500,000 students ‘caught in the crossfire’ during Ontario college strike

For Zachary Babins, the ongoing college strike means his mental health is taking a hit.

“Those of us with anxiety and depression often cope by being busy,” said the 24-year-old.

But it’s hard to stay busy when school’s not in session.

Since Oct. 16, roughly 500,000 college students across the province have been missing classes amid the strike involving 12,000 college workers represented by the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union, and the province’s 24 colleges, which are represented by the College Employer Council.

While a contract vote is expected this week, union representatives on Tuesday said the timing of the vote “virtually guarantees” that thousands of students will lose their semesters.

“A lot of us, we really feel for the teachers and we want them to have the tools they need to succeed,” said Babins, who is studying public relations at Seneca College. “But at the same time, we feel caught in the crossfire.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many students, be it for mental health reasons, financial concerns, or the potential hiccups that could arise if a semester is condensed or extended.

‘It’s hard not to be depressed’

Samantha Sokol, 28, who is in Seneca College’s one-year public relations and corporate communications program, says her mental health is “suffering” during the strike.

“It’s hard not to be depressed or anxious when the future is so uncertain,” she said. “I wake up every day with sharp anxiety in my stomach, wondering how long it will be before I am allowed to go back to the classroom.”

Sokol questions who is fighting for students during the standoff, particularly international students on visas, and those who are supposed to be graduating this year and entering the workforce.

Others had expected to wrap up college programs this semester and transfer to universities, including many nursing students taking “bridge” programs that help make the jump from a diploma to a degree.

Whitney Allen, 23, and Samira Kassem, 22, are both in the nursing program at Centennial College, which started in September 2016 and was supposed to finish in December — at which point they would continue on to Ryerson University to complete a degree.

“If I’m paying for service, why am I not getting that service?” questioned Allen, who showed CBC Toronto an email from her school, reminding students that tuition is due by Nov. 30.

“We could be losing the semester and we won’t be able to make it to Ryerson,” said Kassem. “And that’s the goal at the end of the day: To move on with our education.”

Nancy Walton, director of the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing at Ryerson University, said “there are no anticipated effects on students applying to enter the Collaborative Nursing Program for 2018.”

Tuition refund petition has 128,000 supporters

Still, with no word on when classes will resume, some students are on edge — and many are also calling for a tuition refund.

One petition, launched before the strike, now has more than 128,000 supporters pushing for a tuition refund for each day of class missed during the strike.

“At an average tuition of $5,000 for two 13-week semesters, we are paying nearly $40/day to be in school,” reads the petition. Supporters of the #WePayToLearn petition say full-time students should be reimbursed $30 a day, and $20 a day for part-time students.

Babins, one of the supporters, hopes student unions push for that once the dust settles.

And there may be an end in sight: The Ontario Labour Relations Board scheduled the vote to run from Nov.14 to16, with results expected in the days to follow, when the strike will be nearing the end of its fifth week.

Until then, thousands of students are stuck in limbo, amid a conflict beyond their control.

“In the war between the CEC and the OPSEU, students are caught in the middle,” said Sokol. “Our education is being used as a bargaining chip.”

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