Nancy is a faculty member and counsellor at Camosun, and I would be remiss if I did not also mention that she has worked here for 45 years. Over those 45 years, Nancy has filled a variety of roles. “While I’ve served mostly in direct service roles, I’ve also done some admin work in student affairs and student development and have also been chair of our department. And I’m probably the only person at Camosun who’s worked with all six presidents.” Nancy reflected that she has seen a lot of changes at Camosun and the experience of working from home and supporting students virtually during COVID was just one of many. Just as one example, “when I first came to the college, one of my first roles was to look at women’s access to the college. At that time, there might have been two women on faculty and the majority of students were male. But over the years those demographics have grown and changed tremendously.”
When I asked how she adapted to working remotely, Nancy says she was relieved. “I was getting information from my daughter [whose first degree was in microbiology and immunology] long before the decision was made to work off-campus. There were a couple of weeks where we worried about working so directly with people, when distancing physically was awkward, and also because we work in small offices that are not well ventilated, and deal with a lot of emotion. So, it felt very vulnerable.”
Once the counsellors moved to working from home, they found adapting to remote counselling challenging. Before moving to Teams, the group worked with students over the phone. “Very rarely would we have phone sessions with students prior to COVID – to get a sense of a person we felt it was better to meet with them in person. Losing that meant losing important visual information. It was awkward at first and you really had to compensate for what you couldn’t see by listening carefully, for example listening to breathing more carefully, like when you lose one sense, you compensate by developing another.” One of the most dramatic phone sessions Nancy had was when she was talking to a student who began to sound jumbled. Nancy suspected something was wrong, and it turned out the student was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Fortunately, she was able to get help and pulled through ok. Nancy mentioned that one advantage some of her colleagues noted with phone sessions was that “some students are willing to disclose more easily over the phone because they feel less vulnerable, because they’re not visible. I found that’s true often with male students – it seems to be easier for them to disclose more quickly when they can’t be seen.”
Eventually the counsellors switched from phone to video sessions. “Teams, while there were some technical glitches, was good. However, it was more work for our counselling admin people to set up Teams interviews. We have a confidentiality statement that students initial in-person but doing this online adds another level of complexity. In addition, when confidentiality needs to be broken, for example if a student wants us to communicate with an instructor, we have to get their written permission to break confidentiality which can be stressful for students to manoeuvre virtually.” However, in spite of the challenges, Nancy has found that some students prefer the virtual sessions and now students are given a choice between being seen in-person, or through Teams, or by phone. “Giving students the opportunity to make their own decision as to how they want to meet sets the relationship off to a better start.”
While student choice was one benefit of moving to online service, using Teams carried with it some challenges as well. “When we meet with students in person, they can see our environment and that we are honouring their confidentiality. However, they don’t see that when we’re working at home. I’m always very careful to say that I’m by myself, and only my aged cat is with me, that no one can overhear a conversation. For some of my colleagues who have families, ensuring that confidentiality was more of a challenge, so we did try to find places on campus where students could call in. I also think I had more conversations with people sitting in their trucks and cars, and some students would tell me that they had roommates or parents or families which made it difficult for them.”
One other challenge moving to this virtual model was losing the in-person resources of other employees at Camosun. “We were not able to accompany a student over to the ombudsperson or have an instructor walk a student over to us. That transfer of trust is best done person to person. So, we had to find new ways to do the same thing. We added more check-ins and follow-ups, but it was harder to contact people to have them available when we did not know their schedules or where they were.” Something Nancy noted as one of those little things you don’t think about it until it’s not there.
For herself, Nancy found some good things coming out of the past couple of years. “I am less reliant on paper, and I think my tech skills have increased. In addition, I think the opportunity to reflect about what we’ve lost and gained, about what’s important to us, has been one of the biggest benefits. It’s given us a chance to really look at what we value and what we want to keep and what we don’t want to keep for the future.”
All in all, while Nancy finds many benefits to working virtually with students and giving them that choice of how they want to meet with her, she told me “I think overall students prefer a traditional in-person learning environment because they miss the interaction and making new connections.” She asked me “what do you remember about what you learned in your first year of university?” After I thought about it, I said what I remember the most is being happy not to be in high school anymore. She then told me “I ask that question often of people and no one ever says something that they learned in the classroom. It’s always, I learned how to socialize, how to drink beer, how to struggle with values. There’s so much learning that happens outside of the classroom. And for students learning remotely, are they getting the same opportunities to learn who they are as a person? Post-secondary time is a really precious experience. It’s when young people are learning independence and what they learn during this time shapes them into adulthood.”
Interestingly enough, when I wondered if these past few years were the most challenging time for her in her years at Camosun, Nancy said no, the most challenging time she had at Camosun was when there was a fire in the Dawson building right before Labour Day, “and for an entire year, all of the registration people, advisors, counsellors, physical plant folks, International had to relocate and work elsewhere, and do their work in different ways (remembering that students were expected on campus right away to begin the fall semester), which became a great bonding experience.” A more challenging time, but as she said to me, good training for the similar challenges that came via COVID.
Finally, if Nancy had any advice to give someone experiencing the kind of change we all faced over the past few years, she says “embrace it and learn from it. Learn about your resilience – we’ve all learned about resilience in a way that we hadn’t experienced before. And take the time to reflect on what’s important and what isn’t. And finally, trust the capacity of human beings to do the right thing.”