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Reflections on College in a Time of Pandemic

UC Santa Cruz’s Science Hill, where the science departments and labs are clustered to promote coordination and collaboration in teaching and research. “An open plaza at Science Hill, located between Thimann Labs (left) and Thimann Lecture Hall (right). Sinsheimer Labs is visible in the distance.” Image by Ponderosapine210 at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0 Int'l.

To say that this year has been different than ever before would be an understatement. With many college classes almost entirely online, the fall semester has been an exercise in flexibility and determination. Most colleges first moved online in March, but this fall term has been the first to take place entirely during the pandemic. With the semester coming to a close, I spent Thanksgiving break talking to three college students who are home for the holidays about their experiences this fall.

Online classes vs. in-person instruction

Ellie, a former Capstone intern, is currently in her first year at Yale. For the fall semester, she lived in her dorm in New Haven while taking all of her classes online. “I did end up spending a lot more time in my room than I think a normal college experience would be,” she said when I spoke to her last week. “One thing that I think has been challenging for everyone since the beginning of the pandemic has just been all of the screen time... Luckily, some of my classes and professors were pretty good about filming lectures and incorporating breaks into the class period… I still had a really great experience with my classes.”

Sean, a sophomore at UCLA, got to experience most of his first year of college on campus before the pandemic hit. Although he had the opportunity to live in his dorm this fall, he chose to stay home with his family and take his classes online from his house.

“One of the challenges is that it’s harder to cooperate with others in my classes… Now, if I’m struggling with a concept, you don’t always have the chance to ask someone. There are TAs, which can help, but you don’t always have the chance to talk to the professor directly this year, especially since there could be three hundred people in a class. So, finding other people in the class to make Zoom study groups with and whatnot really helped.”

Sean and his classmates have been finding other ways to adapt to the new mode of online instruction. “Without [study groups],” he added, “people have been having group chats over text. The only unfortunate thing about that is that it’s normally one chat for the entire class, which is great because people can ask whatever questions they want and get responses, but it does still lack that [personal component].”

For Yale and UCLA students living off campus, the issue of different time zones presented an additional challenge. In Sean’s experience, “The main solution [professors] have, since they know time zones can be iffy, is that they’ll open up a test for a twenty-four hour period, so you have the full twenty-four hours to start the quiz, which is nice for those people who are in different time zones and who might be asleep when the test or quiz would normally start.”

Caltech's Throop Memorial Pond at night. at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

Extracurriculars and social life

Clubs and other extracurricular activities at both Yale and UCLA were conducted primarily via Zoom. Ellie chose not to participate in many clubs this semester so she could focus on her classes and on getting acclimated to college life. “I had to focus less of my time on extracurriculars this semester because... you just can’t get to know people in the way that you would in a physical classroom.”

Although Sean has remained involved with some of the groups he took part in last year, he hasn’t actively sought out new clubs to join. “I’ve been more distant from all of that just because [participating] was easier for me when I was at college. Now, because all the clubs are after when the normal school hours end, it’s pretty late.” When I asked how easy it was for him to manage and engage in extracurriculars while living at home, Sean said that “it’s a struggle, but it’s possible.”

Because he’s been living at home for the last few months, Sean has been keeping up with his school friends largely through texting. Ellie, who has been living on campus, has had more experiences connecting with people in person. “Most, if not all, of my friends I made outside of class, actually, mostly because I quarantined for two weeks,” she explained, “and for part of that quarantine, we were allowed to sit with each other outside.”

Yale also provided a lot of opportunities for first-years who were living on campus to bond. “For some of my classes, we would meet on the weekends in small study groups outside... and I felt like I got to know the class that I did that with a lot better than some of my other classes.” The different residence halls also coordinated socially-distant activities for the students living there. Overall, Ellie said, “I was very lucky that I had a lot of ways to get to know people outside of class.”

Staying motivated

Carver is in his first year at Stevens Institute of Technology. Like Ellie, he lived on campus for his first semester of college and, aside from two lab classes, Carver’s courses were also taught online. He credits physically being there on campus with helping him make friends. Even with COVID precautions and social distancing, Carver found that his fellow students “made it so much easier” to focus on schoolwork. “Being able to work on homework with [my friends] and study with them” helped him pay attention, he said, especially since he considers himself to be “a very hands-on learner.” He also attributes his success this semester to online resources, the slower pace of college compared to high school, and “very approachable” professors and TAs. He feels that being at a smaller, more personable, school was beneficial to him this past semester.

Besides the challenges of adapting to online learning, Carver believes there were some positive sides to having a virtual semester. “I really liked being able to turn all my assignments in online because our world is becoming more and more paperless.” He thinks he’s going to miss the laid-back atmosphere of online classes when colleges eventually return to a more traditional model.

“I hope they keep the option of Zoom classes and that we’re still able to do some hybrid learning. I feel that it can still be beneficial, because, with Zoom learning, the professors can record their lecture. If we missed the class entirely because of a conflict, we can just rewatch the entire class later that day to see what we missed.”

Everyone has been facing unique challenges this year, and not all students’ college experiences have been ideal. But keeping track of the new ways students and their professors have found to stay engaged over the last few months can be motivational—and maybe some of these changes will carry over into the college experience even after the pandemic fades from public life.

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