By Rebecca Carrillo
The old saying “March comes in like a lion, out like a lamb” was floating around inside the young woman’s head as she quickened her pace towards her residence hall, lugging an empty suitcase behind her in which she would soon pack clothes from her dorm. It was March 19, and winter still had its hold on Worcester. As she put up her hood to protect herself from the freezing rain and fierce winds, she couldn’t help wishing that she could exert some control over the weather, for that day certainly didn’t need to be made any worse by awful weather. It seemed that there were many things occuring which she could not control.
That young woman—like thousands of other Worcester State University residents—was forced to say goodbye to her second home months before she expected to. On March 16, Worcester State President Barry Maloney sent out an email confirming what every Worcester State student had been wondering and talking about for the past two weeks: the school was closing its residence halls and moving to remote learning beginning on March 30.
For residents and commuters alike, the Worcester State campus is a place to call home; it is where academics, socializing, and self-growth all take place and merge. As such, students’ study habits and health in general has been drastically altered due to the abrupt switch from spending much of their day on campus to spending most of it at home.
Several other universities and colleges in Massachusetts had already made their decisions to close down their respective campuses for the remainder of the spring semester, in order to protect their student population as well as the general public from possible exposure to COVID-19, at the time WSU elected to do so. These schools included the UMASS schools, Wheaton college, fellow Worcester-area school College of the Holy Cross, among others. The decisions these schools made to close their campuses was preceded by previous announcements regarding COVID-19. Schools had already been sending updates and reports about the virus for weeks, if not months. In fact, many Worcester State study-abroad students were asked to cut their experiences short and return to the United States, even before any official decision about virtual learning was made.
In the weeks leading up to Barry Maloney’s announcement, the possibility of Worcester State going virtual was thus certainly not out of the question for a majority of the university’s population. It was on the tongues of students, faculty, dining hall staff, and janitors. Everywhere you went, you would almost be guaranteed to hear people say, in excited tones, the words “virus” or “online classrooms” flying out of people’s mouths. Even the most studious classrooms were interrupted with related discussions, with even the most strict of professors giving into their students’ curiosity and adding speculation about what would become of their classes.
With all of this pondering, gossip, and expectation, the decision to close Worcester State for the remainder of the semester did not come as a surprise to most of the students.
“I was sad when I first heard it, but I wasn’t too surprised; I knew a lot of other schools were closing,” said Ben Morin, a sophomore Psychology major.
Likewise, sophomore Ashley Barratt “foresaw this coming to Worcester State,” especially with “seeing everything going on in the news.”
Even though many students were not shocked by the news that they would not be returning to campus, many were still disheartened. One immediate concern was how they were going to be successful in their online classes. The experience of physical classrooms and face-to-face interactions between students and faculty is nearly impossible to replicate. WSU students can tell you as much.
“I do miss the classroom interaction,” said Barratt. “The focus was just a lot better than the home setting.”
Collaborating with and helping other students is often a key part of a college class. Passionate discussions and arguments, constructive criticism, and the engaged attention of a professor are factors that not only help sustain their students’ interest levels and focus in the classroom, but also contribute to invaluable skills that they will use for the rest of their life.
“I believe there are many soft skills that you get in a classroom that just aren’t present online,” says Alex Paulino, a biology major at Quinsigamond Community College who attends some classes at WSU.
These soft skills learned in the classroom and on-campus include the emotional intelligence needed to determine how to work with different students; the time management skills needed to determine how much time should be spent working, studying, or hanging out with friends; the self-confidence needed to present in front of a class; and the initiative to go to a professor’s office hours to ask for help.
Students are also concerned about the impact that virtual classes have had on their study habits. Many realize that what worked for them on campus is not as efficient at home.
“I think it’s more difficult doing work at home; I’m more in the zone at school,” said Ben Morin. “I’ve been doing things like watching TV more. I never used to do that at school.”
He’s not alone. “At home, I find it much harder to be able to sit down and do the work,” says Ashley Barratt. In her room on campus, she says she had “an easy time” completing her work.
Students like Paulino find themselves missing the library. He says that now he finds himself “getting distracted very easily” and has a hard time focusing as his house is “very loud.”
Not only have study habits been affected, but the usual ways in which students previously learned to deal with their stress and anxiety have fallen apart in some cases. Ashley Barratt is a member of the women’s cross country and track teams, and her time spent participating in these sports has always been a great stress reliever for her. Now at home and without her team, Ashley finds it more difficult to manage her stress.
“Especially as a student athlete, it’s hard not having those gaps of interaction with athletics to help reduce stress,” she said. “At home, I find it harder to reduce stress and anxiety over classes.”
Student-athletes are not the only students suffering a loss of something they had been looking forward to doing in the spring semester. Students who had been taking classes which mainly relied on in-person, hands-on learning have had to adjust to the losses of these learning experiences.
Paulino, a biology major, is no stranger to labs. These labs usually require students to engage in peer-to-peer, physical, and interactive learning.
Now he finds that online-only workarounds are making things more challenging. “Well, I send my tears by email, now. It starts off with panic, then I snack, then I overthink, and then I do my assignments,” he quips. On a more serious note, Paulino explains that he and his classmates “just watch videos on the lab and then answer questions as if we did the lab.”
For Paulino—and likely for many students—this new way of completing labs leaves much to be desired; the excitement and curiosity that normally comes with participating in them physically is now lacking.
Psychology major Morin was set to conduct his own study this semester by having students participate in an experiment. He admits that he was indifferent to most of the changes his classes had to make, but not being able to conduct his experiment was a disappointment.
Still, despite the general negativity surrounding classes moving online and having to stay at home, students admit there are some perks to their classes now being virtual.
Morin, for example, believes his classes will mainly be easier. His tests are now allowed to be open-book and open-note. The main struggle for him now is “just getting through the homework.”
While the virtual classroom setting is certainly an abrupt change from normal, a hopeful attitude is what has kept these students afloat. Students have carried on by taking things as they come and accepting that, while they cannot control global circumstances, they are indeed making an impact by staying home. This same hope will aid these students in adjusting to the new normal way of living in the coming weeks and months.