Two years into the pandemic, faculty and students reflect on how COVID-19 has impacted their lives
April 4, 2022
As college-aged Americans started getting vaccinated against COVID-19 in April 2021, third-year comparative literary studies Ph.D. student Raina Bhagat felt helpless. Travel restrictions barred her from returning home to India, and she could only watch from abroad as her loved ones suffered.
“My grandmother got COVID and we were just so afraid,” Bhagat said. “Former professors of mine were hospitalized. Some of my friends from India were running around looking for oxygen for their parents. It was terrifying to know that there was absolutely nothing I could do and I was sitting here and getting vaccinated in a country where vaccines were starting to go to waste.”
Bhagat said her professors taught as if everything was normal, but she struggled to learn as the pandemic took an intense toll on her mental health. More than two years after the first recorded COVID-19 case in the United States, Northwestern community members like Bhagat are still feeling the impacts of lasting grief and learning disruptions, even as the University lifts most pandemic restrictions.
NU closed its doors in mid-March 2020, pivoting to a remote learning model and closing residence halls to most students. While the University invited students back on campus for winter 2021, most classes did not meet in person until that fall.
Many students said the long pause in traditional learning has taken away their college experience.
Experiences with remote learning
Third-year anthropology Ph.D. student Anuranjan Sethi said the quality of his education declined as soon as the University switched to remote learning. As anthropology is a seminar-based subject, Sethi said being online restricted his interactions with colleagues.
Many anthropologists also had to rely on digital and distant observations instead of face-to-face interaction to conduct research, Sethi added.
“Being in your bedroom or your dining room and constantly attending classes (from) there, I think it made (learning) harder and less fulfilling,” Sethi said.
Bienen sophomore Fiona Shonik spent her entire freshman year remote. As a trumpet player, she said she could not interact with fellow students in ensembles or attend in-person lessons.
At the start of the pandemic, Shonik said many students created multitracks, where they synced up individually-recorded parts to create virtual performances. While these projects taught musicians useful audio editing skills, she said the playing experience wasn’t the same.
“Coming back to playing with other people, it’s such an emotional thing and it’s a way of communication and connection with others,” Shonik said.
Challenges in academic fields, virtual teaching
Remote classes also took a toll on instructors, some professors and teaching assistants said. Spanish Prof. Denise Bouras said while she experimented with incorporating technology into teaching, the shift to online was “very challenging.”
With young children at home, Bouras said she struggled to balance her family life and work life. The pandemic sent her children into remote learning and created new distractions.
“(My three-year-old) just wanted to come to my door, and I ended up creating this visual image of me on the computer so she could understand that I’m in there working because otherwise for her that was a totally foreign concept,” Bouras said.
The shift was particularly difficult for professors teaching classes that require hands-on components. Communication Prof. Ines Sommer taught an introductory course for graduate students about the technical aspects of filmmaking during the pandemic.
“To demonstrate things you hold it up to your laptop camera,” she said. “The students came away with being able to operate all the equipment, but I think it was pretty challenging.”
Sethi had his first experiences as a teaching assistant during the remote learning period of the pandemic. He said his interactions with students felt inorganic, so he was happy to return to in-person instruction.
“There’s a different kind of energy which fills the classroom when we are all together in that same place,” Sethi said. “The engagement for the students that I was observing was better.”
Living in two worlds
Weinberg junior Nathan Andriessen, an international student from Indonesia, was one of the few students who stayed on campus after students were sent home in March 2020.
Because of Indonesia’s strict quarantine restrictions, Andriessen has only traveled home once during his three years at NU.
“My parents are at the age where they’re at a higher risk for COVID so I was worried for them, but hopefully I’ll be able to go back home again soon,” Andriessen said.
Meanwhile, McCormick senior Ploen Voraprukpisut spent the rest of her sophomore and junior year at home. As an international student from Thailand, Voraprukpisut is usually only able to go home once or twice a year, so she initially appreciated the time she got to spend with her family.
However, as she watched her friends move back to Evanston, she said she began to feel disconnected from the college experience.
“I missed on a huge part of campus life — my whole sophomore, junior year,” Voraprukpisut said. “It’s the middle years that make your college experience.”
Voraprukpisut said she did not want to go back to campus at all in fall 2021 and even considered taking a gap year to avoid returning. After being apart from the NU community for so long, Voraprukpisut feared her friends wouldn’t remember her.
But when she did return, Voraprukpisut said she reconnected with the community by reaching out to new people and joining more clubs.
“Being back home for so long made me forget all the fun experiences I made at Northwestern,” Voraprukpisut said. “Coming back really made me realize I really like college and I shouldn’t take it for granted.”
Bhagat said she has more complicated feelings about the return to normalcy on campus. While NU and her peers became more relaxed about COVID-19 policies, Bhagat said she couldn’t celebrate knowing things weren’t going well in India.
When she visited India in December 2021 for the first time since the pandemic began, both her parents caught COVID-19 and she spent her entire visit nursing them back to health.
“If my sister and I hadn’t been visiting, my parents probably would have had to have been admitted (to the hospital),” Bhagat said. “It was not the going home experience that I envisioned.”
She wishes NU understood the unique circumstances some students have faced and said University accommodations, like credit/no credit grading, were helpful but too short-lived. Even though the U.S. has started moving on from COVID restrictions, Bhagat said NU should be more cognizant that its students are not all going at the same pace.
Takeaways and looking forward
At the beginning of her senior year, Voraprukpisut planned to return to Thailand to work after graduating. But after enjoying her first quarter back on campus, she changed her plans.
“I’m so not ready to go into the real world, especially because I didn’t have that time (to experience college),” Voraprukpisut said. “In Thailand, we had curfews and we were in lockdown for basically the whole two years, so I felt like I didn’t grow at all.”
As a result, Voraprukpisut decided to attend graduate school at NU, which she said she hopes will give her more time to grow before entering the workforce.
During the course of the pandemic, four in 10 U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. While some students said their mental health suffered, others said the pandemic gave them an opportunity to prioritize mental health.
“My mental health through COVID got so much better because of the amount of free time that I’ve had,” Shonik said. “It was the first time where I had the opportunity to go to therapy regularly and it was the first time that I had time. I’m grateful that I took that opportunity to work on myself.”
For professors, the pandemic impacted some of their approaches to teaching. Communication Prof. Sommer said while it was difficult to keep students engaged over Zoom, she has also learned some strategies she hopes to incorporate into in-person instruction as well, like small group discussions.
Sommer said she felt exhilarated teaching her first in-person class since the pandemic started.
“I remember vividly the first class where we were back in-person that students were almost giddy,” Sommer said. “They were just sitting there like, ‘Whoa, we’ve spent our first year of grad school on Zoom and now we’re here next to each other.’”
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Email: [email protected]