College Students Reflect on The Difficult Transition to Life Off-Campus

About a month ago, we were sitting in classrooms, writing papers for our classes, and chatting about our plans for the weekend. Now, we’re sitting at home behind our screens, battling with WiFi so that our online classes don’t go fuzzy. 

Early in March, Harvard University was one of the first schools in the Boston area to send students home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Within hours, Tufts, MIT, and Lesley were making similar decisions. Students were left scrambling to pack their things, go home–or find one–and begin their days of online classes in quarantine. 

When Things Started Changing 

Freshman computer science major Taylor Kruse started noticing a change in tempo long before he was asked by Harvard administration to leave campus. The first things to go were big gatherings. 

“Each activity had its own digression of whether or not they were canceling things. And because I was part of the theater community, that was sort of the first thing to go,” he says. 

At that point, Kruse and his peers still had no idea what the college planned on doing for classes. 

On March 10, what seemed like an ordinary Tuesday morning only days before spring break, Kruse was woken up by a text from his mom. Harvard students and parents received an email around 8 a.m. instructing them to pack their things as soon as possible and prepare for online classes. 

“I called her at probably 9 in the morning, and I was going to leave less than 24 hours after that call. So, I needed to pack up everything, return all the things I needed to return, and sort of tear down my room in that time frame,” he says. 

And on top of all the madness, some classes were still going on throughout the week. One of Kruse’s classes had transitioned to online completely, so he could not attend even if he was on campus. Others continued just the same as before, though, Kruse says the professors were understanding if students could not participate. 

“It was a very mish-mash kind of time for the whole college,” says Kruse.

Allyson Birger, a sophomore sociology major at Tufts University, was told to go home on March 10, but rumors started circling campus the week prior. Many students thought they would just have an extended spring break, staying home for two weeks instead of one. 

“On Tuesday, that’s all anybody was talking about. The morale on campus was super low. Then halfway through the day, rumors started flying that the email, the dreaded email, was coming out at like 7 or 8. Nobody knew what was going on, and we thought the school’s response would be the end,” says Birger. 

When the “dreaded” email was finally sent out to all Tufts students, they found out they had six days to leave, and that classes would be online for the rest of the semester. That week, with her one scheduled exam canceled, Birger decided to focus instead on saying goodbye to her friends and packing. With only one suitcase to take to her home in California and only 24 hours before her leaving, it was a strenuous task. 

Birger also had to decide what to do with the rest of her things. Luckily, her friend offered up her basement as a place to store items until the fall. But when they went to find boxes, their luck subsided.

“Harvard announced that they were doing online classes. So, all the UPS and U-Haul places were out of boxes around Tufts. We had to drive to Arlington to get boxes because everywhere else was completely out,” she says.  

MIT mechanical engineering and physics major Wayne Chen, whose family is from China, says he was aware of how serious the situation was before the pandemic entered Boston. 

“I warned many of my schoolmates about the circumstances and told them to wear masks,” says Chen. 

What worried Chen most was people traveling over spring break. 

“I saw many students who went to Florida and California, where the virus attacked first, and they came back and partied together. That was when I felt things were going to be bad. In that very week, all the colleges in Boston started to move students out of campuses,” he says. 

Chen says that for him, the moving-out process was not too bad. MIT provided him with boxes, and all he had to do was put in his belongings and label them. The college took care of the storing process. From there, Chen stayed with friends in Maine, the state where he attended high school, for a short time before going to China. 

“I think Maine is much safer compared to other states [because of a] natural social distancing,” says Chen, jokingly.

Zooming Through The Semester

If you are a student or a parent, at this point you’ve definitely heard of Zoom: a web conferencing platform that classes all over the nation are relying on for education. Zoom has become a massive part of culture today–not just for classes, but for catching up with friends and online parties, as well.

Birger says she is taking four classes this semester, two of which are now on Zoom. She says they’ve mostly been okay, but her biggest struggle with the virtual classes has been getting used to the new set-up for her sociological theory class lectures. Considering the content of the class is difficult to grasp in-person, she says she is struggling.

“Now I feel like I don’t understand the material as well,” she says.

What Birger says helps is having the “breakout rooms” feature on Zoom, which allows her to talk with a smaller group of people. 

For Chen, most of his professors use Zoom as well. Chen’s teachers also use a video-streaming software company called Panopto

“I found them easy to use, and I can organize my time better. So I kind of like them,” says Chen. 

Kruse says email and Zoom are the two forms of communication that he relies on every day. And, for the most part, he enjoys them. 

“I feel grateful that we can use stuff like Zoom. It’s definitely not as good as being in person, but all of my classes seem to make it work pretty well,” he says. 

Living in Maine, he recognizes that a lot of students transitioning to online classes don’t have the same privileges, like even having WiFi. 

What has mainly been difficult for Kruse is that, because of a poor connection where his home is located, he has had to rely on his girlfriend’s WiFi to attend classes. 

“I can totally sympathize with people who don’t have that sort of access and can’t use Zoom,” he says. 

The Side Effects of College Online

On top of using Zoom, there have been other changes to students’ plans for the semester. Student clubs, organizations, jobs, and other aspects of college life have been either canceled, postponed, or altered from their norm. Now at home, students have been trying to find a new routine. 

Birger, who is part of Hillel–a Jewish group at Tufts–and a sorority, as well as the college newspaper, says all of these extracurriculars have transitioned to online meetings. The only activity that was not forced to make changes was her research assistant job, which is based online. Regardless, she has felt little pressure to attend. 

“I think with extracurriculars it’s really come-as-you-please. No one’s really being too strict about it,” she says.

Kruse, who helped create a club called “SHAM: the Society of Harvard Magicians,” sadly had to cancel his future shows. 

“We were a new club, and we were still sort of figuring things out,” says Kruse. “We had shows planned for the future for different organizations that were going on that had to be cut short.” 

But these cancelations weren’t the worst of it. Kruse was also part of a play that got canceled. And for Chen, it was a Robotics club that took the hit. 

According to the students, one of the most prominent side effects of attending classes at home is a lack of motivation. Finding a routine has helped with this, says Birger. 

“I don’t let myself sleep in too late—I shower, I work out, I put on jeans, I make my bed. I also work in a room that’s not my room. I know that not everybody has that opportunity, but I’m very grateful to have that,” she says.

Another consequence is the absence of social interaction. However, students have found ways to stay close with friends during times of social distancing, using video calls and texts. 

“I’ve been texting my friends a lot, trying to stay in communication with them, asking them how they’ve been,” Kruse says.

Another common theme is that students are adjusting to their schools implementing a pass/fail option for classes. While some schools, like Tufts and MIT, gave students the option, Harvard did not. 

Kruse explains that at Harvard, not all classes go towards your GPA, so every opportunity counts. 

“I completely understand that Harvard was in a situation where no matter what they did, there would be a lot of students angry about it,” says Kruse. “But personally, I would have rather had an option pass/fail.” 

Looking On The Bright Side

Although tough at a time like this, the students were able to see some positives in the situation. 

“Honestly, I’ve kind of enjoyed quarantine,” says Birger. “I’m very lucky. It’s very nice here. I’m in a nice house. The situation in California isn’t as bad, just because we’ve implemented shelter-in-place before anyone else did. We’ve flattened the curve very well.”

Chen appreciates the fact that he has more time. 

“I think online class really makes my schedule more flexible,” he says. “It saves more time for me to organize my notes. I can also attend summer class when I am in China. So, [it’s] not too bad.”

Kruse believes this whole situation has only made us stronger. 

“If anything, it really shows how well colleges can mobilize and sort of switch so quickly to accommodate their students as much as they can,” he says. “I think that it sort of puts them in a position where they can better prepare for other emergencies if they should ever happen, and give them a starting point to look back on.”

And despite their difficulties with online classes, all three students feel administration at their schools has been as helpful as possible. When Chen recently moved to his home in China, he observed that the professors were accommodating when it came to his classes and assignments. 

“My teachers understand the jet lag, and they made the due dates really flexible,” he says.

“They’ve been super accessible. I think everyone is really trying their best. Whenever I’ve sent an email, I’ve gotten a response pretty quickly,” says Birger. 

Kruse agrees, saying how he has been very pleasantly surprised with how teachers are handling it and how understanding that they’ve been.

It’s Not Just The Students

Though students have gotten the brunt of the blow, professors and administrators, of course, have been forced to adapt to new transitions as well. Danielle Georges, Professor and Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University, says she first noticed a change around the time of the Associated Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference, which took place in early March. 

“The conference is usually a large one, and there were questions around whether it should be or would be canceled. The conference went on. Things really began to shift the weeks following,” she says. 

Lesley has also been using Zoom as one of their primary forms of communication. 

Janet Pocorobba, Associate Professor and Associate Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing, says, “I do like being able to see folks on screen, though it can be tiring if it lasts more than an hour. I’m finding that meetings have to be a little shorter on tele-calls, and I expect that’s true in teaching via video conferencing, too.”

Both Pocorobba and Georges feel as though the school has prepared them for this situation. 

“We have the loveliest educational technology team,” says Pocorobba. “I’ve worked with them on online course design in the past, and they have been available to us at all turns now as we prepare our first-ever “virtual” MFA residency.”

All in all, professors and administration at Lesley have taken this situation as a learning opportunity. 

“The situation has forced us to reflect on and, in instances, rethink how we teach and learn. I think this is a positive thing,” says Georges. “I’m looking forward to faculty and students being able to gather again during our traditional 9-day residencies, which are rich in learning, community building, and connections.”

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