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College & COVID

What college students like me have learned during the COVID year

For more than a year, we’ve been lurching through the seismic changes on campus and off. It’s been difficult, but there have been hopeful moments, too.

An illustration of a student teetering on top of a group of books, which is being hit by a wrecking ball that looks like a coronavirus.
Adobe Stock images; Globe staff illustration

As someone who attended Boston-area schools for most of my life, I thought I had a good grasp on student life in this city. But as I joined the first Zoom session for one of my Emerson College graduate classes in March 2020, I realized how unprepared my classmates and I were for the strangeness of waiting for our professor to learn how to screen-share. After a while, this perplexity turned into fatigue. One year later, it feels more like Bill Murray’s character trapped in Groundhog Day.

Delaney Finn, a freshman at Boston University studying music education, can relate. She lives alone in her dorm room and has taken most classes virtually. “You feel like you’re watching a television show that you just want to turn off,” she says. Unsurprisingly, Finn and other first-year college students are having an especially difficult time this year. Many days, she says, “the only person I talk to, outside of being in a Zoom class with someone, is with the security guard as I’m coming into my building.”

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I’ve spent enough time as an adult to appreciate the value of the traditional college experience. But at this point, normality has acquired a different meaning for students on campus — shoving a long swab up their nostrils every three days no longer fazes them. For students like Finn and Juncheng Quan, a freshman political science major at Boston University, whether they’ll ever fully experience college remains a mystery. “There have been many times where I’m wondering in an empty hallway [what it] would look like brimming with students,” Quan says.

Some students who were taking classes on campus prior to the pandemic found themselves displaced. While I was able to remain at my apartment in Somerville, others had to relocate. Bhavya Pant, a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, moved to Pittsburgh, where she lives with her brother and is taking her final semester online. “It’s much easier to be present on campus,” she says. “Moving in with your family comes with having to be there for [them] as well.” Pant, originally from India, was distressed when the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement declared last July that all international students had to leave the country if their schools offered classes entirely online. With graduation looming, visa and travel restrictions complicate her life further.

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And then there are the wells of self-discipline that remote learning requires. Cristian Guarino, a part-time student from Naples, Italy, in his third year at Bunker Hill Community College, was used to studying at school in between his time at work and home. Now that he’s mostly studying from home, he finds himself easily distracted. But he also appreciates that some professors have prerecorded lectures to carve out more class time to discuss the material. “You can rewatch those as many times as you want,” he says. “Then again, this means you have to do the work yourself.”

For those who get a choice between virtual and in-person learning for different classes, deciding which to choose can be complicated. BU sophomore Maxwell Bevington prefers to be in the classroom as often as possible, though the shrill echo that emits through laptops when a professor and remote student simultaneously unmute themselves bothers him (as does the awkwardness of having to listen closely to remote students through the professor’s laptop, to avoid echoes).

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The unfamiliar nature of online learning left Daniela Watkins feeling unmotivated. She ended up dropping two classes last fall. But once the BU sophomore became accustomed to the virtual format, she found in-person class extraneous. “There’s more of a requirement to interact and to be presentable” in person, she says, but online students can turn off their cameras and microphones with no one holding them accountable. (On occasion, I’ve done it myself.)

I won’t miss much about this experience. But despite the confusion and isolation that have permeated our learning, students recognize a greater sense of gratitude — from ourselves, our classmates, and our professors — for the opportunities we do get.

I’ve noticed some of it during the final session of each online class. Professors encourage students over 21 to pour themselves a drink, students reflect on what they appreciated most, and sincere smiles abound as we say our goodbyes. We’ve seen enough loss to know the meaning of a proper farewell.


This story is part of a special report was produced in collaboration with an Emerson College writing and publishing course led by assistant professor Susanne Althoff, a former editor of the Globe Magazine. David Paradela is pursuing a master’s degree. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.