Updated: May 5, 2020
Although college graduation season is usually riddled with well-deserved celebratory events, the COVID-19 virus has postponed these celebrations indefinitely. As a senior at the University of Utah, I was disappointed when I received the news that campus would be closed and my commencement was suspended. However, I quickly realized that this should be the least of my worries. Our professors had four days to adapt to an online curriculum; a well designed online course can take up to six months to create. In addition to this, my job at the Sorenson Impact Center was also moving completely online. As we were thrown into this transition, students’ hope for a convenient alternative to campus life faded as stress mounted and physical distancing measures were instituted.
This rapidly changing environment proved to be a heavy burden for students. Class deadlines, syllabi, and expectations were changing by the hour, leaving students with intellectual whiplash in the aftermath. What I failed to realize when we were asked to finish the semester online was that what was really being asked was for students to completely alter their learning styles and sacrifice the discussion-based classroom environment to accommodate the current situation. The first two weeks of online learning were composed of mass technological difficulties and cancellation of assignments and lectures, leaving students to question how well they could perform academically under these new circumstances.
The University of Utah has truly done everything in its power to help students during this time, as the administration knows many are struggling to adjust. However, no matter what measures are taken by the University, there are simply some unavoidable side effects from the semester of COVID-19. I am fortunate enough to have a job that is secure and stable access to the internet and a computer, but many of my classmates aren’t so lucky. When campus originally shut down, students were assured that the library would remain open for those needing to access technology, but the university was forced to close the library within two weeks as the situation worsened. Students whose jobs can’t be performed online are left without employment during the worst economic climate in years. The University of Utah has been generous in offering credit/no-credit options for students, but a large number of students on scholarship are unable to take advantage of this option because that would mean they would lose their scholarship funding in the process. No matter what accommodations are made, the fact is that student success is often determined by the accessibility of resources and benefits provided by the University, and no online adjustment can be a true equivalent for the on-campus experience.
All of these dilemmas and struggles are magnified by the sense of isolation enveloping students across the country. Stripped of their social networks, students were asked to relocate to hometowns, leaving them with little to no face-to-face contact with their peers. The temporary replacement for personal interaction is video chats and phone calls, but the increased screen time can magnify feelings of isolation. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, I spent between five and six hours in front of a screen each day. Now that has become a twelve hour minimum. This dramatic increase in screen time is not only isolating but is also emotionally draining. I soon began feeling depressed and alone, despite my numerous online meetings and chats throughout the day. Through understanding myself and having a strong family support system, I have adjusted and am now handling this new environment, but several of my friends are still struggling to cope.
A return to normalcy seems far distant. I know the COVID-19 pandemic will be contained, ending the quarantine, but the world might never be the same. As we look to the future of higher education, how will they learn from this and adjust accordingly? The full effects of the limited online classroom are yet to be seen, but I expect them to be highly impactful. Many students have been deprived of crucial campus resources and experiences. Will they choose to continue the pursuit of Higher Education following these events? Will some even have the choice after a poor academic performance due to the pandemic? We don’t know, and I’m sure institutions of higher education are anxiously awaiting the answers to these questions. For graduating seniors, the exciting job search has quickly turned into a dreaded nightmare as companies revoke internship offers and reduce staff rather than expand. Following my virtual graduation, I am committing to pursue a J.D. degree at the University of Chicago. But if physical distancing measures persist into the fall, I don’t know how enthusiastic I’ll be about beginning a rigorous professional degree online. Despite this uncertainty, I am determined to adapt to these trying times and overcome what the future holds, whatever that may be.
By Marin Murdock, Student Fellow