As college-aged Americans started getting vaccinated against COVID-19 in April 2021, third-year comparative literary studies Ph.D. student Raina Bhagat felt helpless. Travel restrictions barred her from returning home to India, and she could only watch from abroad as her loved ones suffered. My grandmother got COVID and we were just so afraid, Bhagat said. Former professors of mine were hospitalized. Some of my friends from India were running around looking for oxygen for their parents. It was terrifying to know that there was absolutely nothing I could do and I was sitting here and getting vaccinated in a country where vaccines were starting to go to waste. Bhagat said her professors taught as if everything was normal, but she struggled to learn as the pandemic took an intense toll on her mental health. More than two years after the first recorded COVID-19 case in the United States, Northwestern community members like Bhagat are still feeling the impacts of lasting grief and learning disruptions, even as the University lifts most pandemic restrictions. NU closed its doors in mid-March 2020, pivoting to a remote learning model and closing residence halls to most students. While the University invited students back on campus for winter 2021, most classes did not meet in person until that fall. Many students said the long pause in traditional learning has taken away their college experience.
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Experiences with remote learning
Third-year anthropology Ph.D. student Anuranjan Sethi said the quality of his education declined as soon as the University switched to remote learning. As anthropology is a seminar-based subject, Sethi said being online restricted his interactions with colleagues. Many anthropologists also had to rely on digital and distant observations instead of face-to-face interaction to conduct research, Sethi added. Being in your bedroom or your dining room and constantly attending classes (from) there, I think it made (learning) harder and less fulfilling, Sethi said. Bienen sophomore Fiona Shonik spent her entire freshman year remote. As a trumpet player, she said she could not interact with fellow students in ensembles or attend in-person lessons. At the start of the pandemic, Shonik said many students created multitracks, where they synced up individually-recorded parts to create virtual performances. While these projects taught musicians useful audio editing skills, she said the playing experience wasn’t the same. Coming back to playing with other people, it’s such an emotional thing and it’s a way of communication and connection with others, Shonik said.
Challenges in academic fields, virtual teaching
Remote classes also took a toll on instructors, some professors and teaching assistants said. Spanish Prof. Denise Bouras said while she experimented with incorporating technology into teaching, the shift to online was very challenging. With young children at home, Bouras said she struggled to balance her family life and work life. The pandemic sent her children into remote learning and created new distractions. (My three-year-old) just wanted to come to my door, and I ended up creating this visual image of me on the computer so she could understand that I’m in there working because otherwise for her that was a totally foreign concept, Bouras said. The shift was particularly difficult for professors teaching classes that require hands-on components. Communication Prof. Ines Sommer taught an introductory course for graduate students about the technical aspects of filmmaking during the pandemic. To demonstrate things you hold it up to your laptop camera, she said. The students came away with being able to operate all the equipment, but I think it was pretty challenging. Sethi had his first experiences as a teaching assistant during the remote learning period of the pandemic. He said his interactions with students felt inorganic, so he was happy to return to in-person instruction. There’s a different kind of energy which fills the classroom when we are all together in that same place, Sethi said. The engagement for the students that I was observing was better.