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Remote students reflect on time away from Brown

On the anniversary of campus closing for COVID-19, some students remain far away

On a Thursday afternoon in March 2020, unassembled cardboard boxes appeared in the entryways of dorms across Brown’s campus, shrouding bulletin boards of colorful flyers and event invites. They jutted into halls that led to lounges once full of laughing residents and dining halls packed with students rushing to get one last bite in before class.

Squeezing past the boxes, students were left with a reminder that, soon, the lives they had created on their college campus would have to be packed neatly away for the long trek back home to be continued remotely.

As Harshini Venkatachalam ’23 shipped a haphazardly-taped cardboard box of possessions back home to Arizona, she had no idea that one year later they would remain in her house, packaged in a translucent green container beneath her bed.

Venkatachalam did not realize how long the COVID-19 pandemic would last. As she spent her spring and summer under the hot southwestern sun, she worried about the safety of flying across the country for the fall semester, especially as the pandemic continued to worsen.

When the time came to decide whether she would return to campus for the fall, Venkatachalam chose to stay home. Now, one year into her experience with online instruction, she said that remote learning has been exhausting.

“I thought it would get easier,” they said, “but I’ve been having a lot of problems being able to learn effectively online.”

“None of us really knew what we were doing, so there was sort of a feeling of impermanence,” said Una Lomax-Emrick ’23. 

For Lomax-Emrick, quarantine meant spending the remainder of the spring semester at home in a small town two-and-a-half hours north of San Francisco. As the end of the summer drew near, they also had to decide whether or not to return to Providence for the fall. It was a decision not only for themself, but also for their parents, both of whom are high-risk.

“There were some concerns about what would happen if I got the virus, and potentially wasn’t able to come home,” they said. Although the difficulties of remote learning at the end of the spring semester made them wary of continuing online school, Lomax-Emrick made the decision to study remotely for the fall “to make sure that (they) would be able to keep (their parents safe)” — a decision they made again for spring 2021.

Jordan Kei-Rahn ’21 decided to continue studying remotely after seeing the surge in positive COVID-19 cases over the summer. Feeling that living in a dorm would be unsafe, he spent the past year in West Hartford, Connecticut, living at home with his mother. As a Residential Peer Leader, he “didn’t feel comfortable with (the) level of engagement in-person” that his residential experience would require.

“I didn’t want to sacrifice my personal health in order to test out the stringent COVID-19 guidelines that (colleges) were starting to put in place,” Kei-Rahn said. Because COVID-19 cases continued to increase as the fall semester came to a close, he made the decision to study remotely for the spring semester — his last semester as an undergraduate at Brown.

For Kei-Rahn, the University’s hybrid model has posed additional logistical and accessibility challenges in remote study.

“I’m not a believer in the hybrid model at all,” he said. “I have had classes where sometimes even half the class for a seminar is spent just dealing with technical difficulties, so it really detracts from the learning environment.” 

On one occasion in the fall semester, one of Kei-Rahn’s professors — teaching some students in person while others tuned in over Zoom — forgot to turn on the computer’s audio, preventing remote students from asking questions or contributing to the class altogether.

Additionally, “sometimes it’s very difficult to hear the professors or the discussions going on in class, and we often have to remind the professors or students to vocalize better or enunciate better so we can hear,” he added.

However, Kei-Rahn said that many of his remote classes have “exceeded the expectation of how (he) thought they would go,” and that many professors “worked hard” to ensure their classes would be accessible for remote instruction.

Navigating time zones has raised additional challenges of the remote student experience. Joon Nam ’23, who has studied from his home in South Korea since the closure of campus last March, has found it hard to fully engage with his classes through online instruction because of the disruption the sixteen-hour time difference has caused to his day-to-day schedule.

“You know you probably should be taking (classes) more seriously and you should have the same level of motivation,” he said, but, “for international students at least, it’s absolutely tiring every time that you go to class.

With increased accessibility to class materials, “remote learning is very powerful and a very effective tool when it’s a choice,” Nam said. The issue is that, for Nam, it is currently “involuntary” due to financial constraints and looming health concerns for international travelers.

Venkatachalam said that, as a teaching assistant for CSCI 0180: “Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction,” remote instruction has provided students with greater access to help for their projects and studies. She hopes departments at Brown will continue exploring ways in which remote education can augment the student experience. 

Still, being physically separated from campus has made it difficult for remote students to feel fully connected to the Brown community. Many seek a return to normalcy and hope that, soon, they will be able to pick up where they left off one year ago, on a chilly March afternoon.

“(I’m just) looking forward to being present for an entire year,” Nam said — something he has not done since his arrival at Brown in fall 2019. He’s looking forward to experiencing everything from “the mundane things” to the “wealth of events” that happen on campus.

Throughout their time as a remote student, Lomax-Emrick has been “continuously grateful” for their reliable internet connection and accommodating professors. In navigating their newfound academic and social life, they have also begun “to be more generous with (themself)” and learn “when to say no.” Most of all, they are excited for the day when they will get to see friends in person.

“I really miss the in-person interaction, that was the best part of going to Brown for me,” Venkatachalam said. “That’s what made that college experience really special, but remotely it’s really hard to replicate that same feeling of connection.”

With additional reporting by Rebecca Carcieri


Jack Walker

Jack Walker served as senior editor of multimedia, social media and post- magazine for The Herald’s 132nd Editorial Board. Jack is an archaeology and literary arts concentrator from Thurmont, Maryland who previously covered the Grad School and staff and student labor beats.

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