If the normally bustling spots around campus seem a little less crowded this fall, it may be due to the fact that—for the first time ever—a sizeable group of students have been attending classes remotely, from wherever they are in the world. While online school can feel alienating, many students have been inspired to find new approaches to previously in-person activities.
According to Director of Institutional Research Michael Whitcomb, 426 students are currently studying remotely. Remote study is still largely uncharted territory and making the leap to online learning is something that has come with both benefits and challenges for students. Some students were apprehensive about returning given the ever-changing situation that has resulted from an unpredictable pandemic. Others were worried about their safety or were simply unable to come back to the University even if they wanted to.
For Robyn Min Xuan Wong ’23, fears of being shut out of Singapore, where she currently resides, influenced her choice to remain off campus.
“I didn’t want to be caught in a situation where I wouldn’t be able to come home,” Wong said. “One of the reasons I chose to stay is that I’ve been fortunate enough to have a safe place to be in and not have to worry. I know some people who chose to return to campus did so because they didn’t have a choice.”
Natchanok Wandee ’23, who is currently taking classes from Thailand, noted that her decision to study remotely was somewhat out of her control.
“I was really dead set on coming back to campus but looking at the news and the cases in America, they were really discouraging,” Wandee said. “The thing that ultimately drove me to remain here was that my flight was cancelled.”
Events in the weeks leading up to the semester inspired some students to study remotely. Layla Krantz ’22 also thought that it would be best to study remotely, citing her initial concerns over how the University would be able to manage the pandemic.
“I was getting nervous over the summer about all the cases rising and I was living in High Rise which is a really close-knit, shared space,” Krantz, who has been spending her semester in New York, said. “So I thought I’d just wait it out for the semester and see how things go and see how Wesleyan manages it before coming back. Also, to spend $10,000 extra in Residential Comprehensive Fees just to take online classes anyway, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be worth it or not.”
Krantz admitted that she’s impressed with how well the University has been able to cope thus far. Similarly, Shlok Sharma ’23, who is taking classes from Illinois, expressed initial doubts about how effective the University would be at implementing COVID-19 safety measures.
“Unfortunately for me and fortunately for everyone else it turns out that Wesleyan has been great at it,” Sharma said.
While Sharma looks forward to returning to campus and being able to take in-person classes again, he also suggested that the University implement some sort of online component into its permanent curriculum.
“Part of me hopes this continues in the future. Lectures don’t need to happen in-person in my opinion,” Sharma said. “I actually feel like I’ve gotten more time with my professor during a lecture because I can actually see them. In lecture halls usually you’re impeded by everyone else and if you get there late, which I usually do, then that’s a whole other issue. With Zoom calls it’s very easy to sort of sneak in, sneak out and that’s much more fun.”
Other students told The Argus that they found Zoom classes less engaging than in-person ones. Despite this, Ella Biehn ’23, who is living in Georgia, recognized that it was still possible for discussions to be rewarding.
“It’s way more difficult. You have to work a lot harder to have a good discussion,” Biehn said. “It’s a lot scarier to talk in class online because it has to be very intentional. You have to unmute yourself and you have to get everyone else to be quiet because you can’t talk over someone on Zoom. Only one voice will drown out all the rest of them.”
Wong, who is on the International Student Advisory Board (ISAB), brought up the fact that being an international student comes with having to assimilate into an entirely new culture and that the additional stress of remote college can complicate this transition.
“Being in class itself can be challenging for international students because sometimes professors aren’t as aware of cultural differences in terms of how people participate in classrooms,” Wong said. “A lot of international students come from cultures where waiting before you participate is part of the culture. Something that I noticed when I went to the states was that getting to speak in class was almost like a fight to be heard. Where I’m from, if a question would be asked in a lecture you’d have dead silence for about 30 seconds and then someone would raise their hand. That’s been prohibitive for students to participate in class, not having that wait time to let people gestate and figure out what they want to say.”
International students also have to endure time zone differences that can make for unconventional schedules.
“I’m about 12 hours ahead so a lot of things were really difficult,” Wandee said. “My day has been pushed back a little bit; once I wake up I go to class. Eating, showering, everything comes after class. So my day’s been pushed back by three or four hours but then there are some classes that I have to take at night. Basically most of the daytime would be the time where I work and do homework and at night I’ll go to class. It’s a really packed day but it’s become a routine now.”
Another issue remote students have faced is the inability to unplug. Students have found that with the digital world being their main avenue for communicating, they end up glued to their devices for large parts of the day.
“As a remote student all of my school life is online,” Krantz said. “Sometimes I’ll have seven or five hours of back to back Zooms and it’s hard to keep up with my social life because none of my friends are in town right now so my social life is also all online. I think it’s been hard to stay in touch with friends because when I’m on a screen for that long for school I want to get off the screen a little bit and just feel like a normal physical human being.”
For Wandee, consistent correspondence with friends on campus hasn’t been easy either. She has supplemented this lack of interaction by hosting meetings for other University students who are also currently in Thailand to provide a space that fosters community.
“I try to speak to people on campus—message them, call them—every now and then,” Wandee said. “But I feel like because I’m not physically there living with them it feels like it could impact how I go back to campus and reconnect with these people since everything has been on camera and on Zoom. I feel like talking to them becomes more like a task. You talk to them because you want to talk to them, not because you just want to hang out and maybe do work together so it’s a lot more formal.”
Both Krantz and Wong explained how not having in-person study groups and less contact with classmates in their more rigorous courses has made their workload feel more overwhelming than usual. Wong mentioned that the intense academic atmosphere in the College of Social Studies (CSS) major is usually offset by a feeling of solidarity in being able to work with other people.
“The whole idea behind it is that you’re with a learning cohort,” Wong explained. “There’s supposed to be this entire learning support system behind you where there’s socials, guest lectures, a designated space people always hang out in. Except, we don’t know about that because we’re not there.”
A sense of community is something that other remote students have struggled to find. One of the appeals of college life is the opportunity for spontaneous connection.
“I do miss the aspect of just being able to be outside and see a lot of people around and it’s the idea of not even knowing everyone but still feeling like there’s a shared space,” Sharma said. “That’s obviously not there. I do miss the Wesleyan space.”
For Bailee Gull ’24, who is currently in Florida, the University’s approach to welcoming new students and offering flexibility in terms of whether or not students wanted to come to campus was one of the main draws to enroll at the University. She also discovered that she could still partake in activities like cheerleading and The Monologon, a recently streamed theater event, from a distance.
“There were so many people there to help me and answer questions and go out of their way to make sure that I was comfortable and taken care of and I cannot tell you how much I appreciated that, knowing that I might not be on campus and I might not be considered a complete student,” Gull said. “But I was wrong and I was and they made sure to make me feel like that. I’ve been finding ways to get involved and I think it’s so great because the students at Wes really care about opening that community up even to people that aren’t literally on campus.”
Biehn expressed that while she didn’t feel completely cut off from the Wesleyan community because she was still meeting people in her classes and talking to friends from last year, certain extracurricular activities were harder to adapt to an online model.
“I’m in an acapella group, and at the beginning of the semester, I was involved in auditioning new members which was really nice,” Biehn said “But then they started having in-person rehearsals instead of Zoom and it’s really hard to FaceTime into a rehearsal when everyone else is in-person and unfortunately I’ve had to step back from that.”
Despite the challenges posed by remote learning, Many students commended their professors for being accommodating. Wong and Wandee both added that some of their class times were altered so that they wouldn’t have to attend discussions in the middle of the night.
“Wesleyan’s done a really phenomenal job compared to other schools and maybe it’s because of the professors that I’ve been with or maybe we just have a great faculty in general but people are very willing to make themselves available to students,” Wong said.
Biehn discussed her remote dance class and admired how her professor encourages the group to consider what it means to take class in a different setting.
“I’ve really enjoyed that class being online—the class is Delicious Movement with Eiko Otake—it’s given us an opportunity to talk about how we feel about being physically separated and how it feels to exist on Zoom and I think that’s really important,” Biehn stated. “I’m not sure how much other professors talk to their students about that but I think we should have a dialogue about how it feels to exist in this isolated way even if you are on campus.”
Many students studying off campus are comforted by the prospect of being able to return to campus.
“The thing that’s getting me through is Wesleyan and my friends and everything—it’s all going to be right there when I go back,” Krantz said.
Emma Kendall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org