Raising student voices

November 1, 2020 - 12:00am -- Living City

Raising student voices
As the 2020 school year pushes forward, a university student shares the hopes and fears of his peers

By Chris Piazza

As summer ended, higher education institutions across the country navigated the complicated process of starting up again. They needed to anticipate what the new academic year would bring in this moment of an unyielding global pandemic and persistent, systemic racism.

A fundamental concern, among the myriad of challenges, has been the physical, economic and social wellbeing of college campus communities.

As a fourth-year journalism student myself, I wanted to understand what these concerns are from the perspectives of my fellow students. So for the past few days, I’ve sat down virtually with eight U.S. students and one Canadian student to get their insights on what they’ve been feeling and what they think will happen in the fall.

This isn’t the first time we have had to deal with online distance education. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in North America last spring, schools have had to shut their doors and send students back to their homes to finish the academic year.

It was a work in progress as students had to face financial and housing insecurities; some couldn’t even get out of apartment leases.

“It has definitely been an interesting turn of events,” says Crystal Diaz in southern California, “I kept calling around June, but they said that lease cancellations were not allowed, which was so disappointing.”

At the end of May and the beginning of June, students began experiencing and participating in the global outcry for racial justice. As some have taken their passion to the streets and peacefully protested, others used social media to raise awareness and demand action from each other and the governments.

“Being able to document the George Floyd protest, to see people’s reactions, and how passionate they are to rock the system that perpetuates violence against black, brown communities,” says Miguel Carrion, studying in San Francisco, “it was really a sight to see.”

On top of the ongoing fight for racial justice, North America is facing the consequences of mishandling the coronavirus pandemic, which saw states close again after premature openings because cases began to rise before it even began to fall. This has led many institutions to delay or walk back their decision of whether to incorporate distance learning, in-person classes with health protocols, or hybrid courses.

With that, students have been struggling to understand how to balance different aspects of personal life. Dannia Peña of San Antonio, Texas admits, “I’m a first-year college student, and balancing work, family and studies has been a little difficult while moving everything online.”

Other students have had to work harder to try to facilitate student organizations like sororities. “It’s been really tough with my sorority,” adds Frankie Gregoris, who is studying remotely while in Washington State, “because you really don’t get that in-person connection.

“We had to strategize on how to convey our sisterhood and why people should even be in the sorority.”

And for the students that are studying courses that need lab or studio work, they have been left with either having to somehow replicate that online or step back into the physical classroom.

Ryan Paglinawan of Long Beach, California describes how “In terms of those hands-on lab classes, it’s really hard because it’s just not the same doing a virtual setup. But that’s the best that professors can do. I’ll adapt.”

Maryam Hanani in Michigan, on the other hand, explains that her classes are really small, with 4–5 students per class. She thought that it was “probably safe to go in person, stay socially distant and still wear a mask.” So far, three out of her four classes continue to be in person, and she is happy to have some face-to-face connection.

What students wish

As students either adapt to another learning experience, try to find money to cover a lease, or still struggle to find a secure internet connection or space to study, there are some things that we students want our professors to remember and understand.

“Leniency regarding deadlines due to connectivity issues, there really needs to be more of that,” Mary Bisada of Toronto urges her professors; while Ryan asks that professors “be available as much as possible.” Crystal chimes in, “Flexibility in instruction and in learning.”

It is one thing to talk about it, but what we students and also our professors must do and act upon this upcoming school year will require empathy, communication and creativity. For Stefan Curtis Jones, it feels that if professors know who their students are and how their students are doing, then the learning environment will be more cohesive.

“I’m pretty sure that I’m the only black person in class,” Stefan muses, “but I really forget all about that demographic divide because I feel very comfortable and happy in class. My professors do a great job engaging with us, making sure we’re having a good morning.” He concludes, “Just being able to have that regular, everyday conversation goes a long way.”

After we go about these suggestions and cultivate the relationships with our peers and most importantly with our professors, we can also build a connection to the administration, which deals with the decisions of an institution. Whether it regards financial or health issues, having the support and collaboration with professors can help us bridge that connection.

“I think that a big thing that we’ve learned from this past summer, especially with the protests against racial injustice, is that our voices do matter, and can be heard, and we can make big changes,” Maryam says, “so that goes to show that there is the possibility to make change in your university.”

Bringing in what’s outside

When we add everything together, the impact inside the classroom can be just as great outside of the classroom, because it is what we learn on the inside that greatly affects what we do outside. And to do that in these times, we can still foster the sense of community of college campuses online or in-person.

Leo Matone, a first-year college student, feels a sense of community at Hunter College, where he just started online courses. “That sense of community that gets so deeply engrained in seeing students face to face: I honestly, don’t know what universities can do more than what they’ve already done, offering us online events.”

As Crystal states, “We are the future and it’s important to have that broader, global context and deeper understanding that education is more than just for ourselves; there’s a greater purpose to it.”

These are just some perspectives of students. Some of us are in a prime position to succeed, but some are involved in intercollegiate athletics, which is in limbo. Others are working essential jobs that require a lot from us.

Many professors are just in the same boat of uncertainty as their students.

In order to progress and be productive this year, we need to make sure that we all know that some things we are all going to go through together, in communion and community. With the proper steps in understanding where students and professors are at, we can continue to navigate these times without things being known.

“If there’s anything I can say to professors,” Leo concludes, “it is ‘Good-luck and thank you, because all your efforts are what will help students in need the most.’”

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