COVID-19 has turned student life on its head. Study sessions in campus libraries, rowdy welcome weeks and packed lecture halls have almost become relics of days gone by.

The three college students we caught up with are facing a year like no other. Meeting peers through GroupMe and Discord instead of lab groups and dining halls is now par for the course. As is attending lectures from dorm rooms or parents’ homes instead of buzzing campus auditoriums. And just about everything—extracurricular activities, group meetings, watching movies, meeting new people—is now happening virtually.

Finding peers through online platforms

Emily is a freshman student with plans to major in Psychology. She chose a large public research university in hopes of a classic on-campus experience. Things are a little different than expected. Emily has been shuttling between her residence hall and her parents’ home a hundred miles away around every six weeks, following university administration guidelines when local cases spike.

She has found the change in environment has negatively impacted her learning. “It’s just so much harder to focus when my family is chatting, working, cooking in the background,” Emily says. She takes seven classes and the tools and platforms her professors use to stream lectures, hold office hours and make course announcements vary widely. “It can be hard to keep track of what’s going on, but I get that it’s super hard for them [professors] and TAs too,” she admits.

She finds that she is more invested in her courses where her professors make an effort to engage the students in their own learning. “My chemistry professor puts us into breakout rooms where we use the whiteboard feature to solve tough problems together,” Emily says. “I like being able to meet people that way. Sometimes we make group chats after to share study notes.”

“It can be hard to keep track of what’s going on, but I get that it’s super hard for them [professors] and TAs too.”

A different kind of senior year

For much of the semester, Jordan, a senior majoring in History, has been living in his apartment with four roommates. In late summer, they all made the choice to return to the college town they had left in early spring when campuses closed their doors, hoping for some semblance of a normal senior year. Jordan enjoys living with friends and thinks he made the right decision to return to school instead of staying in his childhood bedroom. “My parents are great, but it can be distracting having them popping in and out of my room while I’m trying to study or pay attention to lecture videos.”

“All of my courses are online now. I’m writing an undergraduate thesis and I’ve never even met my advisor in person, we do everything through email and Zoom,” Jordan says. “Some professors have created group chats, breakout rooms and collaborative projects, but I would say these have decreased over the semester.”

“Obviously, it’s not an ideal senior year, but we’re trying to make the most of it,” he says. “COVID definitely messed things up, but you can tell professors are trying their best.”

“Some professors have created group chats, breakout rooms and collaborative projects, but I would say these have decreased over the semester.”

Canceling the commute

For students attending large urban schools, the situation looks very different. Rachel, a sophomore majoring in Nutrition and Food Sciences, hasn’t been to her campus in months. “I was used to commuting over an hour every day to go to class. Now I’m just doing everything from home.”

Most of her classes are asynchronous, meaning that the live interactive component has been largely removed from her learning. “It’s nice having a more flexible schedule because I can watch my lecture videos whenever I want, but it’s hard when you can’t just turn to a friend to ask a question,” she says.

“Most extracurricular activities and guest speakers have moved online, mostly to student-run Facebook groups,” Rachel says. “I found a part-time job related to my field of study through a posting in one of those groups.”

Keeping motivated while spending her whole day in one spot has been hard. “I’ve tried to maintain a somewhat-normal schedule to keep myself motivated because I feel like maintaining a routine helps me stay engaged with my coursework,” she says. “But I do miss showing up at places and actually seeing my friends instead of chatting with them during the live lectures.”

Looking forward

Students are adjusting to online learning, but miss the engagement, community and interaction with their professors and peers that the on-campus experience provides. Many do not have home environments that are compatible with thoughtful engagement in their courses but understand that their professors are in the same boat.

In the next installment of our series, we’ll explore how students are building communities and connections online.

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