Grace Han ’21 spent her entire junior year abroad at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Upon returning to the United States, she made the difficult decision to spend yet another semester away from Vassar. This time, she would spend it about two hours away from campus.
“My family and I had extensive conversations as to what this semester would look like for me and my younger brother, who is a rising sophomore at Vassar,” said Han. The family eventually decided that given the circumstances, it was safest for Han to study from their New York City home.
According to Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana, of the approximately 2,400 students enrolled this semester, 400 have chosen to study remotely. Vassar equipped classrooms with video cameras to allow virtual students to watch and participate in classes in real time from their home computers. Alamo-Pastrana explained that students had various reasons for choosing to study online, but that most students felt confident they could effectively continue their studies via Zoom because of the experience they gained from studying remotely for the second half of the Spring 2020 semester.
Some students arrived easily at their decision to study remotely. “This was not a difficult decision for me because I didn’t have a choice,” said Alexandria Ortiz ’22. “The main reason why I decided not to return to campus was because students would not be able to leave campus. I need a part-time job, in addition to work study, in order to pay for my expenses.”
Like Ortiz, Nicole Stern ’22 also found the decision to be relatively clear. “My mom lives alone and is high-risk, so me being able to go run errands for her and get groceries or—God forbid—take care of her if she were to get sick is important,” she explained. Stern also felt there would be too many temptations to socialize on campus.
But for many, the process of studying remotely is anything but simple. Hella Zhou ’22 is living in Chengdu, China, where the 12-hour time difference between her home and New York creates an obstacle for attending live classes. Most professors offer recordings of their classes, but Zhou expressed that adapting to an unusual academic schedule can be difficult.
Vassar’s typically flexible scheduling process has also been altered, creating novel complications. New, COVID-19-based restrictions against over-enrolling, as well as a larger number of registered juniors due to canceled international programs, have created an overwhelming demand for courses. As a result, Ortiz found that the administration was more reticent than usual to approve course overload requests. She expressed her frustration: “I don’t understand why they are giving me such a hard time, because the instructor of the class I want to take and my major advisor have approved of me joining the class.”
Several students expressed feelings of disconnection from the campus community. While students can participate in many extracurriculars from home via Zoom, this has its limitations.
Last year, Ortiz founded a campus organization, Vassar Cosmetics, a beauty and cosmetics organization on campus, but has found it difficult to lead an org from home.
“It is going to be hard to be the community leader (the equivalent to being president) from home, especially when Vassar starts Phase 2 and orgs can meet in-person outside and in the tents,” she said. “Luckily I have amazing people on the executive board that can keep the org running while I’m at home. But it really sucks because this org is my baby and I can’t be hands-on to help it grow.”
Stern decided to combat her loneliness by creating an online community for virtual students. “When I started feeling the FOMO kick in, I decided to make a Facebook group called ‘Vassar Online’ to give a more communal space for students who are not on campus this semester to feel like they are still part of the Vassar community,” she said. “Having people to share recipes with, remote learning tips, or just vent about our current situation can be really useful for the mental health of those who don’t have our normal support structures.”
While the beginning of any school year requires adjustments, this year proves to be extra challenging for all students. However, both in-person and online students are figuring out ways to reap the most from this semester.