Students studying abroad during the outbreak of COVID-19 had a unique experience dealing with travel bans and new school regulations. My brother was studying abroad in Italy. Andrea, the youngest, was living in her dorm at NYU.
My other sister, Silvia, was working as a professor at a community college in New York City. Though we all live in separate homes in Westchester County, New York, we all share one major experience: living in the college remote learning environment since the outbreak of COVID-19.
In March 2020, the college life they had always known changed unexpectedly. My siblings and I began to study online. But, their lives changed in a more drastic way than mine. I was used to remote learning; they were not.
I was used to the sedentary home life; they were used to the agitated, turbulent, and exciting life of studying and working in populous cities. My brother had to return from the city of Rome before the semester ended. Andrea left her dorm and her freedom on March 11, when most schools closed due to the pandemic. And, my sister Silvia, stopped commuting to New York City to teach Sociology.
Six months passed, and what they had known of their lives as college students was gone. “Studying in Rome was the greatest and scariest thing of my life,” Angel said. “In Italy, things were getting worse each day. I feel lucky.” Now, Angel gets up in the morning to attend classes in his room where his desk is. “It’s easier to get more distracted when you take online classes,” he said.
Andrea completed her secondary education in Westchester County and was very excited to experience college life at NYU. “I didn’t want to leave my dorm and my school, my friends, but I had to,” she said, disappointed. The college life she dreamed of, only lasted for about seven months before she had to go back home.
Angel and Andrea are among the many college students who began studying remotely since March. “Only one of my seven closest friends will be attending classes on campus,” Andrea said. Universities in the city of New York are giving students the option to either study in person or remotely.
The NYU Office of Admission indicated that most of the school’s current college students take at least one class online. It seems clear, as we look at the people around us, that the world of remote learning has expanded.
Besides students having to adapt to their new learning environment, professors, like Silvia, are also adapting to their new work-life conditions. Many professors like her had no previous experience teaching online.
“Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to keep students engaged,” said Silvia.
She attended virtual trainings by Columbia University that focused on teaching classes online to college students. “It’s important to establish a community in an online classroom,” said Silvia. Building a community is making the class friendly where students feel free to share their thoughts.
The goal of teaching remotely while building a community is for students to feel comfortable enough to reflect on the topics discussed in class freely. “I want to make time and space for them to share their thoughts,” said Silvia determinedly. Since there is less human interaction with remote learning, it is necessary to build a virtual community to keep that sense of human connection.
The community college where Silvia teaches offers both classes in person and online; however, her department, Sociology, will be offering only remote learning. “About 83 percent of students in this community college will be studying online this semester,” said Silvia. Counselors and writing centers are seeing students online only and the library is open by appointments only.
The environment of college life before the pandemic has clearly changed. Yet, in a positive note, Silvia noticed that learning remotely brings flexibility for low-income families. She mentioned that one of her students is a new mother who sometimes asks to shut off her camera to breastfeed her baby.
If there weren’t new opportunities to learn online, there would be less flexibility for her to continue her education. Unfortunately, there are disadvantages to remote learning in low-income families too. Lacking a private space to study and WIFI connectivity are among these disadvantages.
“Some of my students have to go inside cars to find a private and quiet place to learn,” said Silvia.
Recently, Andrea went back to NYU to visit a friend. She realized how much NYU had changed since she left it in March. “There was a COVID Testing Center,” she said surprised. The noisy, vigorous Starbucks was empty.
There are no seating commodities anymore. Students are prohibited to visit another student’s dorm, and as expected, students are mandated to wear masks. She misses the late nights talking with friends, tasting the freedom of college life.
As opposed to the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, this pandemic came in a good time for education access. The US Department of Education found that 89 percent of all households in the United States have internet access.
About 6.9 million students were taking classes in the Fall semester of 2018. This fall, about 19.7 million students are attending colleges and universities nationwide. We can assume that at least 50 percent of these students are attending classes online.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change,” Biologist Charles Darwin said about his theory on the Survival of the Fittest. As college students pursue their careers online or on campus, they also adapt to be part of a safer future.
Before this time, humanity showed its great resilience to survive wars. Now, college students are fighting a battle against invisible infectious agents. This proves that this generation is tough. This generation fights disease through adaptation. It fights to prevail. It fights for existence.