Opinion | Education

How America's undergraduates can survive — and thrive — at home

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the country, hundreds of thousands of college students are completing the spring semester at home. For most students, especially seniors, the sense of loss is palpable. Gone suddenly are all the extracurricular and cocurricular experiences that help define the residential college experience, the joys of spending time every day with friends and classmates and - at more and more colleges - the prospects of spring commencement.

For many, the sudden shift from school to home creates serious financial hardships. With stock prices plunging and jobless claims soaring, it's natural for students to wonder what the future holds in a post-pandemic world. And many wonder about the implications of "confinement at home."

That said, students have course work to complete and time to fill. We offer the following suggestions for making the best of an unprecedented situation.

Get the most from online classes

At our institutions and others across the country, faculty are working hard to make their courses immersive experiences, with self-paced learning, feedback loops, group exercises, video modules, and discussion boards. As creative, skillful, and dedicated as most faculty are, a good deal of the responsibility for getting the most from these courses rests with the student.

Treat your online classes as you would any other class. Devote at least two to three hours preparing for each class and participate actively, raising your hand digitally, whether in a Zoom conversation, on a discussion board or by old-fashioned email.

Don't hesitate to reach out to a professor if you lack reliable online access, live in a time zone that puts a class in the middle of the night, or lack a quiet place to study. Faculty can make adjustments - for example, by recording a class for later viewing or offering portions of a course asynchronously - if they know in advance what's needed.

Set a schedule and stick to it. Just as you created a structure for yourself when transitioning from high school to college, you should establish new routines for working from home. If you find yourself falling behind or struggling, ask your professors or appropriate professionals at your school for help.

Practice social distancing - and distant socializing

It may be tempting to ignore what by now is a well-worn refrain: practice social distancing. After all, those most vulnerable to COVID-19 are the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. You may not get sick, and if you do, your symptoms might be mild. But people of all ages have been hospitalized with COVID-19, and even if the risk to you is low, if you become infected you could endanger someone else - a grandparent, a first responder, a medical worker, or a friend. Social distancing breaks the chain of transmission that poses a threat to all of us.

During a pandemic, traditional spring break festivities are inexcusable. 

But social distancing need not mean social isolation. Be creative. Some of the students at Hamilton and Cornell who ate meals together every day are still doing so - online. The internet, of course, makes keeping in touch easier than it has ever been.

Equally important, learn to enjoy your own company. Read a book for pleasure. Record your thoughts, feelings, and experiences each day in a diary entry of at least five hundred words. Interview your parents and grandparents and compile a family history. Rekindle a once passionate interest - in woodworking or playing the guitar - or start a new interest.

Do some research about a profession you think you might pursue.  Work on your resume. Using online resources, design your own indoor exercise routine.

Volunteer

Few things are more likely to elevate your mood than helping others.

The Red Cross is desperate for blood donations. Volunteer with meals on wheels, "shopping angels," or other reputable nonprofits.

Chat with an elderly relative or family friend once or twice a week, using FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype.

Consider context

The next few months, perhaps the next year or more, will be challenging. COVID-19 has upended your expectations and the world around you. It's worth remembering, though, that past generations have made sacrifices at least as great as you are making. During World War II, for example, many people your age left college to serve in the armed forces.

While some have accused Gen Z (or Generation Zoom, as some have taken to calling this cohort) of being cynical and self-absorbed, we see students every day who are compassionate, caring, creative, and willing and able to do what is right and what is good to "secure the home front" and meet the greatest challenge of our lives.

Join the ranks of what might some day be deemed the "greatest generation" of the 21st century.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.

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