Retirees' Association

Retirees Association of Queen's

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Gordon Burkom Interview

RAQ President Diane Kelly in conversation with Gordon Burkom, first year Queen's student

The view from Watts Hall: A first-year student’s perspective on living and learning in a pandemic

Gordon Burkom is an Ottawa resident with close family ties in Kingston. He applied to five universities and chose Queen’s to study sciences, not only because of its reputation but also because he felt it made more sense to be close to Ottawa and Kingston where he has family and support, given the restrictions and uncertainty surrounding Covid.

Gordon knew instinctively that, because of the Covid-related restricted learning and social environment, living in residence for the first year would be quite important. All the universities to which he applied had the same limitations on residence occupancy – only 50 percent of the rooms would be available in 2020/21. Fortunately, he was accepted into residence at Queen’s and is happily ensconced in Watts Hall where all students are in single rooms and there is very limited sharing of bathroom facilities.

Gordon says that living in residence has provided him with social connections he would never have found were he studying online at home in Ottawa or in an apartment in Kingston. He has met and become friends with many of the students on his floor.

There are, nonetheless, significant restrictions in residence on interaction and activities. They can engage only with students on one’s floor so, in effect, Gordon’s floor of 40 students is a large bubble. Masks must always be worn on the floor outside their rooms. On each floor, there is a common room but access to that room is restricted to seven students at any one time. They are permitted to have no more than three people in their own room.

Gordon said that residents are generally compliant with the rules. If the don finds someone flouting or forgetting the rules, that person is “written up” – a warning is issued first, and then more serious consequences can be imposed for repeated offenses.

And speaking of dons, we all recall how these young people are a very important resource for 18-year olds, most of whom are away from home for the first time. Gordon confirmed that, aside from the obligation to monitor and enforce Covid restrictions, the don on his floor has been very responsive and provides necessary support or makes appropriate referrals.

The university has set aside two residences for students who have been diagnosed with the virus or who are awaiting the results of test. The infections among residence students have been low and Gordon is of the opinion that the university is handling the issue very well.

So on to another part of residence life – the food. Gordon says that the traditional dining rooms may involve line ups since there is a limit on numbers and the food is hit-or-miss at those locations. The other option is to use his Trade a Meal card (TAM) which allows students to “trade in” one of their dining hall meals for a designated special at a retail location, thus giving Gordon easier access to eating locations and more interesting food choices.

How about the learning environment? Gordon says online learning is unsatisfactory. The lecture formats are not stimulating, and virtual labs are a poor substitute for the hands-on experience. More importantly, there is no opportunity to interact with the professors or TAs and it is very difficult to get help. What has proven to be a positive substitute, however, is the team learning that takes place on his residence floor. The university placed students on floors corresponding to their area of study, so all the students on Gordon’s floor are in the sciences and therefore taking many of the same courses. Everyone on the floor is prepared to help each other. Gordon may help those struggling with math while he may seek assistance with writing skills. We agreed that this method of housing first year students should continue post-Covid.

Finally, Gordon acknowledges that the municipality’s zero tolerance of house parties has been successful. The university district and other student areas of the city are very quiet.

So, although Gordon’s first year experience at Queen’s is not at all what he would have expected a year ago, he is feeling quite positive about the first few months. Things could have been much worse, he says, recognizing that living in residence has made a significant difference in his exposure to the Queen’s academic and cocurricular learning environment.