OPINION: An online first semester has underappreciated advantages

A textbook, a notebook, and seven pens sit on a wooden desk.
Phillip Kong PO ’24 argues that online school comes with unlikely benefits. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

I am not going to convince you that clicking a Zoom link is the same as walking into the neighboring dorm room at 1 a.m. to have a profound conversation with your peers. It’s not.

However, an overwhelmingly negative attitude toward an online first semester is misguided and creates a stagnant social atmosphere that does not resemble that of an ideal first college semester.

There are two main advantages to being online for our first semester in college. First, in the coronavirus pandemic, the fact that many students would not have been able to be on campus if the 5Cs reopened would have caused social divisions. Second, it offers an opportunity for students to adjust to college academics before making as large of a social transition.

International students who could not obtain visas and students with health concerns are examples of those who would not have been able to go to campus during the pandemic. Those members of the first-year class would have lost opportunities to interact with their peers in person, resulting in a fractured community. This phenomenon is further exacerbated by the fact that there would have been difficulties for students who were on campus to socialize with each other due to social distancing measures. 

This issue is not necessarily solved by an online semester, as time zones and technological barriers continue to plague our social lives, but the overall situation is roughly equal for all students — it is as easy to chat with someone across the world as it is with someone a few counties over. In my opinion, the unity of our class as a whole, the chances to meet people of diverse backgrounds and the common experiences we share are the most important parts of the first-year experience — not just physically being in Claremont.

The opposing argument is that time zones and unequal access to technology actually create more unfair imbalances. But being on campus does not address this problem completely, as the students that struggle in an online semester — international students, students with financial hardships and others — are likely the ones that would also be alienated by campus reopenings during these times.

If the 5Cs reopened, those students would have faced issues like being unable to fly to the U.S. due to travel bans or leaving their families during a time of economic instability (and becoming unable to provide physical or emotional support). Everyone doing online school, however, means that at least some of the disadvantages these students would face are resolved.

An online first semester also allows students to adjust academically to college before the full social transition. One can focus on adapting to the new academic rigor of college in a familiar environment with a familiar support system. This is particularly relevant for international students who, upon moving to the U.S., will be immersed in a different culture with few peers of similar backgrounds. When we eventually do go to campus, adjusting to the social change will be much easier without the burden of an academic transition.

Don’t get me wrong, I dread certain parts of Zoom as much as you do and long for the day when we can see each other without the stale background of one’s bedroom wall. But the reality is that our first semester of college is online, and having a negative attitude towards the situation only prevents you from making the most of these unique few months.

Only when we recognize that starting college off on Zoom is not all bad can we begin to transform this experience into something memorable and possibly rewarding. Yes, having to send out a Zoom invite every time you want to talk to someone is annoying, but it also allows you to connect with someone regardless of your physical location. Yes, it is difficult to collaborate with your classmates at times, but you still have familiar faces around you to support you whenever you are in trouble.

The overall negative attitude toward the online semester creates a vicious cycle. As first-years get into the mindset, either from upperclassmen or faculty, that this semester is simply a misfortune and nothing more, it is easy to become complacent about reconstructing a rewarding first-year experience. We should not treat this semester as a bad dream and think that our first-year experience will only begin when we step foot in Claremont. Instead, we should be trying to overcome the inconveniences of building relationships with others in a virtual setting.

We do not know when we will go to campus, nor do we know when virtual classes will end. However, having a positive attitude toward an online first semester is the first step toward getting the most out of these unique times.

Phillip Kong PO ’24 is from Toronto, Canada. He is passionate about homemade cold brew coffee.

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