From SBU to ASU: Undergrads share on distance learning from across the country

With college campuses across the country and the world ceasing in-person operations due to coronavirus, we wanted to see how students at other higher education institutions characterize the new life online. We reached out to friends and acquaintances to hear their stories. The tales are varied, from large public universities to small private colleges, from student-athletes to theater majors. The Vassar community will note many commonalities in all of our experiences: the formation of new digital gathering spaces, questions over grading policies, struggles to be productive during a pandemic and navigating college life without a campus. We’ve arranged their responses according to three themes: online community, academic life and grading policy.

Online community:

“Kettering is kind of a special breed. Being an extremely small STEM school, a vast majority of the students enjoy online gaming, so Kettering created an online gaming league through a Discord server that a majority of the student body has joined. There they compete on teams and play against other schools. My sorority has weekly Zoom meetings, and many clubs on campus have followed suit with that as well, and mental health and study habits are a major topic at the moment. Actually, mental health has been the biggest push from Kettering so far. There have been a lot of virtual outreach groups from our counselors and staff on campus for that. Another community we have formed is a Reddit page where we just make fun of the university president.”

—Emerald Dewey, Kettering University

“The campus itself has a Facebook and there’s also a newspaper people follow and those are mostly just campus news and updates from the university president and local community news. I mostly talk to my friends through our own group chats on Snapchat. We’re pretty much in constant contact on there. People who have had birthdays have also had parties over Zoom so we can all see each other face to face on occasion. Overall [the college online community] seems pretty neutral to me. I haven’t really paid attention to anything going on since I’ve been kind of distancing myself from social media during this whole quarantine. But people are generally nice. There are a few rude commenters sometimes, but they don’t really get acknowledged.”

— Cassandra Thompson, Central Michigan University 

“Students at Stony Brook began to post on Instagram and Snapchat, encouraging students to stay indoors and help flatten the curve. There were also petitions going around in chats to ensure that grading would not become an issue during this time, and instead students would be able to focus on themselves and their families. The social media environment is generally positive, with people coming together and offering support to those who are infected with the virus or who have lost loved ones due to it. There is a lot of support on the SBU Reddit, where students answer each other’s questions about various topics, such as what counseling services are available.”

— Hirooj H, Stony Brook University 

“[I’ve seen] activism related to people volunteering with organizations to make PPE, or fundraising. I myself am a part of the Medical Supply Drive, which is an organization coordinating outreach to local businesses and donors to secure PPE for our frontline healthcare workers all over the world. Many of my classmates are using social media to inform others to stay home and social distance. I feel that the general attitude was that we were all shocked when we heard the March 10 news. However, most of us then expected that classes would be suspended sooner with the rising number of cases, so even though there was some shock when three days later we were told to leave, it wasn’t comparable to the initial news which hit hard. I think students at that point expected it and were just trying to figure out how they could safely leave, instead of concentrating on more of the emotions that accompany such a sudden event like this.”

— Priya Mukhi, Cornell University

“Some students who still live in Troy (my school’s city) have been posing on their Instagram stories about local restaurants and eateries that are still open for takeout. One of these students offered to get groceries or deliver other necessities to people in the area (also through IG stories). I haven’t seen much else but I haven’t been looking very carefully. We kinda just try to support each other online as best as we can. One kid sent a survey in an old freshmen group chat asking people how they were doing. A lot of platforms regarding RPI are a little toxic because people really really don’t like the administration and love to talk about it. We have subreddits, a school-wide Discord server, Discord servers affiliated with different clubs, an “overheard at RPI” Facebook group (for out-of-context quotes and such that people have heard on campus). There’s a lot. We’re a tech school and people all have their preferences for online platforms. When people talk about the administration, it isn’t exactly pleasant conversation, but most other topics seem to be much tamer.”

— Anonymous, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

“Umich Memes for Wolverteens is pretty good in these trying times. It’s pretty big. I think you have to be invited to join, but it’s not rigorous. Lots of quarantine memes, but all in a way that ties back to the University. At least they’re supposed to. Quality varies but it’s good for a chuckle.”

— Max Clark, University of Michigan 

“We have a whole photo page called “at home 2020” and it’s like a virtual gallery where anyone is allowed to submit any work they have made in response to this shutdown or the virus or anything and you’re allowed to talk about what the work you made means [to you]. Everyone is really supportive and positive actually… It’s really nice to see, too, [because] a lot of people at SVA are really anxious about [the virus] and I think it’s nice of them to see support and someone to relate to at this time. We have a whole WhatsApp group with over 200 SVA people in it that started out with how upset we were about our graduation getting canceled. And that’s where people were kinda mad about the lack of outreach over many things … It took what felt like decades to get some second semester money back … And then we didn’t even get much money back either.”

— Kate Brennan, School of Visual Arts

“Campus life in general would be represented by things like the subreddit or the Purdue Facebook page. I’m surprised, but they’ve had a lot less content than usual, I think. Maybe more participation, but a lot less content. Specifically because the Purdue subreddit usually has memes out of things that have happened on campus or news out of things that have happened on campus or discussions about things that happened on campus. Every time there’s a new update there’s a flurry of activity, people trying to decode exactly what it means for them. But on the whole, I’ve actually seen a lot less content … This crisis has, I think, emotionally hit people involved in the performing arts very hard. Because you can’t. You just can’t … It’s really hard when the entire premise of your organization is based around an activity that involves people getting together and doing something. News came down that choir was going to get canceled and at our last rehearsal our director was like, ‘Okay. We can’t be here together, singing, but I’m going to have this meeting up every week, come in whenever you want, literally stop in and let’s just talk.’ We have a choir of about 60 people. Maybe five people will show up. It is hard to do the things that don’t seem essential. It is hard to be socially distant but not be socially isolated. It’s so easy to sit in your box and do your math homework.” 

— Anonymous, Purdue University

“I know of a lot of people doing Zoom calls just to hang out. My swim team had a full-team call a couple times just to talk to people. I’ve done that with the group of friends I’ve made from my dorm. There are a couple of game things that people do, like Jackbox Games. I’ve heard of people doing that to hang out with friends and do something together. It’s mostly friend groups getting together. There’s also a thing for student-athletes called an Irish Strong Town Hall. Normally, athletes gather and listen to peers who have gone through something tough, also discussing mental health and how we can improve that among Notre Dame athletes. There was one last night over Zoom. There’s also a Notre Dame Christian athletes group that I’m a part of. We still have a weekly Zoom call.” 

— Erin Isola, Notre Dame 

Academics:

“The student body at RPI is already upset/angry with the administration for our summer semester Arch program, and allegedly people got even angrier when the school announced that it would be held online. It’s a mandatory summer semester between students’ sophomore and junior years that most students despise. It’s been a thing for at least a few years.”

—Anonymous, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

“The online platform is pretty disorganized. All of our classes were already on Canvas so there was no problem with switching to online, but the problem comes from varying platforms used for each class for watching lectures. My classes used Zoom, Blue Jeans and Canvas conferences. Juggling between the different platforms has been weird but not unmanageable. Luckily, our classes do not make us turn our cameras on to attend class and get participation, which helps many students feel more comfortable since they do not have to share their living situation with their entire class. Most of my professors have altered exams to make them easier. One of my professors even canceled our final term paper and changed it to an exam that he has given us two weeks access to, so we have plenty of time to work on it. Other professors have made things “open note” so students aren’t getting in trouble for using their online notes and class resources to do well on their exams.”

— Ellington Poston, University of Michigan

“Two classes that I have to do a lot of work for haven’t changed much. They’re lecture style, so I watch the lectures online … It’s not that different. I had a couple other classes that were purely experiential, where I had to do hours. Those basically just ended. One was an internship at an early childhood development center on campus. I’m a psychology major and I’m interested in working in childhood development with developmental delays. I wanted a general internship to get experience with younger children. That just ended because I couldn’t go back to the preschool, obviously. My other one is a class where I’m with a girl who’s diagnosed with autism and I shadow the type of therapy she gets. I can’t be with her anymore either. There were some textbooks and worksheets for that class that I finished up, but in terms of doing hours, that was done.” 

— Erin Isola, University of Notre Dame 

“We actually were cut short a week [compared to a standard semester], so it’s even crazier. I have midterms on Friday and I’ve been in class for eight days. Or will have been in class for eight days on Friday rather. It’s wild, but I guess I’m kind of used to the curveballs like that after two years with Kettering.” 

— Emerald Dewey, Kettering University

“Class is way easier to tell to fuck off. In person lecture for my history class was super strict about phones but when we went digital, I played Pokemon in another tab the whole time and did not learn as much (kinda on me but still).” 

— Max Clark, University of Michigan

“I think the university leadership—actually President Mitch Daniels, I think, has done a pretty good job with this thing … Where things get complicated is actually with individual professors, or sometimes whole departments, though that’s rare. I’m very lucky in that all of my professors have handled it really well. They’ve made everything accessible online through Blackboard. If there are online lectures, they are by no means required. And for exams, we get a larger time window. Now, the exams are harder: They make the exams with the knowledge that you have full access to your book and your notes and the internet. But I don’t think they’re unreasonable for the time period…. But, the few professors that are handling this very poorly, unfortunately are the ones that are in charge of very large classes that a lot of freshmen take. For instance, the introductory engineering classes. There was a professor in the engineering department who—this information is from me talking to a friend who’s in first-year engineering—teaches this class of, like, 500 students a section because it’s a massive major. He said something like, ‘I haven’t recorded this class in 27 years and I’m not going to start now.’ So he was holding live lectures, but you had to tune in at that time or you missed the content. He posted slides, but he didn’t post lecture notes at all. 

Professors have done their best to create spaces online where students can have discussions boards and things like that, but of course they’re trying to do that through Blackboard and the user interface of Blackboard is garbage. It’s so bad. There are a few courses, a few departments—a friend of mine who’s an animation major, actually, said that one of their professors just straight-up has a Discord for the class. There are a few classes and a few professors, usually in the more computer science-centric majors, who are using technology a lot more effectively—shocker. In terms of class participation, it’s gone way down. Discourse between students about academics has gone way down. Just because it’s so easy to just stay in your box and get your stuff done. I fall into that trap all the time.”

— Anonymous, Purdue University

Grading Policy:

“Before an official statement was made on COVID-19, there was a lot of talk of forming a protest on the school’s subreddit, which did end up happening. I can’t recall seeing much activism after the move to distance learning, but there are many complaints (and I think a petition or two) regarding the means by which lectures and testing are conducted. Many argue that some of the required software is invasive and against privacy policies while others are simply discontent with the quality of the programs. I can’t really say for all platforms, but Reddit and Discord are filled with complaints and an overall sense of uncertainty with the COVID-19 situation. Because of the sheer amount of discontent I see, I would argue that these platforms lean closer to toxicity. From my perspective, I think that these social media networks in particular are used as places to vent frustrations or ask questions about the many uncertainties of both the current and next semesters. These platforms prove to be great places to pool opinions and information, but also serve to embody the dissatisfaction felt towards the administration.”

—Anonymous, Stony Brook University

“So the grading system here right now is the option to pass/fail any class and not have it count against you toward your degree. There is still a lot of concern around the idea of pass/failing as there are licensing exams, graduate school acceptance requirements and other factors that are not controlled by the school and it is unclear what procedures will be put into place regarding these requirements. One of the more commonly debated factors right now is the fairness of the changing policy to students that are suffering from financial hardship or simply being in a different location internationally. There are “rules” that exist on what professors can and can’t do such as participation credit and attendance credit, but it seems that despite trying to adhere to these rules while maintaining the integrity of the course grading system, professors are still facing push back from students. There has been frequent communication with UT leadership but the announcement of our president leaving his position has somewhat blurred the authoritative and leadership communication. This is a tough time right now and everyone is just trying to do their best. Everyone should be voicing their opinions and providing much needed feedback but I think the argumentative and attack-style rhetoric should be reserved for when we have more time to sort out the details.”

— John Lobel, UT Austin

“[Kettering administrators] haven’t made a formal decision [about the grading policy]. I have a feeling after midterms there will be a petition that circulates fighting for a pass/fail system, although these are untrodden territories. Thankfully they do use a normal F to A grading scale when we are being graded so it makes GPA calculation a lot simpler.”

— Emerald Dewey, Kettering University

“Honestly, I think that U of M has done a great job (at least from my experience and those of my friends) of making accommodations for students during this difficult transition. They have switched all of our classes to pass/fail and we can opt to get our grade on our transcripts if we would like. They have also extended our drop deadline, so if we want to drop a class, we have until the last day of class, which is April 21. Not only can we drop classes late, but if we drop the class, it won’t show up on our transcript, so we will not have the infamous W mark next to the dropped class. “

— Ellington Poston, University of Michigan

“I didn’t want it changed because now I have to go through the process of requesting letter grades, since I’m applying to med school this year. Many students applying to grad schools that want this semester to count towards their GPA are having the same issue.”

— Amelia Gavulic, University of Michigan 

“There was a movement to change to credit/no credit, and it actually worked. People can choose to do credit/no credit classes, and the deadline for withdrawal has been extended past finals, too … I didn’t see a lot [of online discourse on the grading policy] but from what I could see it was pretty friendly, I didn’t see anyone dissenting really. It was mostly people in the comments talking about changes they would make to the plans students were talking about, or the final plan put forth by the university, but nothing crazy.”

— Cassandra Thompson, Central Michigan University 

“Notre Dame has a credit/no credit policy they’ve put into action this semester. I think it’s nice of them. You can decide after you see your final grade—there’s a couple day window for you to look at your final grades and decide if you want the grade to be pass/fail or if you want to take the letter grade you can. It’s great for a lot of people, but if you want to get into grad school or med school or anything like that, it doesn’t really do anything for you. I have a lot of friends who are premed, and they’re like ‘That’s great, but I’m not going to do that.’ Because they’re applying for med school, and if others applying didn’t take their classes pass/fail, the others look better. What’s funny is that a lot of my athlete friends are the ones who are premed. They really have no opinions because they’re not going to use pass/fail anyway. Also, there’s a lot more of a culture of putting your head down and getting to work when you’re an athlete. You don’t really have time to think about things to complain about because every minute of every day is scheduled out so exactly that you just have to get through it all … From my non-athlete friends—they also do like to discuss more, in our group chat—they were talking about the pass/fail. Some are happy about it. One of my friends isn’t. She didn’t want them to make every class mandatory pass/fail because she thought she wouldn’t be motivated at all to do anything. She’s like, ‘We have more freetime now that we’re at home. We’ve got nothing better to do.’ I think that a lot of people are in favor of the fact that you get to choose, that you get to make the choice after you see your grades.”

— Erin Isola, University of Notre Dame 

“We have a “pass/no credit “ policy where it doesn’t affect your GPA. For this semester only, we can choose for every class (even for ones required for our major, which can’t usually be P/NC ) if we want to change it to P/NC. As many as we want. So we have the option to change every class to pass/no credit, but if we want some of our classes to still count towards our GPA, we have that option. I personally like this semester’s policy in that regard.”

— Anonymous, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

“The P/NC option differs between majors, but the general idea is that above a certain threshold (such as a C), you can opt for a letter grade or a pass to appear on your transcript. This doesn’t apply to all programs uniformly nor universally, but is nonetheless helpful in providing students with options for their academic future.” 

—Anonymous, Stony Brook University

“People wanted to close down classes [at ASU] so there was a very big petition to do so, but the board/pres. ignored it and basically said, “Nah, it ain’t that bad.” The reason for the petition was because one of the first cases [of COVID-19] in the United States was on our campus. Our school is basically saying “Fuck you” to the students and isn’t doing shit. They’re still keeping the current grading system.”

— Sam C., Arizona State University

“[The higher-up leadership] have given students at Purdue the option to make any of their classes this semester take a pass/fail grade instead of a letter grade. And you have until the beginning of May to decide. I know I’m going to take a few classes for pass/fail just because it’s really hard …  I’ve missed assignments, I’ve missed other content, quizzes and things, just because I don’t have the structure of going to class and I fall behind. 

I know that there are professors at Purdue who will fail students. I know that there are many students who will fail classes this semester because of either the lack of structure or the lack of internet, or maybe, I don’t know, they live on the other side of the planet. A friend of mine lives in Taiwan and he went home during spring break. He told us, ‘I am quarantined in my house. We get groceries delivered. Someone comes into my house every five hours to check my temperature.’ Yeah, just, write an essay during that? But I know there are professors who will fail students. The president of Purdue has this idea of grit and the ability to persevere through hardship … Most recently, in last year’s commencement speech given to freshmen during orientation was about the importance of mental health and all the things that come with that at a massively demanding, extremely challenging school environment. So students who are struggling should find a way to develop grit and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, which is a hilarious phrase. That kind of philosophy is unfortunately the culture in a lot of the more intense majors at Purdue … There’s a belief that if you didn’t succeed, you didn’t try hard enough. And yes, it’s more complicated than that, there’s more nuance to it, but at its core, if you did not pass this challenge that we created for you, it is your fault for not trying hard enough or not seeking out the resources available.”

— Anonymous, Purdue University

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