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2021: Online classes and social deprivation

by Gabriel Fisher

When college graduates reflect on their senior years, I imagine many recall memories like savoring friendships or dancing at Saturday evening parties. 

When the Class of ‘21 looks back at its senior year, those classic memories, for many, will instead be composed of online classes and social deprivation.

At the beginning of last year, when the U.S. had only a handful of confirmed coronavirus cases, I took off to Amsterdam to study abroad. Roughly six weeks later, I was summoned home, not only ending my study abroad adventure, but also marking the beginning of my virtual learning career. “Dutch Language and Culture” has the honor of being my first online class.

I was beyond disappointed to leave one of the world’s most stunning cities. A great pleasure of studying abroad, the ability to travel to neighboring countries, can be replicated in the future, but immersing myself in a culture for four months is certainly less likely. 

My classmates at Claremont McKenna College were not spared from the madness. Students had little time to pack their belongings and arrange travel plans. One Australian friend hopped on a plane home for spring break. She later received a phone call from an administrator telling her not to return. Her belongings were packed into boxes and placed in a dormitory basement. She didn’t reclaim the items until last month, nearly a year later.

After the school tacked on an extra week of spring break so faculty could have more time to make adjustments in preparation for the online transition, the Zoom experience began. My Dutch course was conducted via Zoom while my other two courses were completely asynchronous, meaning we watched pre-recorded lectures at our own convenience.

Foreseeing that the following semester would also be conducted remotely, I tried to secure housing during the summer, but ultimately came up empty handed. Just before the semester began, my brother headed south to Venice to live with a handful of friends while my parents headed east to Chicago where my father operates a business. I stayed home, which I naively assumed would be a growing experience, a time to become more individualistic.   

This assumption was wrong. I realized that I was already decently independent and that living alone was not a prerequisite to incorporate this trait into my personality. The only thing I took away from living alone was understanding that I’m one who needs social connection to feel content.

Living alone exacerbated a feeling that many adolescents have become too familiar with during the pandemic: social deprivation. While many Americans are facing these challenges, young people have lost opportunities for social growth. Research shows that socialization promotes brain development. How might this lull in young people’s social lives, whose brains are still developing, affect us long term?

For almost a year, through no fault of its own, CMC has been unable to offer its prized academic experience. Online courses create obstacles that interfere with the intimacy of our normal learning environments. One student dropped her Arabic language class because it was too difficult to learn the material remotely. Many students surf the internet or scroll through social media when they are supposed to be listening to the professor. Spotty Wi-Fi might freeze the professor’s voice, leaving students to fill in the gaps of what might have been said. Some international students living in their home countries have become nocturnal due to odd class times. A Singaporean friend spent his days sleeping and his nights studying.

Not all side effects of online classes have been negative. I’ve found it less intimidating to share my thoughts in class. For better or for worse, not being as closely observed by my classmates has provided a sense of comfort. 

The online format has also enabled students to study from unique places. Most students I know are clustered around Los Angeles and Orange counties, but some have ventured eastward to places including Utah and Nashville.

After a year of missed social opportunities, some students have tired of pandemic restrictions. One student said regaining aspects of a normal college experience has started to outweigh his concerns about contracting the virus. He planned to attend a party last Saturday evening hosted by a Pitzer College student. 

Foreseeing a subpar end to my college experience, I enrolled as a part-time student this semester. Taking what I think is a small risk that campus will again be shuttered is well worth the potential reward of experiencing one last go at college. Above all the benefits of returning to campus, I want a final opportunity to develop academically and socially during the sacred, once-in-a-lifetime college experience.             

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