A little over a week ago my classmates and I were huddled in libraries studying for our midterms the way we did every semester. But on the evening of March 8, the night before many of our first exams, an email from Columbia University’s president confirmed what we had previously thought to be just a rumor: The entire university would be moving to online instruction as a result of the growing threat of the coronavirus in New York City.
Two days later, Harvard followed suit and asked all students to move out of their dorms — leaving some with nowhere to go. Once the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, Columbia sent a follow-up recommending that students not come back after spring break and that online instruction would extend to the remainder of the semester. Thousands of colleges and schools across the country have since followed suit.
I actually found my classmates making even more attempts to smile and connect with each other online than we had in person.
The news was shattering, but especially for college seniors like me. I am privileged enough to have somewhere to go home to — I've moved back in with my parents — not everyone is so lucky, especially international students. But even for the lucky ones, we know we'll never get back our senior spring. And what about our degrees? We had no idea how our classes would translate to online formats. How would labs work, or performing arts courses? How would we hold class discussions or write theses? Within days, the video conferencing platform Zoom had skyrocketed to No. 1 on the iTunes App Store free charts, beating out the likes of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram in downloads.
So far, the shift has come with many challenges. Changes in housing and living situations present obvious problems in terms of time differences and learning environments (not to mention the expense of moving). Will we get refunds for the tremendously expensive residential college experience administrators promised us was worth a small fortune?
But there may also be a silver lining. I actually found my classmates making even more attempts to smile and connect with each other online than we had in person. Through a tiny screen, they let me into their worlds in a new way. I saw how they liked to arrange their pillows and stuffed animals, and the way they slouched against them while taking notes during lecture.
Witnessing these incredibly private details of my peers’ life made me humanize them in ways I had not done so before. Around the world, countries experiencing lockdowns and social isolation like China or Italy have displayed incredible acts of human solidarity. Viral clips of Italian neighbors singing to one another from their balconies show human beings engaging in unexpectedly welcome behaviors. Online learning has given students a way to share similar moments even when we are no longer physical neighbors.
Part of what makes the shift to social distancing so difficult to accept for college seniors is it has robbed us of our last few months in an admittedly very privileged cocoon of academia and friendship. Senior year isn’t an event that can be postponed like Coachella, it’s an entire life stage abruptly cut short by the introduction of a new reality. For years, we have been warily eyeing the transition that awaits us after graduation. We have been fearing it — and preparing for it. But we are now being thrust into it far sooner than expected and certainly not under the circumstances we pictured. A volatile economy and companies shifting en masse to working from home arrangements don’t exactly soothe job hunting fears either.
Still, it feels like our heartbreak is pulling us closer. Yes, we’re facing a scary and uncertain next couple of months — but we’re doing it together, and that includes my professors.
Yes, we’re facing a scary and uncertain next couple of months — but we’re doing it together, and that includes my professors.
Since we’ve all said our goodbyes, I’ve heard a lot of friends say to each other: “See you on Zoom.” Indeed, students around the country have begun using their respective online learning platforms not just for classes, but to connect for fun. The campus book club I’m a part of has notified me that they will use video chatting to keep weekly meetings going, and many have joked that we may soon be using apps once reserved for meetings as a way to date.
Maybe before the coronavirus, we had allowed the spaces we shared to do too much of the work in our relationships. We didn’t have to bother humanizing the person in lecture who annoyed us when they raised their hand too many times; knowledge of their lives outside of class was separate and unnecessary information. Now, we are forced to understand, at the least, that every person we come into contact with has a life as disrupted by this outbreak as our own.
I don’t think anything replaces a classroom experience, a fact made evident by the pang of loneliness I feel each time class ends and I close my computer screen. Online learning will never bring together friends for graduation photos. It will never bring back commencement. And it feels incredibly personal to have these memories taken from us.
This massive outbreak has shifted priorities — for everyone. With the pandemic causing so much death and disruption around the world, it’s easy to feel like our problems and assignments are insignificant. But I have a feeling that our willingness to accept our new reality is integral to us getting through it. By taking the time to connect over coursework that has nothing to do with the anxieties we feel about the news, we’re working not only to complete our degrees, but to make it to the other side of this communal challenge together. And that's something to be grateful for.