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Students reflect on the impact of remote learning in ISU professor's new book, 'There is No College in COVID'

A Hollywood, Calif., classroom sits empty in August 2020. At least 2,750 U.S. schools announced they were cancelling in-person learning this week.
Rodin Eckenroth
Getty Images
An empty classroom during COVID shutdowns

Zoom fatigue, a lack of social interactions, and loneliness caused by the pandemic have altered the college experience for young adults. In an effort to stave off the spread of the virus, universities across the globe switched to remote instruction in March 2020. It was a change that dramatically redefined college for instructors and students alike.

Nearly two years later, university students are still confronting waves of shutdowns and battling the impact of remote instruction while attending college during a global pandemic.

Jenna Goldsmith is the editor of the book "There is No College in COVID: Selections from the Oregon State University-Cascades Journaling Project."
Jenna Goldsmith
Jenna Goldsmith is the editor of the book "There is No College in COVID: Selections from the Oregon State University-Cascades Journaling Project."

Jenna Goldsmith is the assistant director of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Illinois State University. In March 2020, Goldsmith was teaching at Oregon State University-Cascades.

Seeing the impact COVID-19 was making on her students, Goldsmith decided to assign reflective writing exercises to students taking her college preparedness class titled “You Engage.” She's now published those writings in a book called "There is No College in COVID: Selections from the Oregon State University-Cascades Journaling Project.” The book was published Dec. 7.

“Because of the significance of this pandemic on their lives, at some point it will start to feel surreal, and I wanted something that would keep the experience really real for the students. So that it was immediate, it felt it was happening to them rather than on the outside watching in,” Goldsmith said. “I wanted the experience to be something that felt really real to them. So, having the goal of putting the book together felt like it was putting something out into the world that was meaningful at a time that I think feels really surreal to most people.”

"This week I have learned a few things: 1. I now completely understand why so many people drop out of college. 2. Insulin is as cheap as water. (I’m being sarcastic.) 3. My boyfriend gives the best hugs. 4. I can’t wait to become a teacher and help mold little brains. 5. Weighted blankets and lots of ice cream will get me through college."
Anya R. Oct. 11, 2020

From the beginning, Goldsmith told her students she planned to put their journal entries into print.

“I don’t know if they knew what that meant really, or if they understood really that me being me, that might actually happen,” Goldsmith said. “But they were very open to it, and we had a system in place where if the journal entry felt too personal or something that they didn’t want to be eventually public, they made that really clear upfront.”
Goldsmith said having a record of one’s own feelings is important to her, and she said there is something to contribute to this time even though it feels as if the world is constantly inundated with the pandemic.

"I attended my grandfather’s funeral this week. He died of the virus. No comment."
Susan G. Oct. 11, 2020

Goldsmith said all journal entries represent a range of emotions that reflect what college students in 2022 are still enduring.

“A few people have said to me, ‘I’m surprised that the students are so positive in those moments,’ and that surprised me too. There’s a lot of hope represented in the book, but there’s also a lot of heartbreak,” Goldsmith said. “People are reflecting on the loss of family and friends through this process, and there’s also a lot of working through and processing of emotions in the pieces.”

When Goldsmith published the book, most universities were concluding the fall semester and planning to return fully in person in January 2022. However, high case rates due to the omicron variant and the increased spread of COVID-19 across the country have resulted in many universities implementing hybrid semesters and enforcing online learning until the surge wanes

"My first term of college is progressing along, but I don’t feel like I’m moving with it. It’s almost like the school year is just happening to me. I can’t quite tell if what I’m struggling with that’s based on COVID and what is college. Am I really bad at being a student or being a virtual student?"
Lucy F. Nov. 1, 2020

Goldsmith said the journal entries are more relevant now than in December 2021 because of the rapid change from face-to-face learning to online classes once again. She says in the present moment of uncertainty, it’s important for everyone – including those directly impacted by remote learning – to be reflective.

“I encourage other folks that are in the instructor role to think about how they can creatively engage with students around the pandemic itself because I think that there’s an opportunity to do that in every discipline. Whether it’s an English class or a chemistry class, there are ways to engage with the pandemic that aren’t just about watching the news and looking at the COVID dashboard. We can think about it in a much more creative and broad way,” Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith said one of the positive takeaways from this book that can stand to benefit university students that are emotionally and mentally exhausted from the pandemic is to make time for simple pleasures that positively impact mental health. Many of Goldsmith’s students openly spoke out about the benefits of stretching, going on walks, being active outside and more.

“You have to practice these things. They don’t come easy to us. What comes easy is sitting down. So, figuring out a way to engage in some of these small pleasures is something that the students taught me. I didn’t expect them to write about that,” Goldsmith said.

"This pandemic really made me enjoy the little details: the smell of cookies when they are baking in the oven; the cat stretched out baking in the sun; the warmth of the fire in the woodstove; the sound of the rain on the roof. I am a homebody but this virus has led to a whole new level of comfort, and it is amazing. Sometimes we just have to focus on the positive things and not let our worries take over our lives. We need to pay attention to what’s happening around us."
Elliana B. Nov. 22, 2020

Ultimately, Goldsmith said reflecting on the pandemic and finding ways to recharge one’s batteries are crucial to those impacted by online learning and the unpredictability of the pandemic.

“It takes time to see the fruit of what we plant, and I think it will be years down the road when we see how the members of our community are affected by this kind of learning atmosphere for better or for worse,” Goldsmith said.

Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021.