, especially those of colour. In addition to fighting against long term battles of inequality, these individuals find themselves more vulnerable to psychological issues as well. 

The factors contributing to increased mental health concerns for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour students and those belonging to marginalized communities are intersectional in nature.

Whether they may be financial hardships, healthcare issues, or social justice concerns, the problems that these students face build upon each other. This dramatically magnifies the otherwise “normal” problems that the pandemic has brought upon students. 

For instance, first-generation BIPOC students may be deprived of the right to receive adequate education from professional institutions to the same extent as their other tuition-paying counterparts. These students are more likely to experience financial hardships, as they may not have generational wealth to rely on. 

An online shift has meant a heavier reliance on suitable devices, stronger internet connections and a greater need for sufficient study atmospheres outside of the classroom and lecture halls. Whether we’re inclined to admit it or not, the new system favours those who are financially stable and have means to access study tools and resources that would allow them to better excel in their classes. 

Financial burdens can also result in an inability to carry out COVID safety measures to a comfortable extent. While most long-term stable-paying jobs were able to shift online during case-peak times, small businesses and most minimum-wage jobs required in-person interactions. Factors like these resulted in increased COVID-19 cases among such communities, leading to illness concerns for students residing in these areas. 

See how everything keeps building on top of the other? And there’s still more. 

A conversation about the intersectionality of it all cannot be discussed without addressing the underlying racial injustices that are the ultimate rooting problem. Let’s talk about the longstanding racial trauma that these students have to face. In the last year or so, Black students quite literally fought for their lives, Muslim students begged for safety against violence, Indigenous students fought to simply be acknowledged and various other racial and ethnic groups battled for basic privileges that were otherwise not given. 

Online classes are but a minute task when accompanied by these factors. Failure to see the evident connections that can be drawn from these issues is simply a decision to remain ignorant. 

This is not to say that stressors that affect the general student population aren’t valid–they most definitely are–but it’s important to recognize and acknowledge the intersections that come into play for others. These experiences cannot be addressed until they are understood. As classes slowly begin to shift from fully remote systems to hybrid ones, it is absolutely vital for institutions to take into account how different students experience school and come up with unique and novel ways to approach such issues. We’re not “all in this together” until that happens. 

C/O Travis Nguyen

What does conservation look like during a pandemic?

By: Kate O’Melia, Contributor

Throughout the last year and a half, Canadians have had one solace that has been relatively cheap, recentering and unifying: the great outdoors. Outdoor activity is an industry that has been thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a 2020 report from Park People, it was reported that 82% of Canadians saw parks and trails as an important part of their mental health. Hamilton is no exception. During the pandemic, the Hamilton Conservation Authority reported a large increase in volume in their conservation areas and trails.

“If anything, [the pandemic] has brought the role of the Hamilton Conservation Authority, and specifically our lands, to the forefront because for a long time during the pandemic the only thing people could do really was to get outside and go for a walk,” said the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer of the HCA, Scott Peck. 

During the pandemic, the HCA found themselves with a surplus in their budget following the popularity of conservation areas. They’re now able to put that surplus towards the Saltfleet Wetland construction and other upcoming projects.

The Saltfleet Conservation Area Project is part of an ongoing effort to improve the Hamilton Watershed’s Report Card grades, which ranked poorly in forestry for some of Hamilton in a 2018 report compiled by the HCA. 

Joel Konik, who is in charge of grants and volunteer opportunities at the HCA, commented on the Saltfleet Wetland Project.

“So right now, we're trying to buy [the land] up so that we can save it and create a wetland and then store water up there so that when it rains, it doesn't like you know, flash flood the lower part of Stoney Creek which is heavily urbanized,” said Konik.

Konik says the pandemic has also changed what volunteering looks like at the HCA.

“We do an annual cleanup along the Rail Trail. We have planting teams that would schedule different events in our different parks. Those would happen like throughout the year, primarily in the spring and fall. Because of COVID, everything had to be put on hold,” said Konik.

Some of the events that had to be canceled were the invasive species removal and group trail cleanups, as well as cultural events such as the Christie Vintage and Antique Show and Christmas shows at both the Pioneer Village and Westfield Heritage Village.

Since they couldn’t meet up in person, Konik said volunteers were encouraged to take the initiative to do independent cleanup along trails while hiking.

“[I]nstead of doing [cleanup] as a group, people wanted to walk the trail and they're like, I'm walking anyway, maybe I can clean up some litter on the way,” Konik explained.

Over the course of the 2021 spring and summer seasons, 16 volunteers collected 77 bags worth of garbage from trails around Hamilton. Konik said there are approximately 300 volunteers with the HCA, with around 30 McMaster University students involved.  Following the pandemic, spots for volunteer events have been filling up quickly as people are ready to get back to volunteering and engaging with their community.

Konik added that students can also help do cleanup on their own. 

“Right now, the easiest thing to do is, if [students] wanted to do the litter cleanup, they can do that on their own at any time. And some of the areas that are in constant demand are the Rail Trail. So behind University Plaza . . .  it’s a high use area, a lot of litter collects there,” said Konik.

Students can access directions for locating the Brantford to Hamilton Rail Trail at: https://www.grandriver.ca/en/outdoor-recreation/Brantford-to-Hamilton-Rail-Trail.aspx.   Another easy access point for a nature trail near campus is Chegwin Trail, found on the right side of the Brandon Hall residence building. For a longer hike, check out Sassafras Point Lookout found on the Ravine Road Trail leading out of campus beside McMaster’s Alpine Tower. Students who are off-campus and are interested in conservation areas can head to https://conservationhamilton.ca/ for more trails.

Travis Nguyen/Photo Editor

MSU Service directors talk about their plans for the upcoming hybrid year

While the pandemic certainly took its toll on student life, a group of dedicated student leaders have been working tirelessly to maintain essential mental and physical health support services. There are many services that aim to create a safe(r) space on campus for marginalized communities. The McMaster Students Union has five such student services: the Women and Gender Equity Network, the Student Health Education Center, Maccess, Diversity Services and the Pride Community Center

SHEC is a service for any McMaster University student looking for health-related support, childcare resources and breast-feeding spaces. They also offer free health items such as condoms, pregnancy tests and other external health resources. 

“As MSU SHEC, we are a completely peer-run health advocacy, information and resource connection service. We operate under a broad definition of health, recognizing that wellbeing looks and feels different to each person. We provide free health supplies and educational materials and are dedicated to promoting our four strategic priorities: sexual and reproductive health, empowered bodies, substance use and mental wellbeing,” explained Anika Anand, the director of SHEC. 

Similarly, WGEN offers peer-support services, but these are catered towards survivors of gendered violence and promoting gender equity. 

“WGEN is a community-building and peer-support service run by and for women, trans and non-binary folks, as well as all survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. We focus on creating community and non-judgmental spaces among these folks through our safe(r) space, multi-event campaign weeks and peer groups. A big part of our mandate includes supporting folks through peer-support and free resources,” said Neha Shah, the director of WGEN. 

Maccess, a service dedicated to disabled students on campus, on the other hand, is reorienting its disability activism strategy to not only raise awareness for disabilities on campus, but to actively advocate that disabled students on campus are invaluable to McMaster. 

Maccess, a service dedicated to disabled students on campus, on the other hand, is reorienting its disability activism strategy to not only raise awareness for disabilities on campus, but to actively advocate that disabled students on campus are invaluable to McMaster.

“We are a peer-support, community-building and activism organization, run both and by disabled students. We use the term "disability" to include folks who identify as having a disability, mental health concerns, neurodivergence, chronic health conditions and addiction. Our priority this year is to move away from just the recognition that disabled folks exist on campus, to where we recognize disabled folks are valuable on campus,” explained Emunah Woolf, the director of Maccess. 

Diversity Services is extending the services it traditionally offers and has plans on adopting the long-established peer-support system used in the past by WGEN, SHEC and PCC to further extend its avenues to provide support. 

“Diversity Services works on celebration, advocacy and generally uniting all folks across campus that identify as religious, cultural and other minorities. We are joining Maccess, PCC, WGEN and SHEC in their practices with the pilot of our new peer-support services. These are taking place as community circles that are closed spaces for people to come in and find people with similar intersections of identity as themselves,” explained Sofia Palma Florido, the director of Diversity Services. 

Amidst the uncertainties of an entirely online 2020-2021 academic year and a hybrid 2021-2022 year, these MSU services have been compelled to adapt to these circumstances. They have had to drastically alter how they reach and provide their services to students. Across the services, the directors found offering services with the same engagement, quality and reach to be some of the most pressing difficulties of an online environment. 

“In our workshops we would commonly have events that promote learning and expanding students’ horizons. When we moved to an online setting, everyone involved, be it volunteers, executives or guests at our events, were already so affected by Zoom exhaustion that it was very difficult to execute everything to its full potential," said Palma Florido.

Nonetheless, Palma Florido has strategies to appeal to first and second-year students to get involved with Diversity Services. She hopes that these strategies will engage students who have not had the opportunity to physically or extensively interact with Diversity Services and the other MSU services. 

“Particularly targeting first and second-year students, my goal is to create and facilitate spaces for these new students who have never been on campus to find community. So, allowing for spaces where people can create community with people that have similar lived experiences is something I cherish for myself, and I really want to make that happen for new and returning students,” said Palma Florido.

Services like SHEC have also experienced a shift in their culture and dynamics operating online. 

“We operate using a safe(r) space protocol which is creating that supportive, non-judgmental environment. This aspect has been tough to create digitally, so it did involve a lot of training on digital responsibility for our volunteers and execs to facilitate safe(r) space online,” said Anand.

Anand remains optimistic however, finding brighter sides to the constraints of an online environment and even embracing some of the pros it has to offer. 

“Although operating virtually has placed additional barriers on access and visibility, it has also provided an additional layer of anonymity for service users trying to access our space and peer-support. Service users may feel more comfortable accessing services since they are not seen walking in and out of space,” explained Anand.

For a service like Maccess however, an online environment has allowed it to open itself up to more students, namely disabled students, who were unable to access the service in person. 

“We tried to shift our metric of success for events by focusing on quality over quantity. So, if we have a Zoom event that three or four folks got out to and we had a great conversation and we were able to offer them support and community, we consider that a success. In some ways moving online did allow us to have more accessibility, for example an issue we had in the past is that folks’ disabilities would prevent them from coming to the Maccess space on campus,” said Woolfe.

Woolfe also draws attention to the opportunities a newly online community brought to disabled students on campus.

“Previously we were not able to create Discords as an online community created a lot of liability issues, but to have a space where disabled and immunocompromised folks could meet one another from their room or hospitals was a really positive thing we could do. It allowed us to provide captions, extended hours and other accessibility needs,” explained Woolfe. 

Shah is viewing the online Fall term of WGEN as an opportunity for expanding WGEN’s services to meet intersectional and survivor communities’ needs online now, and to plan for a gradual opening to in-person activities. 

“This year, we are planning on providing similar services that we did last year, but hopefully with more options to access these both online and in person.  Julia, the assistant director and I have also planned to increase our focus on two key areas of our mandate: survivors and ease of access. We hope to increase the amount of programming we provide to survivors, especially with a focus on intersectionality — so providing closed spaces within our identity-specific events,” explained Shah.

Like the approaches taken by SHEC and Maccess, Shah is also mindful of student accessibility needs, and has ideas to make the WGEN space even more inclusive to student accessibility needs. 

“We are working to address how it can be really intimidating to enter our safe(r) space, that there are many misconceptions about peer-support, and that there are also some concerns about accessibility about our physical space. We hope to work with other services to address these concerns,” explained Shah.

McMaster students are strongly encouraged to seek out support from MSU services if needed.

McMaster students are strongly encouraged to seek out support from MSU services if needed.

C/O Paramita Bhattacharyya

The Silhouette: Please introduce yourself.

Paramita Bhattacharyya: My name is Paramita Bhattacharyya. I am currently doing my PhD in the department of engineering physics, where my specialization is in photovoltaics. I also did my master's here in the same department, so I have been with McMaster [University] for around three years now. I'm an international student, so I did my undergrad studies back in India.

What inspired you to pursue a PhD?

When I was doing my undergrad, it was by chance, or by luck that I got to know about an alumnus of my department who was working with photovoltaics. My dad is in a non-renewable energy sector, so he's associated with oil and . . . when I was growing up, I was always surrounded by concepts of renewables and non-renewables. When I got the chance in my undergrad to work on photovoltaics a little bit, I took that opportunity and I was fascinated by the research that I did. I came to McMaster for my masters because I wanted to specifically work on photovoltaics and I wanted to work with my supervisor [Rafael] Kleiman. Later, I loved my research so much that I was like, "No, I really want to do a PhD because I want to join the industry as a research scientist."

Could you elaborate on your research?

We are integrating solar cells [onto] the body of an electric car. Basically, we are not putting on panels, but we are making the body with steel and a [copper indium gallium selenide solar cell]. Particularly, my focus is that all the solar cells look pretty dull, like a blue or black colour. A market survey was done and it was found that no one really likes to have those dull coloured cars, and people definitely don't like to have a car which looks exactly the same as their neighbour’s. So, my research comes into the picture, because I am trying to make these dull, boring cells colourful by working with optical filters . . . I want to have solar cells that look colourful; that's the first part. The second is, we want to properly integrate those solar cells with the body of the car. Then we would love to see how much energy we are getting in different provinces in Canada and the States. We have to do a detailed study about how much energy the cells will be supporting for the battery and a lot of stuff. This is very new research, so it's in the very early stages. There are lots and lots of things to do, but we are keeping our goals pretty short right now, pretty small. Let's first know how to walk before we run.

Do you have a general idea of when we might be able to start seeing solar panel integrated cars?

I won't say many decades in the future, because the company called General Motors is working with us so it's already an industry collaboration. I expect to see the first prototype in four years. That means we will be able to make at least one car like that. After that, it takes a lot of time to scale down the existing manufacturing process that they already have right now and to integrate the new things that we will be recommending. So maybe in 10 to 15 years, we will be able to see those cars on the road, but again, I'm being extremely optimistic.

What has been your favourite part of your research?

Just the thrill of not knowing what I'm doing every day. It's very frustrating but it's very exciting. I love this adrenaline rush. I don't know whether what I am planning will actually work or not, so it can happen that three years down the line, whatever I was thinking is not working at all. There is always that risk. But, if we succeed, then we will also get the fun of doing something that no one has done before. It's that adrenaline rush, that uncertainty of life, because you just don't know what's going to happen. You are just trying to find something that you just don't know how it should look like, or what it is going to be — you're just trying to find something new.

Have you learned any personal lessons as a result of your research?

Yes, a lot. I have learned how to be more patient. I have learned how to not lose hope when things go bad because it's going to go bad all the time. Because the day you get your answer is the last day of your research. So, before that, every day may be a disappointment because you just don't know what's happening.

Do you have any other comments?

I would just tell people to be hopeful in this time. We are coming back, we will come back. So just keep working. Keep going. If you feel like you really don't know what you're doing in life, that's completely okay. The sun always rises after the darkest part of the night. It really doesn't matter what you do, you could do research, you join the industry, or you do something amazingly creative. Just do what you feel like doing, otherwise, you might be exhausted pretty easily so just do what you want to do.

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