Local college students adjust to the COVID era campus
Going away to college is a modern rite of passage. Students move out of their childhood homes and into broader social and educational networks. Campuses teem with social opportunities day and night; jobs, internships, and clubs provide students outlets for extracurricular learning; dorm cafeterias and common areas offer students ways to engage with others. The world, in many ways, widens.
But like everything else in the 2020 pandemic, college life is proving to be not a time of liberation, but instead a time of restriction, as Liberty Bell High School graduates learned this fall.
For many students, summer was a waiting period, as colleges determined whether or not they would open for in-person learning. Gretta Scholz, a freshman at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, found out near the end of July that Colby’s opening plans required her to be delivered to a campus testing area on a certain day at an appointed time.
After a nose swab, Scholz was escorted to her dorm room, where she remained in quarantine for 24 hours until her test result came back negative. Thereafter, she and other Colby students reported twice weekly for COVID testing and were quarantined on campus if they tested positive.
Ava Mott, a sophomore at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, had an even more restrictive entry period. “I took an Uber from the airport straight to my apartment,” Mott said, “and then I had to quarantine in the apartment for 14 days. I had to get groceries delivered; I wasn’t even allowed to go outside.”
Mott’s twin brother, Michael, had a similar experience upon arriving at University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia, but because he lives in a house he was allowed to go out on his porch during the two-week quarantine.
While most college students have been sent home for the remainder of the calendar year to finish the academic semesters online, the Motts have remained at school, since leaving and re-entering Canada requires a 14-day quarantine. “I did that once already,” Ava Mott said. “I’m not sure I can face doing it again so soon, especially in the winter.”
All of Mott’s classes are online this fall, which was disappointing to Mott since she had planned to have a student teaching type experience, as part of the five-year elementary education program she’s enrolled in. “But teachers have so much on their plates right now,” Mott said, “that most of them just don’t have the extra time or energy to mentor an education student.”
Mott said that “it’s quite impressive how professors have adapted to teaching remotely,” but acknowledges that she still prefers in-person learning. It’s partly about motivation, and partly about learning style. “In-person lectures are just more engaging,” she said. “And having to attend classes at certain times gives more structure to the day, instead of just watching pre-recorded lectures on your own schedule.”
Larkin Lucy, a sophomore in the honors college at the University of Oregon in Eugene, agrees. “The biggest challenge that has come along with [COVID] is the lack of motivation,” she said. “Instead of having your day broken up into classes and break time, the entire week seems like one long homework assignment.”
Scholz, who had a mix of in-person, hybrid and online classes, prefers a scheduled in-person class as well. “It’s hard to watch lectures without being able to ask questions or talk to someone about them,” she said.
Bram Wathen, a senior at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, had only one online class; the rest were small enough that they met in person. “I’m definitely a hands-on learner,” said Wathen, “so being in person is more conducive to my learning.”
The widespread lack of hands-on learning will likely come at a cost. Lucy notes that “instead of looking at things under microscopes we were sorting flashcards … hands-on learning is crucial to understanding in most science courses so with all of that being moved remotely, you had to do a lot more visualizing and self-teaching. I don’t think I will remember as much from my classes as I would have if they were in person.”
Lucy adds, “I know one thing for sure: If life ever returns to normal before I graduate, I will never miss an in-class lecture again. This is a great reminder to everyone that education is a privilege and I will never take it for granted again.”
Staying at home
Ali Palm probably won’t either. Palm, a freshman at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, never actually got to “go away” to college. In late August, Stanford decided that all undergraduate learning would take place remotely, so Palm has been attending classes and doing homework in the same place she earned her high school diploma: at home.
With four online classes to juggle, Palm said “the first few weeks I felt insanely overwhelmed.” Her Intro to Chemistry course, for example, has 300 students in it. (“I didn’t even know Zoom could handle 300 participants!” Palm said.) It’s hard to get questions answered in a class that size, but Palm and other students are gradually growing more comfortable using the chat function to ask questions, which are answered in real-time by teaching assistants.
Palm also set up her older brother’s vacant bedroom as a schoolroom for herself. “So it’s really clear to me when I’m working on school and when I’m not,” she said. “The change in physical environment switches something in my brain.”
The Cold Springs Fire, which resulted in valley-wide internet interruptions in early September, proved a hindrance to Palm’s class attendance as well. “I finally had to go stay with my brother in Seattle for a week and use his internet, because I kept getting kicked out of Zoom classes when the Wi-Fi was bad,” she said. “That was pretty stressful.”
Palm, however, points to an increased ability to teach and manage herself as one benefit of remote learning. “I had to learn how to learn by myself,” she said. “Remote learning kick-started that right from the beginning.”
For Palm, a bigger challenge than adapting to 100% remote learning has been the social toll. “If you’re a freshman and don’t know anyone, it’s hard to meet people,” she said. “They’ve organized some Zoom game nights and things like that, but it has been really hard socially. I’m really looking forward to making some friends.” This opportunity may come in January, as Stanford hopes to bring freshman, sophomores and transfer students back to campus.
Maya Sheely, a freshman at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, points to the social cost of COVID too. “Going into college under ordinary circumstances being a freshman can be really difficult to meet people, and under COVID this was only emphasized,” she said. “Overall I struggled to connect with teachers, engage in campus life, and explore the area. It somewhat limited the college experience, but didn’t ruin it.”
Scholz refers to “Zoom friends,” saying about some of them, “I’ve never even seen anything but their faces!”
The older college students all point to their existing college friendships as a boon during COVID. “I’m so lucky to have five roommates who are my friends,” said Mott. “Everyone feels lonely and isolated, so I’m incredibly appreciative of the people I have around me. We’re so much closer now, navigating this challenging time together.”
Wathen feels similarly. “A silver lining has been spending much more time with my closest friends that I live with,” he said. “Since we cannot socialize in person as much with people outside of our household, we spent much more time together and I have become much closer with them.”
“We’ve become family,” Mott said of her roommates.
Although college students, in general, developed a reputation for largely ignoring social distancing and other pandemic-sensitive behavior, Methow Valley students away at school perceive their peers’ actions to be socially responsible. “Most people I’m around are taking a communal perspective,” Mott said.
Scholz said she was aware of “reckless behavior and definitely some partying,” but only from the reports of friends at college in other states. “We had random testing and regular testing at Colby,” Scholz said. “I think that made a difference.”
Wathen said that other Babson students “have taken the pandemic very seriously and have changed their lifestyle completely during the pandemic.” Like Colby, Babson instituted regular testing as well as mandatory symptom reporting.
Lucy “condemns” college kids who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously. “I understand that they wish they could be partying and hanging out with their friends,” she said. “I understand that this is a difficult time to be finding yourself. But people have lost their jobs and livelihoods and loved ones. If you are in a privileged enough position to choose whether you go to a party with a bunch of unmasked strangers, your family has probably not been extremely affected by this pandemic.”
But Sheely points to how “normalized” contracting COVID seemed to be for some of her peers. “Many students had previously contracted COVID-19 before they came to campus,” she said. I know a number of people that would be isolated [in a quarantine dorm] for 10 days and then return back to classes like nothing happened.”
College students note several factors that help them feel less stressed about attending college during COVID. “I never had to leave my room for my 8 a.m. class,” said Sheely, “and I was able to attend class virtually from the car or light rail if I didn’t make it back to campus in time, which allowed me to be more flexible with my schedule.”
A member of Colby’s Nordic skiing team, Scholz relies on athletics as an outlet, although the season’s race schedule is uncertain due to travel and group size restrictions.
Lucy mentions the solace of family pets, but acknowledges that “my dog isn’t very helpful when it comes to molecular genetics and solving the global health crisis.”
Ultimately, Lucy advises her peers, “Now more than ever, we must persist. We need to hold onto ourselves, hold onto each other (from 6 feet away), take a deep breath, and keep going. Do not give up yet; the end is in sight.”