PTHS grads take on distance learning in college

Students reflect on the challenges of doing college online during pandemic

Brennan LaBrie
Posted 8/26/20

A few weeks ago I decided that I am, in fact, returning to college this fall. 

This was a decision that I never foresaw myself having to make, even as recently as March. I entered college …

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PTHS grads take on distance learning in college

Students reflect on the challenges of doing college online during pandemic


A few weeks ago I decided that I am, in fact, returning to college this fall. 

This was a decision that I never foresaw myself having to make, even as recently as March. I entered college three years ago with a four-year plan laid in place. I didn’t know what my course of study would be, but I knew it would be four years. 

Then, this past March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges and schools nationwide to close their campuses and move online, and threw my best laid plans into uncertainty. I, along with students across the world, got to experience the challenge of doing college from home, with the lack of a quiet learning environment and all the resources campuses have to offer, as well as the constant, dangerous desire to take classes from bed. Combined with the cancellation of extracurriculars and separation from so many friends, it can be a lonely endeavor.

And so, with COVID-19 cases rising and most college classes going online for the foreseeable future, I found myself wondering if going through that experience again was worth it. When my classes at Pacific Lutheran University were officially moved online several weeks ago, I began to wonder if this might be a good year to give farming a try, make some money and get out in the real world instead of staying cooped up indoors all day watching Zoom lectures.

However, two weeks ago, PLU, perhaps sensing the temptation of many students to take a hiatus from school, offered us a deal to retain us in the fall: If we attend this school year as full-time students, they’ll give us next year tuition-free. It was an unexpected announcement — I had imagined a tuition decrease might be the best I could hope for — and I immediately decided I’d take them up on the offer. Perhaps this will be my chance to study away at Oxford University or add another major onto my International Affairs major. Plus, I kind of like the idea of being a “super senior.” 

My experience with online classes and the confusion and trepidation of possibly facing them for a whole school year is one currently being shared by students nationwide. With that in mind, I reached out to a few of my fellow Port Townsend High School graduates to hear about their experiences with “distance learning” and their plans for this school year at college.

Rosemary D’Andrea, a 2017 PTHS graduate and wildlife ecology and conservation major at Washington State University, went ahead and made the bold decision I was pondering this summer: She decided to take time off from school with the aim to wait out the pandemic. 

“I’m a really hands-on person and it’s really difficult to look at a screen all day,” she said. 

It doesn’t help that her major is a field study-based one, and right before COVID hit she was set to embark on a multitude of field trips, including one studying sage grass in Eastern Washington. 

Instead, she returned to Port Townsend in March and began volunteering at the Center Valley Animal Rescue while taking her classes online. The job made it difficult to allot the proper time to her classes, and her unwatched Zoom lectures piled up through the semester. However, she enjoyed working in her desired field during the pandemic. 

“It was a whole lot better than watching my teacher walking around videotaping himself talking to trees,” she said.

In her gap semester — or year, whichever it ends up being — D’Andrea plans to continue her job at Center Valley while also doing periodic field work in Eastern Washington.

Like D’Andrea, Gannon Short, a fellow 2017 PTHS graduate, is in a major that is among the hardest hit by the pandemic; Short studies chemical engineering at the University of Washington, a discipline that relies on intensive and precise lab work with expensive equipment. 

“Doing classes online is extremely unfulfilling, especially with a chemical engineering degree, because there’s so much work that needs to be hands-on,” Short said.

His department announced that all undergraduate labs, including those postponed this past spring, will be online due to limited lab space that is currently being used for graduate and professorial research. 

Instead, professors will send lab kits to students at home, which Short said will not come close to replicating the precise measurements made by the physical lab’s state-of-the-art equipment. In addition, professors are attempting to compensate for the drop in instructional quality by assigning harder work, which is especially challenging without the help of on-campus study groups, tutors and mentors, Short said.

Even if in-person classes return in the winter quarter, Short said he and his cohort’s class schedules have been “completely thrown off,” adding to the collective feelings of confusion and stress. 

“They are reassuring us that everything will work out,” Short said. “I just can’t see it happening.”

Short said the situation has led him to consider following a different path in college that might work better with online instruction and not affect his chances at getting jobs post-grad.

“It calls into question whether going to such a competitive school is even worth it, and I’m worried personally about how this will reflect on me down the line, in terms of employers,” he said.

Joe Calodich, a 2018 PTHS grad, is also a rising senior at UW, studying political science and community, environment and planning. He said that although online classes aren’t ideal, he doesn’t mind them all that much.

“PoliSci lectures translate pretty seamlessly into an online format,” he said. “It just kind of becomes watching a YouTube video, basically.” 

The class discussions, however, leave something to be desired. Trying to converse with people without the aid of body language can be awkward, he said, adding that he’s found himself accidentally talking over other students on numerous occasions. 

Like Short, Calodich signed a lease on an apartment back when in-person classes in the fall seemed possible, and will therefore be taking classes from Seattle this school year. If he had known classes would be online earlier, he said, he might have considered returning to Port Townsend. 

Short and Calodich both noted that their Seattle homes have offered a less distracting environment for studying, but that they plan on periodically returning to Port Townsend during the semester now that they have the opportunity.

Calodich said he’s staying positive about the upcoming quarter, but hopes that classes return in person for his final stretch of undergraduate studies in 2021.

“I’m just kinda scared that the last winter quarter was my last in-person quarter in college,” he said. “I have another online quarter in me but after that it will be really sad to be missing out on half of college.”

Shauna Lynch is also taking on a double major, hers being Chinese and dance at Western Washington University. When her classes went online last spring, she returned to Port Townsend to stay with her dad. 

She plans on staying in Port Townsend and taking her classes online this fall, and hopes that she can return to campus and in-person classes in January. 

While living and working in Port Townsend makes the most sense financially for her, she said that it comes at a cost. 

“Being here is really hard; I’m away from lots of friends,” she said. “It’s really difficult not seeing them for sure. It makes it difficult to stay motivated.”

Her dance classes have presented the greatest challenge so far, she said. Not only is learning dance harder without an instructor there in front of you, but the switch to distance learning has resulted in the loss of the collaborative nature of dancing.

“A lot of what dance is is moving with people, and when you’re just able to watch it on a screen, you can’t really connect with them and dance with them,” she said. 

“There’s just a lack of motivation because we’re not really performing,” she added. “When you don’t have an end goal of performing, it’s really hard to stay in it and stay curious.” 

Another complication is the dance space itself. Lynch and her classmates have had to trade in the dance floor for their bedroom floor, or front yard. While this might mean less “traveling movement” in her dancing, Lynch has embraced the challenge of dancing on various surfaces, from her carpeted floor to her concrete driveway, and learning how to utilize these spaces in a creative way. She’s even started dancing in public.  

“I’ve gotten better at being in public,” she said. “You have to get used to being in really uncomfortable environments and people looking at you.”

One perk of online classes, she said, is that guest instructors from around the world who may not have been able to make it to Bellingham can now teach lessons over Zoom. 

For River Heuberger, PTHS class of 2017 and an incoming senior at WWU, it was the loss of the social aspect of college that hit him the hardest. 

“I really didn’t like last quarter,” the computer science major said. “I felt like I learned a lot less.” 

Heuberger said he missed the large social aspect of his major, in which students would gather in groups to solve hard math and computer science problems and perhaps hang out afterwards. The in-person tutoring was a crucial absence of the socially-distant conclusion to the school year as well.

“Now I feel like there’s a huge lack of motivation to work through those large problems, and it kind of makes you contribute lower effort — lower quality work in your classes, because when you’re around other students you push yourself to reach a higher level of quality but when it’s just you, you’re just trying to grind out each thing as quick as possible.”

In some ways, online classes benefited Heuberger, as it allowed him to leave for the fishing season in Alaska early and make extra money. In addition, he noted that computer science majors aren’t hit as hard by COVID as other sciences, as labs are done on personal computers anyways. He might even travel during the semester with his laptop by his side.

It’s his peers in biochemistry, engineering and other STEM fields that Heuberger feels for.

“You can’t really lose the hands-on perspective for the physical sciences,” he said. “The way you apply the theory is completely lost outside the lab.”

Heuberger added that he also sympathizes with the incoming freshmen who have not yet built social networks, and will either be staying at home or living in dorms in which they cannot socially interact. 

“It’s just bad energy, dude,” Heuberger said. “I’m just trying to graduate now and get out of the COVID education system.” 


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