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"I Started College During a Global Pandemic"

A new book shares new students' reflections on college during COVID.

serious college student working on computer

When Jenna Goldsmith shifted her college preparedness class, Academic Listening and Speaking (ALS) 199 — dubbed "U-Engage" — online for fall 2020, she had to figure out how to teach a class that was focused on making campus connections, but do it through Zoom.

Traditionally, first-year, first-semester students at Oregon State University-Cascades were expected to interview two people on campus each week over the 10-week program. Those might be the heads of programs and departments, career development advisers, counselors, healthcare workers, dining hall employees and the like. But Goldsmith knew something different was needed.

"When we went remote, I didn't want to assign students more Zoom time than they already had," she recalled. "That's the last thing that I wanted to do."

Instead of sending students outward to get to know the university culture through talking with others, she had them turn inward in a desire to help them orient to a new kind of learning environment.

book cover

A background in small press publishing led Goldsmith to go after a university grant that would enable her to produce There Is No College in COVID, a small book that shares selected reflections submitted by the students during the 10-week course. The copyright is held by the university, and all money generated, aside from a small portion to cover production, goes into a student scholarship fund.

"I called it the COVID-19 Journaling Project," she explained in the preface. "The assignment was simple: Write two journal entries twice a week of any length about your experience as a college student during a global pandemic."

Students would submit their assignments each week through Canvas. If they weren't interested in having the reflection considered for publication, they could opt out by adding an asterisk to it somewhere on the page.

The results, as Goldsmith noted, "are deeply personal explorations of the meaning of college during a pandemic."

"Today, I sat for hours without even getting up, or hardly moving, really." — Hanna S.

Goldsmith, who has since moved to Illinois State University to serve as assistant director of the Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, recently spoke with Campus Technology about the project. The following comments were edited for clarity and brevity.

Campus Technology: The students in this book are definitely frustrated. There's a certain level of frustration in the entries that if people would just follow the rules, this quarantining would be over faster.

Jenna Goldsmith: The culture of OSU-Cascades is very different from other university cultures. The students tend to be a little bit older than a typical college age. A lot of them are returners, a lot of them are students who took a few classes here and there at the community college in town and now have moved over to the university. And OSU-Cascades offers applied majors. And by applied, I mean the students are actually in the field, oftentimes, as they're getting their degree. So, I think that breeds a seriousness.

The other thing is that students, for better or for worse, can take 300-level classes in their second semester of school, which is not typical. If you're able to do that, that means that you can get into labs and internships that you wouldn't be in as a freshman. You can get into really applied classes. And they had to do all of those remotely. It's just not the same. So, context is important to this project as well, understanding that these are just not your typical college students.

The tone that you're sensing in these students and the seriousness is reflecting the fact that they're missing out on more than just what we would imagine a first-year student in a very traditional context would be missing out on.

"My main goal was to find comfort in the discomfort. To do this, I would put my phone away during the day so I could stay more in the present moment; rather than distracting myself by looking at other people's lives, I spent time by myself: hiking, swimming in the river, paddle boarding, painting, reading, and journaling." — Mckenzie M.

CT: It also surprised me that nobody seems to get mad at the college administration for the rules that they have to live under.

Goldsmith: In many ways, this book was sampling ideas and writing from the time of what I consider our golden age of compliance. This was before vaccines. This was before things really started to become politicized. There was a coffee shop near campus, for instance, that has, at this point, racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in OSHA violations because they refused to comply. So that was happening right near campus at that time.

And I don't doubt that [students are] still complying ... the students are just great. They didn't use this assignment to disparage the people who are trying to help them.

"We keep each other at an arm's length, not able to see each other's faces, a literal mask hiding our humanity." — Spencer V.

CT: I don't recall seeing any discussion from the students about the level of quality of the online instruction they were getting. Do you think they gave up on having any quality education experience? Or was something else going on there?

Goldsmith: This was fall 2020. So, it was still very fresh. And I don't think anybody knew what good quality remote instruction looked like. Some people were better at it than others. In my evaluations from that semester, I was taken to task by a couple of folks because of some of the choices that I made, and I learned from those things. And I feel like I've grown a lot as an instructor because of some of those failures. At the time, I didn't really know I was failing.

We became almost interlopers on a world of instruction that has its own history. Online instruction has its own history, it has its own journals, it has its own pedagogy. You don't know what that is, because you haven't been trained.

In that first semester, nobody knew what they were doing. The students didn't know what they were getting. And I think that there was just this feeling of like, OK, everybody's doing the best they can, this will be over soon — which, of course, is not the case.

"I loathe the desk chair I sit in, I dislike the sound of my computer fan, and I've even found myself insulting my desk plant. The monotony is making me go insane." — Nathan S.

CT: These students come across as very articulate when it comes to describing their experiences. Was that what you would expect or did that surprise you?

Goldsmith: There were some things that I hoped for. And then there were some things that really surprised me.

Some of my students took liberties and did some more creative stuff, which I thought was fantastic, but I didn't expect. There was a student who wrote some poetry. There was a student who did something cool with music. And I was really happy to see that.

It's not that I wasn't expecting the insight that came through in the stories, because I knew that the students were very insightful just from having them in class. I think what surprised me was that they were very candid about the frustrations and the challenges. And that they really took this assignment seriously.

"Will there be a historic moment where the majority of Americans will leave the country on vacation? It's impossible to foresee what will happen, but it's hard to imagine the switch." — Wyatt D.

CT: What's the value of having students reflect and journal on their personal experiences?

Goldsmith: You know, they are someday going to look back on this, and it's going to feel surreal. It's not going to feel like it was real. But this makes it real. And I think that there's value to that.

I listened to a podcast recently that was talking about how as humans we tend to engage in "severe presentism," that every moment that we're in is like the worst moment or the best moment of our lives. It's just the way that our brains are able to sift through information.

And so likely over the course of their lives, though huge and major, this will start to fade off. And a book that captures the intensity and the complexity of the moment will be really nice for them to have.

Also, they might have had lots of people asking them how they were doing, but it occurred to me when I was thinking about the project that this might be the only time in their day when anybody cared about how they're doing. It could be the only time in their day when they were not doing something for somebody else — caretaking, babysitting, taking care of a parent, doing homework. It might have been the only time in the day where they were actually just doing something for themselves. And so, I also hope it had value in the moment to them — again, maybe unrealized at this point, but maybe they took away a journaling practice from it, maybe they took away a meditation practice from it. Who knows?

"I can't quite tell what I'm struggling with that's based on COVID and what is just college. Am I really bad at being a student or being a virtual student?" — Lucy F.

CT: If other instructors read this and think they should have been doing pandemic journaling with their students too, do you think it's too late?

Goldsmith: We're in a new moment. We're in a new and even in some ways more complicated moment. 2020 was bad. But there's something about 2021 that feels worse. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's because of the length of time. In 2020 at least we had January and February, whereas [in 2021] it's just been 12 months of difficulty.

So, we're in a new moment. I think asking students to begin reflecting now would be just as valuable.

"I started college during a global pandemic. How many people can say that?" — Colin B.

There is No College in COVID is available for $12.95 from Belt Publishing.

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