For current and future college students, the last few months have been filled with uncertainty. The higher education environment has been evolving almost daily. After completely moving to remote learning environments last spring, schools are now starting to announce their plans for the upcoming fall semester. Some schools will offer their curriculum completely online, others are moving forward with in-person classes, and some will offer a combination of both online and in-person classes.
Families, however, are not letting uncertainty get in the way of their plans for college. Research shows that seven in 10 college students and parents feel comfortable with returning to campus next year.
We chatted with Jessica Brockson, senior at the University of Delaware, and Sallie Mae’s social media intern, about how she’s adapting to the new COVID-19 normal.
1. How have you changed your approach to schoolwork in light of COVID-19?
Since moving online, one of the most helpful things I did was create a schedule for myself. Every professor I was taking classes with was different. Some had live video classes, while others made pre-recorded lectures which were then posted for students to watch on their own time. Four of my five classes were all pre-recorded, so I planned to watch the lectures at the same time I originally had in-person classes. By creating this routine for myself, I was able to stay on top of my schoolwork, and cope with the initial shock of moving online.
At school, I enjoy studying with people who are taking the same classes. Since it wasn’t possible to meet in-person, I participated in a lot of video chats with the other students to go over our assignments. I also relied on online study tools, like Quizlet, to make study guides for myself.
At school, I usually study or do work in the library where there are limited distractions. But, being at home was a bit different. I was confined to my room and had to really focus on the tasks at hand and try not to get distracted by my family, my dogs, etc.
2. What has been the most positive change you've experienced?
Since moving online, I have had a lot more time to focus on my schoolwork — which helped me get better grades this semester. I studied for exams probably twice as much as I usually did because I had so much extra free time. I didn’t have any meetings or events like I would usually have if I were on campus, so I used that time to study.
Another positive was that my professors were understanding of the situation. A lot of times we were given extra time to work on assignments and exams. All of my professors seemed to understand we were all in the same boat and they were always willing to help. However, being online definitely came with some technological issues. One time I had to miss a zoom class because my power was out. Under normal circumstances, this would be an issue, but to my surprise, my professor told me not to worry about it and that I wouldn’t be penalized for missing class.
Above all else, I finally had time to relax. I am usually busy every day. Whether I’m running between classes, heading to my on-campus job, or participating in Greek life events, my life is always on “go.” Being home gave me the opportunity to take a step back and relax from all the craziness. Once I was done my schoolwork for the day, I was able enjoy the little things like watching TV or taking my dogs out for a walk.
3. What's been the toughest part of your transition?
Although it was nice to get some much-needed rest, it was a hard transition from being busy every day to sitting at home with nothing to do but schoolwork. Like I mentioned before, I’m involved in a lot of extracurriculars. Abruptly being sent home threw a wrench in my plans and everything I always looked forward to in a school year was suddenly gone. It felt like each day that passed by involved another event being cancelled, so it was a hard hit early on. To our advantage, there were a lot of online events and zoom calls to make up for the cancelled plans, but it wasn’t the same as interacting in person.
I also found it difficult to concentrate while doing my schoolwork at home. On campus, I have the ability to distance myself from distractions and head over to the library when I want to study or get homework done. At home, it’s a tight space with both my parents, so most of my studying was done in my bedroom. It took a lot of self-control not to turn on Netflix or gravitate towards my phone when I was bored and trying to finish my homework.
Another tough part was the financial burden. I was able to receive some money back from the CARES Act, but not nearly enough to make up for what was essentially lost from my tuition. There wasn’t much done for reimbursement besides the CARES Act refund and a small amount of money that came back from student center fees. In addition, I live in an off-campus apartment and we weren’t given any rent relief, so I was still making payments for my empty apartment for 3 months since I had to move back home. I’m privileged enough to have some help from my parents, but I can only imagine what students who were on their own were going through.
4. Is college worth it, even if classes are online?
I think college is worth it. Even if it’s not the same as the normal college experience, it’s always nice to get ahead and it doesn’t hurt to learn something new by taking a few classes. If someone is worried about the level of work or taking core classes online, there is always the option to take gen-ed classes and get those requirements out of the way. For incoming freshman, I recommend looking into a community college if they are hesitant about online classes. That pathway is cheaper, and most courses are transferable to another university. Even before COVID-19, I took some online classes during my winter/summer breaks to get ahead and they were all able to transfer and probably cost half as much as taking it at my full-time university. In addition, it’s a great way to save money by taking classes online and living at home if someone has the option to.
5. What would you say to an incoming freshman this year so they can best prepare?
I would suggest creating a schedule if all classes are online, especially if there are pre-recorded lectures that can be watched at your leisure. A schedule will help you set aside a few hours, spread out across the typical school week, to push you to work through the material. This way, it feels like a routine as if you were going to class and it’s easier to manage the workload. I would also recommend waking up early and being productive. It’s nice to wake up early, grab a cup of coffee, and get work done in the morning so you have free time in the afternoon or night.
If incoming freshmen have the opportunity to be on campus, I would recommend trying to meet as many people as possible. It’s helpful to start making connections when you first arrive at school. Before coming to campus, research Facebook groups for the incoming class at your school. A lot of people post in there to meet people and there are usually a few group chats created for people to start getting to know each other. Usually the group chats are made for people in the same college, major, dorm, etc. In addition, if there is the opportunity to join a club or organization on campus, those are some of the best and easiest ways meet people with your same hobbies and interests. I joined a professional business fraternity my first semester and meeting people with the same goals helped me become more acclimated to campus. I also made so many connections that I have kept throughout college and will most likely keep for the rest of my life!
6. What's been your biggest UNEXPECTED takeaway from taking classes at home, online?
Don’t take time on campus for granted. I remember so many times in the fall I would say things like, “I’ll do that spring semester,” and holding off because I thought the spring semester was guaranteed. I was lucky enough to study abroad in fall 2019 and came back to the U.S. in December before anyone had really even heard of COVID-19. When spring semester came around, I was only given 5 weeks on campus before we were sent home. It was hard to cope with the fact that, although I had an amazing experience in the fall, I was only given 5 weeks on campus my ENTIRE junior year.
Another surprising takeaway was that some of the classes I took were more beneficial to take online than others. For example, my advertising class, which was just a normal lecture with PowerPoint slides, was much easier to adjust to than my upper level Spanish conversation class. Usually at UD I don’t have that many options to register for an online class. But in the future, if I had the opportunity to take a few online classes or learn in a hybrid format, I would.
7. If you had to use two words to describe this 'new reality', what would they be?
Abrupt and transition: I definitely didn’t expect to experience a global pandemic in my lifetime. Everything happened so fast. It seemed like classes and on-campus life was normal, then one day we got the announcement to head home. It was a surreal feeling saying, “Bye” to my friends and roommates. I thought we would be back in two weeks but in reality, we’ve been apart since March.
The new reality is going to take some getting used to. It will be an adjustment in the fall semester going back and having hybrid classes and not having a normal college semester experience. However, I have become comfortable feeling uncomfortable because I believe that’s when I grow the most. Like I stated before, whether you’re an incoming freshman, a current student, college faculty or staff, we’re all in this together. And together, with patience and understanding, we can conquer this new challenge with flying colors.