The college experience came to an end for millions of students in an anticlimactic hurry last month. The Coronavirus has had a unique impact on the world, altering the day to day practices through which businesses and governments interact. Its societal implications are far reaching, from the pure loss of life to the worldwide economic damage which could result in tragic outcomes. These are the stories that have received the most publicity, and rightfully so. But there is another facet to this event, one which many are grappling with at this very moment as students across the country come to terms with the lost goodbyes and the disturbed continuity of the college experience. While many have attempted to handle the shift to online, isolated schooling with good humor and irony, it is undeniable that the process which brought us here requires analysis and questioning in the name of similar future crises.
As I finished my final midterm exam several weeks ago and stepped outside the classroom, I was focused on one thing—coordinating Spring Break plans. Not once did I consider that this would be the last time I would attend a class at American University. I was still a college student with just over two months remaining in my program and a graduation bucket list to complete with friends from all over the country who had made the previous four years the best of my life.
Over Spring Break, we began receiving updates from the school, first that classes would temporarily go online, then not long after, that the remainder of the semester would assume that mode of communication. In the moment it was hard to understand the full impact of this decision, but I soon became all too aware of its broader implications. I returned to Washington D.C. to pack and leave for my parents’ house in Pennsylvania. While in D.C. I did my best to see as many of my close friends as possible, greeting each with a smile and elbow bump.
Typically, college goodbyes over dinner and drinks are occasions for celebration, hugs, and intimate moments that you will reflect on for the rest of your life. But this experience was something much different. I was calm, reflective, and regretful. We talked about all the experiences we didn’t get to have, all the places we would likely never get to go now as a group. There were many who I did not get to say goodbye to in person, and instead had to talk with virtually, a sign of the times I suppose.
For me the process of leaving D.C. was a fairly straightforward one: pack up and avoid all unnecessary contact. Simultaneously, thousands of students and their families crowded the narrow corridors of the school dormitories as they packed and left. Many, including myself, are now living at home with a family member who is considered essential personnel, being put at risk everyday of contracting the illness. Situations like this bring into question the true effectiveness of current safety measures and seemingly beg for future revision.
The online classes we now take have been like our departure from campus—impersonal and clumsy. Besides the unavoidable connection problems, and typically shorter class periods, the environment as a whole has been much less interactive. The professors have done the best job possible under the circumstances, despite understandably not being used to the forum. For many, including myself, there have been times where all we can do is laugh about the situation, but I am quickly discovering that this is because in many ways that’s all anyone in our position can do. We are paying tuition for an ineffective online schooling experience conducted from our hometowns under stay-at-home orders.
The process has demonstrated that online communication in its current form will never trump the in-person workplace and academic environment. Online communication has revolutionized many sectors of commerce and made information transfer more open and accessible for millions around the world. But this mode of communication must never be a first option, for business, government, or society. For these areas to succeed, they require the sort of human-to-human interaction which cannot be duplicated on a screen.
Jordan is a research intern at the Washington Institute. Originally from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, he is currently an undergraduate at American University majoring in Political Science. His primary focus at the Washington Institute has been developing the ‘Washington Institute Directory’, a consortium of information encompassing the network of businesses, governments, and civil society organizations active in Metropolitan Washington, D.C..