The benefits and frustrations of distance learning have fully imbued college culture over the last two months. From students making TikToks about crying during Zoom lectures to posting about wearing blazers paired with sweatpants for interviews, young people have found numerous ways to cope with having the joys of an in-person semester stripped away from them.
While nearly everyone I know has struggled with the transition to online learning, I’ve discovered that its educational effectiveness is a complicated equation that encompasses much more than just the size of your school. Variables such as the social atmosphere of your university, the groove of your daily schedule, and the interactions you’re accustomed to can make distance learning feel either relatively normal or incredibly stressful. In my case, the adjustment wasn’t just distressing—it felt inherently wrong.
I attend a small liberal arts college in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and the thing I love most is its vibrant environment. Every day, I wake up to the sound of students laughing outside my window, encounter friends and beloved professors everywhere I go, and attend small classes that feel more like rapport with friends than a mandatory academic commitment.
So as spring break came to an end and the administration informed us that we needed to return home, I was crushed. Even though the sentiment is cliché, my college had become my home. Leaving so suddenly was a blow for which I wasn’t prepared. Saying goodbye meant parting with the most fulfilling aspects of my education, and I knew that even if the transition to online learning was seamless, it wouldn’t compare to physically being at the center of the community I love so much.
With a heavy heart, I returned from a spring break trip in Washington, D.C. early to pack up my belongings. I didn’t have much time to process what was happening, because my parents arrived to pick me up less than 24 hours after getting the news. The experience was a whirlwind, and I felt awful that I didn’t get a chance to bid the college or my friends a proper goodbye. We were scattered across the country over break, and it felt deeply sad that the distance we thought was temporary had become a permanent reality.
I sat at home mourning the loss of my old life for the first few days of quarantine, but started to feel better when professors began reaching out to us. Many explained that they were equally disoriented by the situation and needed a week to put together an accessible remote learning plan before resuming class.
I also felt supported by the care my professors took in accommodating the needs of students as we navigated the transition. For many of my peers, moving home or elsewhere meant taking on childcare, financial responsibilities, and other commitments that weren’t immediate while living at school. Several of my friends were also without reliable internet, so I was relieved to hear that professors were considering this barrier while crafting new approaches to their instruction.
When plans eventually rolled out for the rest of the semester, I was delighted to see the wide range of platforms we’d be using to interact with each other. For one of my English courses, we contributed to Twitter threads on course readings during our class period. For another, we posted on Moodle discussion boards and could attend optional weekly Zoom lectures. The variety kept me engaged, and I was grateful that my professors were communicative about the technological and personal obstacles they were navigating.
This mutual respect and transparency between students and professors facilitated an undercurrent of kindness in my Zoom classes. Although the physical distance between everyone had grown, our meetings noticeably lessened the emotional gap. Even the most mundane moments felt humanizing, like when my professor’s partner mistakenly entered the room to ask a question during lecture. It’s relieving to discover that the people you view as your superiors are also awkward sometimes, and witnessing these instances is what made it possible for me to reach out to professors that I would have been too intimidated to connect with otherwise.
My instructors pulled us through the rest of the semester with guidance and empathy, but I know students at other universities weren’t as fortunate. I’ve read nauseating accounts from individuals who, while healing from the death of a friend or family member due to COVID-19, were declined extensions for assignments. This unforgiving attitude doubling down on student bodies already facing anxieties, losses, and mental health problems was heartbreaking. I can’t imagine remote classes being something to loathe rather than gather comfort from, and I feel immensely lucky that my professors were more compassionate.
While I acknowledge that online learning simply isn’t an accessible or effective option for all students, it can be executed successfully if we’re seen as humans first and students second. When both parties put in the work to be communicative, genuine, and empathetic toward the difficulties we’re experiencing, it really is possible to procure a unified community from a grid of smiling faces on Zoom. I was initially convinced that remote learning would mean a disconnect from the people who keep me afloat, but the goodwill of students and professors stitched together a blanket of support that I knew I could fall back on. Their kindness and reliability served as a gentle reminder I didn’t know I needed—that some good things do remain constant, even during a pandemic.
By Avery Matteo
Illustration by Glenn Harvey for The New York Times