It’s Week 6 of my third semester at Algonquin College. I’ve been on campus since 9:16 a.m. when I stumbled in late to my first class without having a coffee, eating breakfast or taking my meds.
A carnival-like atmosphere has created a consensus that returning to in-person learning warrants a celebration, no matter how introverted you are or how much you enjoy online learning. But I try to make myself invisible as I pass through the crowded hallways, dodging chaotic swarms of laughing 18-year-olds with my head down, actively avoiding eye contact or interaction. Amplified sounds of the hustle and bustle slap down on me from every direction.
I miss when school was a thing I did rather than a place I had to go. I loved my first semester last fall, which was entirely online. Second semester followed a hybrid model, and that was even better. I showed up on time, connected with my teachers and rarely missed class. I wanted to be there.
It’s almost the end of my long day at school and I can barely feel my own feet on the ground when the teacher of my afternoon class asks me a question I cannot answer. I have no idea what we’re even talking about because she’s been on mute in my brain for the last hour. I’ve tuned it all out as a way to cope.
Before my classmates have even closed their laptops, I am gone, rushing home so I can restart this messy attempt at a Wednesday. And when I finally return to my car after seven hours without silence or personal space, there’s another parking ticket — my third this term — flapping under one of the windshield wipers.
It took six weeks for me to admit this but being back on campus full time is not working for all of us. While many of my peers in the crowded hallways or endlessly long Starbucks lines are travelling in herds, socializing and thriving, I am just not feeling it. There are too many people. It’s all so loud and fast and all of a sudden.
Balance is supposed to be restored now that campus has kicked back into high gear, but this jarring return to “normal” is far more discombobulating than locking down ever was.
After two and a half years of the college being a ghost town with guarded entrances, this full return to campus feels like whiplash. Rushed, late, disheveled and distracted, I’m constantly disassociating and running on autopilot. I don’t remember how to regulate my ADHD in this kind of environment; it’s been too long since I’ve had to. The pandemic conditioned me to enjoy experiencing everything from a distance or through a screen. I wasn’t ready for such a harsh transition to everything being so up close and three-dimensional.
I’m not the same student at school as I was at home. On Zoom, in the quiet comfort of my own space, I could focus and hear myself think. I learned faster and participated more. I was productive and efficient with my time because I had better boundaries and spent my breaks recalibrating rather than wandering the halls in an overstimulated coma.
While many students more than a decade younger than me are undoubtedly relieved to return to an alive campus, I believe virtual and hybrid learning benefited differently wired brains like mine.
The delivery of college curriculum models proved to be malleable when students and teachers were abruptly forced online in March 2020. We adapted because we had to, and this resulted in the expansion of our virtual skillsets. It seems counterproductive to return to 2019 mode after all that’s changed. Many workplaces have embraced the energy-efficient hybrid option, so why can’t more programs at the college strike a balance?
I am tired of running on fumes and know I’d be able to absorb more of the learning material if classes that didn’t need to be in person happened online.
As one of my classmates said, “Hybrid is the future. And it’s here. The sooner everyone accepts it, the better.”
I love school, I do. But I don’t have the right kind of brain for this style of learning. A truly accessible workplace would acknowledge that some people learn better on campus whereas others benefit from a more insulated, quiet approach.
“Accessible means everyone with a physical, mental or learning disability is afforded the opportunity to obtain the information fully, equally and independently,” according to the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion.
As regulating my emotional well-being becomes increasingly difficult on campus, it would be nice to know the only way out of a bad brain day wasn’t to skip school.
In order for my brain to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions and enjoy the same services in an equally effective and integrated manner, I need better access to a hybrid option.