St. Michael’s College president David Sylvester says a Catholic education goes beyond the classroom. Michael Swan

‘Community is our bread and butter’

  • July 17, 2020

St. Michael’s College president and vice-chancellor David Sylvester lives and dies by the credo of Catholic education — education of the whole person in the context of a faithful learning community.

But COVID-19 and the forced move to online learning has taken some of the shine off of that at the Catholic college in the University of Toronto federation. Summer enrolment may be up 24 per cent, but the lonely and impersonal world of remote learning brought on by the pandemic struggles to live up to the Catholic ideal of education.

“It’s not just about the content,” Sylvester said. “It’s about relationships. It’s about mental health. It’s about social, psychological, intellectual growth. In some ways a place like St. Michael’s is impacted more directly (by COVID) than some large provincial or state universities, because community is our bread and butter. That’s our wheelhouse. It’s also where we get our resilience.”

Come fall there will be some students in classrooms, but only to the extent it can be done safely. Classes will be available online. The usual 600 students in residence will be down to 325, all in single rooms with no roommates.

Across the country in Catholic colleges and universities, the biggest challenge is maintaining a sense of community, said Chris Adams, chair of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities of Canada and rector of St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba.

“It is difficult to have a human, communal face with students who are in all different places,” Adams said. “The silver lining in all this is that when we do come back, we will truly appreciate the experience of being on campus. We will truly appreciate what it is to be in a classroom. We will truly appreciate what it means to be part of a congregation in our college chapel.”

A lot of that community building will come from the students themselves.

“Students want to interact with each other. They want to be on campus where interesting things are going on,” he said. “This past four months has really taught us how people really do want to have that on-campus, interacting-with-their-professors experience.”

A Statistics Canada crowdsourced study of over 100,000 postsecondary students in the last half of April found that between five and 13 per cent of students were unable to complete some or all of their courses because of the COVID shutdown. For students in arts, humanities and the social sciences — areas where Canada’s Catholic colleges excel — the self-reported incompletion rate was nine per cent.

These frustrations haven’t chased students away. Like St. Mike’s in Toronto, St. Paul’s in Winnipeg has seen a spike in summer enrolment, up 19 per cent.

Education is not getting cheaper and the job prospects for fresh graduates are not getting better, but none of that deters students or their families.

“If I can’t get a job because the economy is still in a chill situation, do I really want to sit at my parents’ place all day long watching Netflix?” Adams asked.

But it’s not just about money, said Sylvester. Going to university is also about living a fuller, richer and better life.

“I think there is a pent-up demand among young people to have that university experience,” he said.

St. Mike’s students have proven how much they want the campus experience by investing in it. Its student union has kicked in $500,000 toward a $1-million renovation of Elmsley Hall, a 1950s-era student centre on campus. The renovation will reconfigure the study and social space to make it safe for the COVID-era students.

Sylvester does worry that the classic university life is becoming a less accessible, more elite experience. Faced with high rents, transportation costs and low pay in a dwindling supply of part-time and summer jobs, university life can seem like a distant dream to many low-income students. COVID has added to all these stresses.

There again, the St. Mike’s community is doing what it can. An $80,000 emergency aid fund to help students who face financial challenges because of COVID has been largely funded out of the pockets of faculty and staff.

“We have lots of students on our campus who can’t afford to go to university, but we make it work,” Sylvester said. “The bigger question, to me, is the digital divide.” 

Sylvester has seen situations where students have had to go home to remote and Indigenous communities across Canada and complete their courses on smart phones because they don’t have access to broadband.

“That creates inequalities,” he said. “An institution that has social justice responsibilities, which I think St. Mike’s does, has to learn how to address those (issues).”

Adams is convinced Catholic colleges and universities are going to come out of COVID stronger.

“We’ve gained a more in-depth understanding of what our community is all about now that we’ve had to self-isolate,” he said.

St. Michael’s College was already half-way through a long-term planning process when COVID hit, said Sylvester.

“We were already on a renewal trajectory. So we’re not trying to get back to where we were before COVID. We want to come out stronger.” 

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