Higher education amid a pandemic: Insights from a Georgia Tech master’s studentSkiles Walkway and Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons during Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 closure. Most students, staff and faculty remained absent from campus during the shutdown resulting from the pandemic. Credit: Quynh Pham
By QUYNH PHAM, master’s student of Architecture and City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech
To say that the last several months have been distressingly surreal would be an understatement. For students, it began with an unusual end to the spring semester, one marked by sudden shifts to online learning, early prompts to move out of campus housing, virtual graduations, and understandably high levels of anxiety due to the uncertainties that laid ahead.
Remote online classes continued through the summer and served as a soft place to land for students who found themselves without work and cancelled study abroad programs. Those who retained summer internships were grateful yet perplexed as to how such a thing could happen while full-time employees were getting laid off or furloughed. The change in tide occurred so quickly that apprehension about the future was shared by recent graduates and prospective employers alike.
Now, with the fall semester just weeks away, students preparing for a physical return to campus must include face masks in their back-to-school shopping. On July 15, in response to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University System of Georgia began requiring the use of face coverings in campus buildings when social distancing cannot be guaranteed. Concerns have been raised given Georgia’s current surge in COVID-19 cases, yet the USG has remained steadfast in the decision to resume in-person classes. However, it is difficult to imagine how universities like Georgia Tech will operate so as to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty and staff; which when combined equates to over 40,000 individuals. Some Historically Black Colleges and Universities have taken a different course. In Atlanta, presidents of Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Clark Atlanta University announced July 20 that their fall semester would be completed online only.
Remote learning has proven to come with some worthwhile benefits. Time commuting to campus converted to time to rest. Students who commuted from off campus regained two or more hours a day. For those living closer, even a mere additional 15 minutes of sleep was a luxury. A second, ironic benefit was that while quarantining put in place spatial restrictions, there seemed to be greater access to academic, extracurricular, and networking opportunities. Several academic institutions and professional organizations made their work and events virtual and free.
The ability to access all of this from one’s computer eliminates the time and cost of travel, allowing one to jump from a webinar hosted in Europe to another in the U.S. in a matter of seconds. The overall success and popularity of these virtual gatherings could have large implications on the expanded accessibility of educational platforms moving forward.
Though, it would be remiss to not acknowledge that remote learning also comes with its losses. How can schools maintain the same quality of education when students have limited access to campus resources? Furthermore, remote learning simply is not the most conducive educational platform for all. Yet, the greatest drawback is possibly the lost sense of community. Universities often tout their faculty and campus resources and facilities; however, an invaluable and integral aspect of one’s college experience is the peers with whom one shares it. Should remote learning continue, new incoming students would be at the greatest disadvantage by being without established relationships. While community building can occur online, it is far easier for students to grow isolated with remote learning.
Students depend on one another, not just for academic support but also emotional. The pressures and stresses of higher education have led some to commit suicide. In recent years, Georgia Tech students have pushed for greater mental health services in response to a series of student suicides over the past three years; Tech is now seeking to hire a psychiatrist to work with students and their caregivers fulltime on campus. Suicide among college students has been a long existing problem. The American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment conducted a student survey in 2015, where one-fifth of participants reported having thought about suicide. The pandemic likely has and will continue to exacerbate this issue. Survey results published by the NORC at the University of Chicago in June revealed that the American public’s happiness is at 14%, a five-decade low. The results also showed a correlation between higher levels of unhappiness and counties highly impacted by the pandemic. As the country continues on an upward trajectory of COVID-19 cases, happiness is likely to continue to drop.
The fall semester will prove to be challenging as the state continues to negotiate how to move forward without inadvertently setting it behind. In addition to continually learning how to navigate and adjust to life’s new circumstances, the majority of the semester will take place during the months leading up to the Nov. 3 election. The global health crisis, coupled with the politically charged climate in the U.S., has placed an unprecedented spotlight on politicians, resulting in a heightened awareness throughout the country.
Leadership has been both praised and scrutinized, and underlying societal issues have surfaced to the top. On May 16, as part of the Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020 television special, former President Barack Obama put it well when he stated: “This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems – from massive economic inequality to ongoing racial disparities to a lack of basic health care for people who need it.” The elections will be an inevitable and important distraction for students, one in need of our attention.
Current students and the newly graduated will play an integral role in reimagining and shaping a more resilient, sustainable and equitable future. However, until then, it is on all of us to hold our elected officials accountable and to the highest of standards. Those in a position of leadership must be willing to do the work and advocate for their communities, ensuring that they are able to endure the brunt of the ongoing pandemic and any future disruptions that could again threaten our safety and livelihood.
Note to readers: Quynh Pham expects to graduate May 2021 and hopes to work at the intersection of city planning, architecture, and landscape architecture, working towards a more equitable built environment.