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Cornell students from all over the globe have reached a year as remote learners.

March 14, 2021

Remote Cornellians Reflect on a Year Online

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As Cornell marks the one year anniversary of campus’s abrupt closure, students studying remotely since spring 2020 have found the experience to be both fraught with challenges and new opportunities. 

At the same time that these students have struggled with distance from the campus community, changing clubs and courses and the artificiality of making new friends online, they’ve also reunited with family and old friends at home. 

When Cornell sent out an email telling students to move out on Friday, March 13, 2020, Amanda Ma ’23 recieved frantic calls from her mother, the next day she had packed and returned to her childhood bedroom.

With almost three semesters at home, Ma said she’s almost gotten used to remote learning. Despite this, she worries about re-adjusting to life back on campus if she were to return in the fall. 

“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to walk on campus when I get back,” Ma said, and added that she’s forgotten what it’s like to have to get ready and leave the house for meetings.   

First-year students face a different issue: they have no college experience to compare to. Though Laura Attarian ’24 likes her courses and professors, she said she doesn’t know what college was like pre-pandemic, or what the campus experience is like now. Attarian added that the distance sometimes makes her question the extent to which she is a part of the Cornell community.

“Sometimes I do question if picking Cornell was the right choice and if I’d be happier at another university,” Attarian said. “Sometimes it feels like I’m just doing online classes and I’m not studying at a university.” 

The pandemic has even changed professors’ understanding of students’ needs for the better, according to Ma. She said that prior to the pandemic, she was taught that professors wouldn’t be sympathetic to extension requests due to stress or exhaustion. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, she has found the exact opposite to be true.

“In the fall semester we had professors say ‘If for any reason you have issues at home, you don’t have to come to class, you can just get extensions, no questions asked,” Ma said. “That was really shocking as well, just getting used to ‘oh my mental health does matter.’”

But while some professors are understanding, being remote has complicated participation in clubs that rely on in-person activities. Elizabeth Zhu ’23 said she tried to go to clubs in-person last year to see what she liked, but this year she hasn’t been actively participating. 

Groups like the Cornell Speech and Debate Society easily transitioned practices online, but the Advocacy Project, which does workshops on self-advocacy with its partners, is harder to organize because students can’t see each other in person to plan, according to Ma, who is a member of both. 

There’s little in the way of a cohesive remote learning community at all Shivani Singh ’24 said she didn’t know anyone else who was studying remotely this term. But for some, staying home has given them new access to old friends. Zhu, Attarian and Singh all said they’ve reunited with friends from high school while participating in remote learning.

For students studying in other countries, the time zone difference can be a challenge of its own. Rabail Makhdoom ’23 is studying from Pakistan and said that last spring the nine-hour time difference caused her to sometimes become completely nocturnal, staying up all night and submitting assignments at 9 a.m. local time. 

Ysabella Vistan ’23 said that around half of her classes have her on the graveyard shift. “I do most work-related things starting 8 p.m. at the earliest and usually end at around 5 or 6 a.m. most nights.”

For some students, time zone differences have affected their course selections. Zhu is studying from Hong Kong, 13 hours ahead of Ithaca, and picked mostly classes which are either asynchronous or start late in the evening to avoid waking up early. 

Living with family again has been enjoyable for most students, but comes with personal challenges. Nicholas French ’23 acknowledges that, although he likes spending time with his grandmother, he feels as though he’s losing his identity as a college student.

“That independence is gone. And you’re back home. And when you’re back home, you’re your mother’s child,” French said. “Even if you’re an adult, you have a new role to fill, or rather, an old role that you have to squeeze back into.”

Over the course of a year, Cornell’s remote learners have adjusted to their new conditions. Despite the challenges, they don’t hate it. 

“This was the best possible outcome from the worst possible situation,” Attarian said.