Fully remote students consolidate and commiserate as they learn to cope with online learning struggles

While more than 2,120 students decided to return to Vassar campus this past August, 334 students opted for the fully remote learning alternative for the Fall 2020 semester.

As the semester has progressed, many fully remote students have had to reckon with a variety of struggles while also learning how to support and advocate for one another.

With many fully remote students scattered across various parts of the globe, navigating different time zones has proven difficult. Linda Kim ‘23 has had to wake up at 6:30 a.m. Alaska Standard Time nearly every day to attend her 10:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) classes. She’s been averaging five to six hours of sleep everyday. 

Kim also described the challenges of taking college classes while living at home. “It is very difficult to focus at home, as the setting at home isn’t really work-supportive. Also, I feel my concentration levels have significantly decreased compared to the time I was on campus” she expressed. 

Times zones also complicated due dates. According to Ece Buyukozer ‘23, “Assignments generally due at midnight EST are due at 9 p.m. [Pacific Standard Time] for me which allows less time to get some things done.”  

Technical difficulties have also created obstacles for Zoom students. It can be hard to hear classroom audio over Zoom, leaving students feeling separated from the in-person classes. Remote student Yvette Hu ’22 explained, “There was a lot of feeling of disconnection simply because the audio quality of classes wasn’t the best and participating in class became difficult. It was already not easy for me to participate very actively as sometimes I get not so confident about my English.” 

Many remote students have also experienced delayed or nonexistent feedback from professors about their work. According to Nicole Stern ’22, she has noticed instances, primarily with STEM professors, where students are not receiving feedback on homework or problem sets. Consequently, remote students are unable to gauge their understanding of the material. 

In conjunction with academic hurdles, remote students have wrestled with social struggles. Since they are unable to physically be present on the Vassar campus, many are excluded from the college community.

“I believe that the staff and professors are doing their best to include remote students, but most events are focused on people on campus, and not remote students,” explained Kim.  “Emails that are sent regarding in-person events made me feel very distant from Vassar,” she added.

The geographic distance and time zone differences also make it difficult for remote students to stay in contact with their on-campus friends.

One way remote students have been coping is through engagement in open dialogues. Vassar’s Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI) has organized forums in which students, faculty and administration can converse about anything related to life at Vassar, whether that be about the academic curriculum or extracurriculars. Stern attended an EPI forum on Oct. 21, which was primarily targeted towards students off campus so that they could garner administrative attention.

During the meeting, students and administration discussed what academic approaches remote students found successful, and what actions were hindering students’ ability to learn and feel included. Ultimately, Stern believed that the forum was productive. “I think there were a lot of issues communicated that could easily be fixed which would help remote students a LOT,” she said through email. 

However, Stern expressed doubt about how effectively student suggestions would be implemented. “In the meeting I felt very heard by the EPI team and my peers (and PB for the short time she was there) but I’m not really sure if that message got passed along or went anywhere, or if we were venting into a void,” she explained. In the future, Stern hopes that conversations such as the EPI forum continue but with more transparency.

The remote student community has also consolidated in more informal settings to cope with their circumstances. 

A private Facebook group known as Vassar Online, with close to 200 members, has been the main social media platform in which remote students have been engaging in open dialogue, commiserating with one another, and sharing virtual events or exchanging memes. On-campus Vassar students are also welcome to join.

Kim expressed that the Facebook group has been one of her greatest sources of support while remote. “Most of us are feeling the same emotions and going through similar thought processes,” she explained.

Some individuals from Vassar Online have taken the initiative to host informal Zoom meetings. On Nov. 1, Hikari Tanaka ’21 hosted the first Vassar Online Zoom meeting. Inspired by the EPI meetings, Tanaka sought to provide an informal, student-run space so that fully remote individuals could freely talk and bond about online life struggles.

Going forward, Tanaka hopes that conversations like these continue: “I think it’s important to hold some form of space for online students.” She continued, “ I am sure that the number of online students is at least a significant portion of the student population, but the amount of resources and outreach to us is sparse.”

There have also been organized efforts to support fully remote Vassar students in China who are part of the Fudan Program. This program was developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by Vassar administration and Tean, an education abroad network. It was intended to give international students from China an opportunity to study at Fudan University in Shanghai and have some semblance of campus life since they cannot be physically present at Vassar. However, as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, those enrolled in the Fudan Program are unable to access the university’s facilities. According to Hu, many people were disappointed in the program. 

Recently, the Office of International Services (OIS) in collaboration with Asian Peer Mentors (APM) organized a bonding event for Chinese students in the Fudan Program. Hu, who is Vice-President of Vassar’s Chinese Student Community (CSC), helped to organize this event. Hu reflected, “I could tell freshmen here in general enjoyed the event a lot.”

Many on-campus clubs have also been making efforts to be inclusive of fully remote students. Kim, who is a choreographer for the Korean Dance Crew (KoDC) on campus, is particularly appreciative of the efforts the group is making to involve its online members. In addition to setting up Zoom meetings for every weekly General Body meeting, they also have made virtual dance pieces so that remote students can participate.

While life as a remote student comes with its challenges, remote students also acknowledge that they are not the only ones struggling to cope with their circumstances as this time is uncertain for everyone. Remote students are appreciative of the efforts that have been made thus far to support them from both the on-campus student community and professors. “I, and a lot of the remote students, understand this is all an experiment, trying out processes because none of us went through this before. There is no one to blame but the pandemic for all of this, and I really hope everyone is safe,” Kim explained.

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