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Creating Community and Connection in the Time of COVID-19

By Arwen Low


Dawson College, the largest CEGEP in Quebec, draws students from all over Montreal Island and the surrounding regions with the promise of bringing together a wide variety of students. Large programs, like the Social Sciences, which had 3436 students in 2016, are traditionally strong in this respect. However, as teachers and coordinators throughout the school adapt to the challenges of a digital learning environment, smaller programs may have pulled ahead in allowing for the type of social experience the college promises.


When asked to identify the hardest part about going to Dawson online, 45% of respondents to a recent survey expressed a lack of connection with other students and their teachers. The survey indicates that program coordinators in smaller programs reached out to their students to plan in-person activities and events, while students in larger programs often regretted that their coordinators hadn’t. 


Enriched Sciences and Liberal Arts are examples of smaller programs. A park meet-up planned by Liberal Arts program coordinator Professor Beverly Sing and English teacher Liana Bellon was cited by multiple Liberal Arts students as one of the main ways they had been able to connect with people. Zaina Mahran, in second-year Enriched Health Sciences, wrote: “The small size of my program has had positive impacts on my online learning. Teachers also are very accommodating, especially program coordinators.” Though Enriched Sciences hasn’t met up, “the coordinators organize weekly seminars and activities that allow us to engage with each other in meaningful ways,” one first year student explained.


Students in the much larger general Health Sciences program had different experiences. One first year Health Sciences student said that while she felt comfortable asking teachers questions, she didn’t feel like there was much of a connection yet between students and teachers: “It’s difficult to develop deep teacher-student relationships because most of the time, our cameras are off. Inevitably, teachers cannot recognize students and students are sometimes unable to consistently view teachers during lectures.” The pattern emerged throughout the survey: students in smaller programs reported feeling more connected with their program teachers than students in bigger programs.


Why might these smaller programs be facilitating inter-student connection? Planning in-person events is easier in programs that boast around 40 students, which is the case for the Liberal Arts. However, they might be of even more value in programs like Social Sciences, whose students share less classes with classmates in their respective profile. Thus, they have a smaller window of opportunity to connect with like-minded people (e.g., students in the Social Sciences have on average 3 program specific classes; Liberal Arts students have 6). 


Having multiple classes in common has allowed students to become familiar with one another. Students in smaller programs reported that seeing the same faces on Zoom every day helped familiarize them with their classmates, allowed for more personal interactions, and fostered a sense of community and even belonging. Of course, student connection isn’t exclusive to smaller programs. One reassuring stat is that 80.3% of all surveyed students reported that they were in an active and helpful group chat. 


There are also takeaways for teachers and program coordinators. For example, deviating from the traditional lecture style is more important than ever: encouraging conversation between students by using breakout rooms stimulates connection and collaboration and helps with feelings of digital isolation. If program coordinators are unable to plan in-person meet ups, inspiration can be drawn from Enriched Sciences, Reflections, and North South Studies; optional get-to-know-you activities or program-related group conversations over Zoom can increase overall engagement with the class and the material. 


As we navigate these new challenges together, let’s keep in mind what encouraged us to choose Dawson in the first place: the opportunity to meet new people, the opportunities for student engagement, and our own unique programs. Though we can’t be on campus, we can still create our own memorable Cegep experience.


Note on the survey: Some data may be subject to inaccuracies due to an overrepresentation of Liberal Arts respondents. 



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