Malia Kuo

I’ve lived my first month at Yale completely through a computer screen. Fifty percent of my time has been spent watching on-campus kids get milk tea and donuts on Instagram, another 25 percent attending Zooms at 3 a.m. in the morning. The last 25 percent is spent traversing GroupMe, imagining myself at the several community events my college hosts each night. After it all, I go to sleep, maybe three or four hours, and wake up to do it all over again.

“We’re not built for this. There’s only so much I can learn through a computer screen,” Andrew Dabrah ’24 tells me in another Zoom meeting. It took a few tries to find a time when we could meet, even though he’s closer to me than the rest of Yale — in Accra, Ghana, only 3,600 miles away from my home in Nairobi, Kenya.

This semester, hundreds of students chose to start or continue their education remotely. Most, if not all, were prompted by the havoc that COVID-19 was wreaking all over the world, particularly in America. Bradley Nowacek ’23 was forced off campus due to Yale’s 40 percent capacity rule that meant sophomores couldn’t spend the fall semester on campus. Nevertheless, he chose to enroll instead of taking time off. “I couldn’t find a clear opportunity as to what I would do if I took time off … for me, it was also a case of classes being offered this semester that I needed to take.” Lisbette Acosta ’24 didn’t see the benefit of going on campus. As she understands it, college life is made up of three aspects: the academic, the extracurricular and the social. Since classes and clubs are only online, Acosta didn’t see the benefit of going to campus only to enjoy the social third of the college experience. Some students, however, didn’t have a choice. Like me, Dabrah was forced to take the fall semester online due to the slowness of the visa process caused by COVID-19. For various reasons, students that looked forward to starting or continuing one of the most anticipated stages in their lives were suddenly locked out, forced to view their lives through the blinding light of their computer screens.

The academic aspect of school hasn’t changed significantly. As time has passed I’ve found myself in a pattern, having successfully translated what would have been a normal classroom schedule into a tight, clean method of clicking Zoom links. Because I’m one of those kids that takes Directed Studies, this work has become even easier — hour by hour, I traverse from pre-recorded lecture to pre-planned seminar, and back again. I always have things to say, and always enjoy what other people say. It’s become a habit — a routine.

“I don’t know, because I’m not on campus, but I don’t think it’s fundamentally different, since most classes are online, and most resources are online — meetings, writing tutors, etc. I feel that [my classes] are as close as they can be to the in-person experience,’ said William An ’24, who is taking remote classes from Florida. Most students I interviewed said that they were enjoying their classes — with the exception of those taking four-hour chemistry labs. “They [don’t] give breaks. At some point, I was like, I just have to exercise my right to turn off my camera and move around … no way. A couple of days ago, during my third class and with two more classes to go, my vision started to blur. That’s when I realised — we’ve got a problem here,” Nowacek said.

As the semester progresses, some remote students have recognized the widening gap between remote and on-campus students. William Gonzalez ’24, a first-year student taking his classes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, mentioned that some of the classes he took were hybrid — meaning that when the in-person components became available, all the remote students were left behind. “Now that people can actually go to class, it’s more, like, just me and the remote kids. I don’t really have much contact with the other kids outside of class.”

Even though our academics are (relatively) manageable, most of us remote kids are still finding it really hard to adjust to Yale. Stuck at home, in our rooms or in our studies, we are in limbo between high school and college, desperately trying to grow up in the same physical space where we were once children. Our classes are taken in the context of our siblings and other family members existing in the same space, and demanding time from us, since we’ve given them the gift of being around a little bit longer. Acosta wanted to explicitly recognize the privilege of having a good home working space, and acknowledge the remote students who might not be as lucky as she is. “I’m in a place where I am able to get some enjoyment out of being in my house … not everybody is able to do that. A lot of people are not able to enjoy their home situation for a lot of reasons. [A good working environment] is not universal.”

Sam Ahn ’24 recently moved into his tiny dorm room in Berkeley College after waiting out the campus-wide quarantine from his home in Little Neck, New York. “It didn’t really feel like college. I was just in my room, where I had spent all of quarantine. People are always asking, ‘Where are you?’ to which I answered, ‘Well, I’m remote.’ It felt like an extension of what had already been going on. There wasn’t a significant shift.” Moving onto campus, however, has been a lot better for him. Now that he has had both experiences, he noted how being on campus actually made one feel like they were at college, like they had something to do there, like they had a purpose.

Where remote students have suffered the most is our social lives. Many of us looked forward to the joy of people that college brings — new friends, new adventures and experiences. Choosing to be remote cut us off from that reality. “It’s [been] damaging to my general social life … when I would be hanging out with my friends here at home, I have class. It’s a bit more lonely than it would have been,” Andrew said. For remote international students, there is the added obstacle of managing the time zone differences. I’m eight hours ahead of the East Coast, which means my classes run from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the night. Extracurricular activities, however, are where it hits hardest — Yale’s “after-school” scheduling has led me to stay up until two or three in the morning, often making much more noise than I should be at that time.

Despite the difficulties, us remote kids are making the most of our time at home. Most interviewees were grateful for the extra freedom they have over their lives to plan their day, which, if they were on campus, would not be exactly the same case. Gonzalez is really excited for his time at home, as it means he has time to travel both within his city and through his state with his other friends who chose to be remote. He’s planning road trips to the coast and to his sister’s house and other adventures that he wasn’t able to complete due to how abruptly his senior year ended. “There’s not as much pressure as there is on campus — we’ve got a little bit more freedom. We can do much more than if we were on campus. We’re creating our own first year experiences.”

Remote learning has been a mixed bag so far. The general consensus among everyone I interviewed was that it’s okay — but we know being physically at Yale is better. This year has changed almost every plan that we made for the rest of our lives. Along with trying to survive a pandemic, we’ve all been asked to learn to navigate our new world — one where our fellow students are miles away, separated by time, space and situation. This separation has not been easy — but I know it’s manageable. Kids on campus, value your time. Connect with people, and make the best of what you have. Remote kids, you’re not alone. You are seen and heard in all your emotions, and I promise you, you’ll be fine. The common thing between both camps is that it’s going to take a lot of looking out for each other to survive. Reach out, look out. I have every confidence that not only will we be able to get through this — we will still be able to create the same magic that our college lives were always supposed to have.

At the end of our interviews, I asked each of my remote peers to rate their experience so far. I got three 8s, three 5s. All are looking forward to what is to come.

Awuor Onguru | awuor.onguru@yale.edu