Ask any Western student how they’re doing this January and you’ll likely get the same reply: not great.

I’ve been a student at Western University for seven years, with an undergraduate, master’s and now teacher’s college under my belt, and every year, January hits me like a ton of bricks. The grey skies and cold weather can make it difficult to jump back into the stress of schoolwork.

This year is already feeling especially difficult with a completely virtual workload, a lack of friends nearby to destress with and a daily barrage of headlines about the worsening state of the world. And while we’re reminded to stay positive and hold onto hope of an improving 2021, hope alone is not enough to take the weight off our shoulders.

It’s been said by my peers time and time again: the fact that virtual university in the middle of a pandemic is attempting to match the pace and difficulty of an average school year is mind-boggling. A school that touts mental health as a priority should be doing more to compassionately handle such a collectively traumatic year. Yet, this duty seems to fall to individual professors who can choose to continue on with business as usual. 

Across faculties, students are finding a disconnect between “we care about your mental health” and the constant refrain of “engage, engage, engage” via forum posts, Zoom calls and coursework. 

However, just as I felt myself dreading my return to school on Sunday night, I received an email. The professor for my course on mental health literacy, announced that our weekly forum posts are no longer mandatory and that we will all receive 100 per cent forum participation regardless of posting, as confirmed by our dean.

This gesture means more than any words of encouragement ever could. My professor’s choice was one of empathy, encouragement and, above all,  community. Her genuine commitment to the mental health of her students is inspiring to me. If other professors at Western were willing to take the same approach and respond with empathy to our current situation, the impact would be immeasurable.

While some might argue that eliminating coursework is counterproductive or takes away from the learning process, I would argue the opposite.

Forum posts are an easy marking tool but rarely inspire deep critical responses from students. It is wishful thinking to imagine us sitting at our desks, deep in thought about our numerous required replies each week to our peers. Instead, the process is a rushed attempt at throwing together a coherent idea that will almost immediately be forgotten and takes time away from longer projects that we could be investing ourselves into more deeply.

Constant posting should not be the golden standard of education in 2021; I believe that Western should encourage its faculty to step away from this model of engagement.

A strong student community can’t appear from thin air in the age of Zoom University, but human compassion like that shown by my professor can encourage the kind of Mustang pride our administration is constantly selling us.

Students behind the screens are human and in 2021, we could all use a chance to catch our breath.

— Abbie Jaychuk, Bachelor of Education student

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