As the world pauses for coronavirus, college students must continue to learn

During the coronavirus outbreak, the 19.9 million students attending college this year have gotten the short end of the stick. Many can’t receive recovery rebate checks or unemployment benefits. This, paired with personal uncertainties, leaves what was once a priority for students — education — at the back of their minds.

“It becomes extremely difficult to focus on my classes during such uncertain times,” said 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania student Olvin Villatoro. “[I am] worrying about how my family and I will be able to deal with the financial, physical and mental struggles of this pandemic.”

Even during these troubling times, colleges across the country have transitioned online. Between Zoom lectures and commencement cancellations, students have adapted to their new course curriculums.

University of Central Florida student Marcela Hernandez said she has taken plenty of online classes before, but they tended to be easy. She is afraid that switching to online learning will make it more difficult to navigate course material that she finds is “already hard to comprehend in a face-to-face setting.”

The transition has also added additional work, as some of her classes are replacing required events with written assignments. Hernandez struggles with time management and prefers going to classes in person because it gives her a set schedule. 

”I have to make more of an effort to remember to actually set aside time to complete all of my assignments, especially the extra ones that were added.” 

Maria Ordoñez, a 21-year-old Boston University student, said that although her transition has been better than expected, learning online is not ideal. Her classmates are still putting in effort but appear to be less engaged and motivated. 

“It’s especially difficult for people in different time zones,” she said. “People who had to go back home to Taiwan or India now have to go to class until 3 a.m. How are they supposed to sustainably learn like that?”

In a non-scientific social media poll conducted over 24 hours with 30 college student participants, 63% agreed that moving classes online would negatively impact their education. 

One of the participants, 21-year-old Leticia Cobas, said that her classes at Florida International University were meant to be hands-on experiences with broadcasting equipment. Now she has to produce content for her portfolio at home. She also has to write about the studio instead of working in it. 

“It’s disappointing because I am not getting what I paid for, which was to use the equipment inside of the studio,” Cobas said. “It feels like I didn’t get my money’s worth from the semester.”

Maybel Cerrato, a 21-year-old student at the University of Florida, said she enjoys learning while going to class lectures and taking notes. Although she is happy being back home, Cerrato said it is a completely different environment than when she lived on her own in Gainesville. There she could light a candle and play calm music in the background. She emphasized that she can’t study at a coffee shop or even the library because she prefers her own quiet space. Now she has to focus on her classes while her parents and siblings carry on with their lives in the background. 

“I was trying to concentrate on a quiz while my mom was cooking and on the phone, my sister’s caretaker was blow-drying her hair and my brother was playing on his PS4 screaming,” Cerrato said. “On top of that, I made it CLEAR to them I was on Zoom for a quiz and my dad still felt the need to come into the room to tell me he needed a favor whenever I finished class.”

Villatoro also emphasized that he lost a proper studying space. He added that the transition would particularly affect first-generation and low-income students like him.

“I tried to focus in my online class today only to have my family come into the living room and make it hard for me to even hear my professor,” he said. “Being that there are lots of people living in my house, I don’t have the luxury of a private space or any form of comfortable learning environment that other students might benefit from.”

Villatoro added that online learning might not be as feasible for certain students. This is where grading systems come into play. Like many other schools, Penn switched to an optional pass/fail system. Villatoro said it gives an advantage to students who have access to a controlled environment and other resources. They can seek actual grades, while other students might be forced to opt into pass/fail out of necessity. 

“I don’t think that my university is considering the challenges this crisis poses to some of its students,” he said. “And that is very frustrating.”

(Editor’s note: This story is part of a series describing the transformational effect of coronavirus on the young. For more stories, click here.)

Natalia Clement is a senior journalism student at FIU. She was born in Bogota, Colombia, but was raised in Miami. Her passion for journalism began in elementary school as a school news anchor and continued all the way into college. She enjoys written journalism the most, but also finds broadcasting interesting. She is the copy editor for Caplin News and also interns at Univision. Natalia looks forward to graduating in the summer. Her ultimate goal is to move to New York to pursue her career as a journalist.