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Soraya Aghbali’s final year of her education degree didn’t go quite as planned. The soon-to-be graduate of Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., had expected a year that involved two placements with elementary-school classes, wrapping up her coursework on campus and a week-long school trip to Germany, where she planned to volunteer in the community and use her teaching skills.

Instead, she finished her classes online from her family’s home in Mississauga, Ont., and taught Grade 5 special-education students wearing two masks and a visor. Her final placement, in a Peel District School Board Grade 2 class, started in person but quickly shifted to remote teaching in April as Ontario’s third wave worsened.

Ms. Aghbali, who will be qualified to teach primary- and junior-grade students, said that while some of her professors adapted their classes well to the online format, with weekly sessions that helped students build on what they were learning, others relied entirely on asynchronous learning and only provided examples of the work students were supposed to do, rather than actually teaching it.

“I got taught how to write a unit plan from an example of a unit plan,” she said. “As much as it was a good template, I didn’t really learn much from it and made up my own way with teachers that I’ve worked with.”

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Despite this, she said her teaching placements gave her valuable experience and mentorship that makes her feel prepared to lead her own classroom when life returns to normal.

“The way they’ve dropped us into the pool of cold water has gotten us ready – in a very stressful way, but it did,” she said. “I do feel they did their best in getting us opportunities, especially being able to teach and putting it into practice – that’s half the battle. Being able to sit down with my mentor and write out the work and assessments and all these things you have to do as a teacher, it’s a learning experience.”

Across the country, Canadian postsecondary students are preparing to graduate after a year of fully or mostly remote learning. The learning experience has been far from normal, and socializing and professional networking opportunities have been limited, but students say they feel optimistic about joining the workforce.

“I personally tried my best to leverage this year and see how much I could grow,” said Lee Adam, a commerce student at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, who’s graduating in the spring. “A lot of self-led learners who enjoy working alone on their own pace in a flexible format really thrived in that environment.”

Ms. Adam, who has lined up a full-time job in her field, missed the “sense of community and connection” with her school and peers and the virtual format couldn’t replicate her normally well-rounded university experience of spending time with friends, working part-time and co-running the Queen’s Dance Club. But she said the past school year was her best academically because she enjoyed the freedom of the remote format.

Chance Sabouri, a commerce student at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business, also felt she was well prepared for the working world. “I think 100 per cent I’ve learned as much as I could [online] – if it was in person, it would have been a similar amount.”

She had the benefit of comparison: While almost all of her courses were online last year, she also had the opportunity to take one in-person course. The roughly 40-person class sat in a 400-person lecture hall on campus, with students masked and spaced out at least 10 feet apart. Their professor assigned them group projects, which they could work on over Zoom, or in-person if they felt comfortable doing so.

“I felt like I was in a normal class because there was constant participation – [we were] putting our hands up, I was looking at people, [the professor] had us doing group assignments together,” she said. “I’ve had great classes online as well.”

However, Ms. Sabouri said she felt she didn’t have access to the same resources she would have had in a regular year, such as access to DeGroote’s state-of-the-art trading-floor facility.

“Sometimes the virtual format is not the same,” she said. “I’m not gaining anything if you don’t have a person sitting down and teaching me it.”

Outside of the classroom, students’ final year of university or college often provides professional networking opportunities through career fairs, internships, co-ops and other conferences and events. But the pandemic threw a wrench into those plans, forcing students to find creative new ways to make connections.

Ms. Adam said she reached out to people in her field through LinkedIn and introductory e-mails, as well as drawing on her school’s connections with corporate partners.

“I would like to say social media DMs and cold e-mails can replace in-person, [but] unfortunately nothing beats the authenticity of the connection you make face-to-face,” she said. “[But] industry leaders in the job market, it’s appeared to me at least, have been open to chatting with driven, hungry students because they understand the climate.”

Ms. Sabouri, meanwhile, said she focused her attention on building connections at the company where she interned remotely last summer and has since been working part-time for during the school year. She was also more proactive about connecting with her professors, since the virtual format made them more accessible than usual.

Dominic Levesque, group president for recruitment company Randstad Canada, said that despite the bumpy year postsecondary students have faced, he feels optimistic for the class of 2021. After a year of remote learning, new grads – many of them already particularly tech-savvy from growing up with the internet – have developed new skills that will be useful when they join the workforce.

“What’s shifted in the pandemic is the whole world became virtual,” he said. “Students [learning] in the virtual world got them ready to work in the virtual world. They got more comfortable working by themselves [and] self-learning – all those capacities that were developed and enhanced during the pandemic will probably end up helping new grads in the world of work.”

That’s something Ms. Adam said she kept in mind during her final year. “Our ability … to pivot so drastically in a very integral time in our lives has shown we’re able to learn quickly and pick up skills, and I think that’s going to be seen as very valuable for employers.”

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