Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, Cornell students worked with little time and information to make a decision in the beginning of the semester — return to Ithaca or stay home?
While thousands of undergraduates flocked back to campus, many students opted to remain home for remote learning. Although the vast majority of courses are offered primarily online, for Catherine Choi ’21, Andrew Lorenzen ’22, Jessica Lu ’22 and Chris Chavez ’23, their decision has presented a slew of unique problems, and sometimes regrets.
Catherine Choi ’21, an industrial and labor relations major who recently decided to embark on a pre-medical track, is currently taking classes from her home in Baltimore, Maryland. Although the fact that all of her planned courses were to be held virtually, the final decision ultimately came down to what she felt was the most responsible for her family.
“At the time, when we had to make a decision about staying home or not, we didn’t know what the future was going to look like,” she said. “It could have been bad, and I would have had to potentially go home and bring something terrible to my parents. I thought that it was the right thing to do.”
As the semester progressed, Choi has struggled to navigate a new academic environment through an exclusively online interface, citing, in particular, the difficulties she has faced in her chemistry course.
“A lot of my professors have adapted their teaching to online methods and that just doesn’t translate,” Choi said. “What my professor does during office hours is pull up the white board feature on Zoom, and it is so tedious. I feel like most of the time I spend is just navigating the technology rather than actually learning the content.”
She has also faced a “homesickness” for Ithaca and Cornell’s campus — a feeling she said represents a testament to the richness of her college experience.
“I think it is just telling of how fortunate I am to have been able to experience college and have so many opportunities on such a vibrant campus with such vibrant people, and for me, one bad year doesn’t negate that,” she said. “It just helps me appreciate it more.”
Since remote students have not personally experienced the new campus protocols, their perceptions of Cornell’s COVID-19 management are limited to information offered by the University and those on campus. From what she knows so far, Choi is generally proud of Cornell’s response.
“I am really proud of how the administration has handled it,” Choi said. “I know there have been bumps along the way, but for the most part, it seems like people are being a lot more respectful than I expected.”
Andrew Lorenzen ’22, a government and performing media arts major, has spent his semester in Miami, Florida. With information about how Cornell would conduct courses trickling in just weeks before the semester was slated to start, Lorenzen was concerned that he might not have access to the academic resources he needed.
“I had planned to go back [to campus]. It was kind of last minute that I decided to reverse my decision, and I was doing that without a lot of information,” Lorenzen said. “I wish things had been communicated in a slightly clearer manner because it would have enabled students like me … to feel confident that they had the whole barrage of facts they needed to make a full decision.”
With the predominance of online-only instruction, many students are experiencing a uniquely 2020 phenomenon — “Zoom fatigue,” which has been a major struggle for Lorenzen.
“When you’re taking your classes all online, it’s just exhausting to be on Zoom calls for several hours every day,” he said. “Your only academic connection is over a computer screen, which feels more taxing.”
Jessica Lu ’22, a computer science major, has taken classes from her home in Virginia. Concerns about the virus and financial considerations weighed heavily in her choice to ultimately spend the semester away from campus.
While her decision did not compromise the ability to take her intended classes, she feels as though she lacks the same resources that would have been offered to her if she were taking classes on campus.
Much like Choi, one of her main frustrations lies with virtual office hours, where she said she has spent hours in breakout rooms waiting for assistance. There have been some instances in which help never arrived, forcing her to rely on peers as a resource.
“With in-person office hours, there is a lot of collaboration between students waiting,” Lu said. “We used to help each other figure out problems together, and you just don’t get that with online office hours.”
Spending so much time away from her friends has been a challenge for Lu. She misses the inevitable social interactions, the sense of independence and the congeniality that life on campus offered.
“Midterms are coming up and navigating midterm season without having your friends nearby to stress together has been hard. It is definitely weird being home,” Lu said. “I’m in my early twenties now, and it feels like I’m reliving my high school years in a sense … It just doesn’t feel like I am living out a year of college right now.”
Chris Chavez ’23, who is studying from home in the Boston area, is a molecular and cell biology major. The frustrations he faced with the hybrid semester began during the modified pre-enroll period, which he said made adding classes, even those required for his major, “outrageously difficult.”
“I basically resigned myself to sitting at my computer for basically two days constantly refreshing my tab until I saw an opening in a discussion group,” he said.
For the sophomore, the exclusively online nature of his classes has not only proved exhausting, but marred by the observation that “people have a pretty detached sense of what they need to accomplish from the course” and “don’t know what is actually expected of them.”
Although most of his classes would have been online regardless, Chavez misses the support structure campus life provides the learning experience. As a remote student, he is lacking the shared sense of ambition and purpose on campus, where “there is a positive feedback loop that allows people to drive other people.”
Longing for campus and frustrated with his online experience, Chavez sometimes regrets his decision to stay home.
“While the privilege of being able to study online is exactly that — a privilege — it still is not ideal,” Chavez said. “Because of that I venture to say that I will be going back to campus in the spring.”