Feature

2020 on Hiatus

Are We Ready for Higher Education to Go Remote?

2020/06/23 ,

Opinion

Esther Kao

Esther Kao

A recent UC Berkeley graduate, Esther Kao is a budding writer with a passion for mental health and healthcare technology.

What you need to know

Graduating from college while taking remote classes was not just a drain. It made clear the transformative power of campus life.

About a month ago I graduated from college amid the Covid-19 pandemic, though at the time I was fast asleep. My truancy stemmed not from personal laziness but the unorthodoxy of our current times.

In lieu of an in-person commencement, the University of California, Berkeley, hosted a virtual graduation ceremony on Minecraft, much to the hilarity of the student body. When the big day rolled around, I debated from the warmth of my bed: Did a few more hours of sleep outweigh the merits of attending my own graduation?

Yes. Yes they did.

My potentially problematic relationship with sleep aside, this apathy indicated my growing detachment from my identity as a college student.

As a result of the local government’s order to shelter-in-place, I moved back home to stay with my parents. The life I’d formed at Berkeley was only accessible in bits and pieces, mostly online.

It took returning home for me to realize that a college education, with its loose structure and lack of parental surveillance, had been the ideal training ground to practice riding solo.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
University of California, Berkeley Professors Lisa Wymore (L) and Greg Niemeyer look at the Zoom screen showing students in their online Collaborative Innovation course in Berkeley, California, U.S., March 12, 2020.

My final semester of college abruptly morphed into a never-ending series of Zoom calls, online exams, and a complete disintegration of my college community. My once bustling schedule was instead packed with intensive sessions of bed-lying and ceiling-staring. Though the days seemed endless, I found myself struggling to complete coursework and study for exams in a timely manner.

Though the combination of Covid-19 stressors and nationwide despondency likely played a role, the real blow to my sense of place in the world came from the move back home — some essential part of me had vanished.

At home, all the communities and habits that I’d built for myself independent of my parents began to feel like fantasies that I’d dreamed up. I no longer felt like a full-fledged college student with autonomy over my future. Instead, I became a soulless creature deposited like a lump on my bed, reading emails from my professors about “these dark and uncertain times” and scrolling past reminders to “take care of yourself.”

Without a physical space for students to inhabit, the transformative power of college is lost. Growth is the product of so much more than gaining intellectual knowledge or an official diploma. It’s our response to contextual and environmental changes that forces us to cultivate an independent sense of self.

Returning to my parents’ house helped me realize that, without the Berkeley campus and the social connections I’d established, I’d be a vastly different person.

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
People wear masks while walking past Wheeler Hall on the University of California campus in Berkeley, Calif., Wednesday, March 11, 2020.

What I’m championing here doesn’t necessarily need to be linked to higher education. After all, if independence is the end goal, why not just live alone until we’ve mastered the elusive skill of “adulting”?

And I agree: college isn’t for everyone. For some, it’s not cost-efficient to funnel tens of thousands of dollars towards the dubious goal of “character development” — it’s not exactly a sought-after transferable skill. Others may be confident in their ability to navigate the working world without the guidance of higher education.

But for a sheltered, inexperienced youth like my freshman self, college had just the right balance of structure and freedom. Though I was distanced from the immediate support of my family, I found comfort in the familiarity of regularly scheduled courses. And I wasn’t alone. Alongside equally inexperienced peers, I paid taxes for the first time, cooked meals, and cried on dirty apartment floors.

Though the precise selling points of a “college experience” are varied, I can’t deny that my college years have irreversibly molded me into who I am today. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been physically present on a campus away from home.

I haven’t quite mastered the art of being an adult, but whatever I’m doing now sure looks something like it.

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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2020 on Hiatus:

Our world has been plagued by things beyond the coronavirus itself: panic, disinformation, racism, unemployment, and loneliness. In a series of essays, we’re going to talk about the social and psychological impact through personal anecdotes and observations. Together, we would imagine the possibilities that await us after the pandemic.

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