Where Did All the Denisonians Go?

Navigating the online learning experience and personal life in the midst of COVID-19

Denison student experiences during a rare pandemic

Written by Seyeong Hanlim ’23

Note: This post was originally submitted for publication in May 2020, so some information may be out of date. 

Seyeong Hanlim ’23 (writer) moved to a friend’s home in California in the middle of the night upon Denison’s campus shutdown, March 2020.

A few months into the COVID-19 breakout, Denison initially moved courses online through the two weeks following Spring Break. They then extended online learning through the end of the semester, confirming that in-person classes would be canceled for the remainder of Spring 2020. On March 17th, 2020, Denison announced that all students remaining on campus were to pack their personal belongings and vacate the dorms by March 23rd. This all happened in a span of a week.

Upon the notice that students would complete the semester remotely, the Financial Aid Office was flooded with students seeking emergency housing and travel funds to return to their homes. The deadline to file tax documents was  extended until July, summer plans were canceled, and on-campus operations were moved to remote working until further notice. Faculty, students, and administration worked together and shared responses in shaping future plans regarding COVID-19. After the first campus evacuation announcement from President Adam Weinberg, flyers were spread in Slayter from students who found remote learning unreasonable. A few days later, Ohio had its first confirmed cases of coronavirus among Columbus residents and on March 22nd, 2020, Governor Mike DeWine’s stay-home order went into effect. All students returned home or found a temporary local home, students and the Office of the Provost worked on an option to take courses pass/fail, and a letter pledging the need for reducing student academic burdens was soon drafted with consultation from a significant number of students. The number of actions taken so far for the well-being of students and faculty is impressive. We are still “on hold” with many current uncertainties regarding plans for next fall. While we await further decisions and changes to Fall 2020 in response to the COVID-19 crisis, let us take a look at how life on The Hill has changed for some of our students.

Jingwei’s Story

Jingwei Mao ‘22 is currently staying in Granville, Ohio through the Denison Homestay Program.

Daily Schedule in Stay-Home Life

Now that we have shifted to stay-home life, Jingwei gets up around 9 am in the morning, cooks breakfast for herself, and then starts to read for classes. The biggest event during her day is cooking Chinese food, as she can now make time to cook several meals a day to treat herself. She spends most of her day taking online classes and doing homework, but she admits that the repetitive daily schedule at home can be lonely and boring. During these times, she takes her homestay family’s dog out to a beautiful track around the house and refreshes her day with some light jogging. She also spends her time watching traditional Chinese musical instrument contests and musical instrument tutorial videos online to alleviate her stress. Her favorite instrument is Guzheng (a kind of Chinese plucked zither), with which she had previously trained to compete in one of the most important Chinese seasonal competitions! 

Challenges Regarding Remote Learning

The most drastic change that Jingwei experienced after Denison transitioned to remote learning was that her printing options were limited. When she studied at Doane Library, she used to print a lot of course materials because she prefers reading paper copies. However, ever since she moved in with her host family, she has had to read documents directly on the computer screen as she could not print excerpts of books and other course readings that amounted to a massive number of pages. Jingwei views this change in learning style positively as it means she is printing far less and being more eco-friendly.

Another challenge that she faced under the current remote learning atmosphere was building a fixed daily routine. Jingwei’s routine during the initial stages of online learning was not as organized as she struggled to balance education with her daily life activities. However, she was finally able to realize that she had to draw a line between the time when she had to focus on academic duties and the spare time that she used to relax. She explains that remote learning has been a nice experience to learn to balance and prioritize various life matters, which will be a great reference for her future life plans at Denison and beyond.

Major Life Changes Regarding COVID-19

The major life change that Jingwei is experiencing is her transition from a college dormitory to the private home of her host family. Jingwei explains that she feels luckier than other students participating in the Denison Homestay Program, as she had previously worked for her current host in Denison’s Philosophy Department. Since she already had an established relationship with her host family, it was easy for her to adjust to a new home setting. 

Due to COVID-19 social distancing, Jingwei now keeps in touch with her family in China and her friends via social media, and the lack of in-person communication with her loved ones bothers her from time to time. When she was at Denison, Jingwei had regular special Friday night events with her friends where they went to Granville grocery stores, had ice cream at Whits, strolled around the village, and spent the rest of the day chatting at a local restaurant. Although her best friend at Denison now lives in Newark, they can’t meet in person due to social distancing measures. Jingwei misses the time she used to spend with those she cares for.

Advice for Other Students Going Through Similar Struggles

Jingwei emphasizes that it is important to keep a positive attitude and show gratitude for what everyone must go through in this time of hardship. She also recommends using this experience as an opportunity to build a fixed daily routine and work on time management skills, since keeping a regular sleep and study schedule significantly affects students’ moods.

Trang’s Story

Trang Nguyen ‘22 is currently staying with her family at her old childhood home in Chicago.

Daily Schedule in Stay-Home Life

Trang wakes up every day at 7 in the morning, although there are those cheat days that she stays longer in her bed than she believes she should. She typically begins her day taking morning classes or catching up with class notes. However, she explains that she is not as motivated as when she was at Denison and sometimes falls into the trap of excess YouTubing. Procrastination under this new schedule is a major obstacle that gets  in the way of sticking to a daily routine. Although Chicago is still under lockdown, Trang tries to spend at least a couple of minutes a day being outside, and chilling and relaxing in her backyard. She also developed a healthy hobby (that is not napping!): she started to paint again.

Pros and Cons of Online Learning

Trang, like many other Denisonians, is not a fan of online learning. As an in-person learner who voluntarily chooses front-row seats in classrooms to stay focused, she finds it hard to engage in online classes at home. She also finds motivation from her friends and other hardworking students when on campus, so not being a part of a supportive and productive setting where every member seeks academic and personal achievement has been difficult for her. However, Trang still manages to complete her tests and homework on time even though that sometimes means she needs to work late into the night  to get things done.

Trang prefers pre-recorded lectures over Zoom classes, as it is awkward for both professors and students to participate fully in a synchronous class through a screen. On the other hand, she can rewatch and take detailed notes with lecture recordings. Going through this unexpected learning experience, Trang grew to appreciate Denison professors who are stepping up and showing how much they care for students through online interactions. Not all professors are excelling in the transition to online teaching as this is hard for everyone, but Trang’s professors never fail to reach out to students. She loves being in such a supportive environment as a lot of her friends at big state schools have not had the same luck when it comes to faculty-student interactions.

Seeking Motivation Outside Denison

Although Trang is struggling, she finds motivation in getting through her responsibilities by her close relationship with grandparents. She explains that her grandparents are very supportive and understand how hard Trang works to succeed in college.  When she needs the energy to go on, she often goes to her grandmother for a warm hug and conversation, which typically ends with a prayer for Trang’s success.

Advice for Other Students Going Through Similar Struggles

Although we are social distancing under quarantine, Trang believes the distance we maintain is more physical than social. She continues to connect with her friends online, and although she is unable to meet them in person puts in the effort to stay in touch with those who she cares about. During her dark times, Trang reaches out to her friends through Zoom meetings and socializes with them to get through with her daily challenges. She says that it is very important to reach out and communicate your emotions with loved ones to make it through in this time of struggle.

Sarah’s Story

Sight outside of Sarah Moon’s ’22 home window during quarantine upon arrival in South Korea, March 2020.

Before Leaving Denison

Sarah was initially worried when Denison first released its announcement regarding COVID-19, as she is an international student from Korea without any family connections in the United States. She was unsure if she would be able to fly back home if Denison closed its campus, and was worried about being alone in the US for an extended period of time. Sarah was one of the few students who stayed on campus until the very last day. She recalls how empty the campus seemed with all the dining halls closed and most of the students already having departed. All of the chairs were placed on the tables so that students didn’t spend time in Slayter socializing, and the campus atmosphere lacked its normal vibrancy.

Quarantine Experience in the Home Country

When Sarah flew back home, the South Korean government did not enforce quarantine by law. However, she still quarantined herself in an empty house for 14 days to prevent any chance of spreading the disease. These days, anyone arriving in South Korea from a foreign country has to update their health status using an app and go through a mandatory 2-week quarantine either at a government-provided quarantine housing or a family-owned home.

Initial Expectations in Remote Learning and How it Really Went 

At first, Sarah predicted that the transition to a remote-learning environment would be smooth despite the time difference. With 13 hours of time difference, Sarah was expecting to watch live online lectures late at night or dawn, but she was confident that she would be able to keep up with all the assignments. Unfortunately, Sarah realized that online learning doesn’t suit her as she has not been able to catch up with her classes after returning home and spending two weeks in quarantine. 

Sarah also has taken on additional personal responsibilities in addition to college life as she is now back at her home with family, which inevitably gives her some extra burdens. However, she appreciates this opportunity to spend time with her family – rarity for students studying in another country – as she now helps with house chores and catches up with her family at the dinner table.

Plans for Moving Forward

Although Denison authorized the option to take Spring 2020 term courses pass/fail, Sarah did  not consider it because she wants to maintain a competitive GPA to apply to law school in the future. However, due to family emergencies as well as changes in the course expectations, Sarah is now utilizing this academic option to take all of her classes as pass/fail grading, which helped her relieve the pressure and take some of the burden off her shoulders. 

Sarah was also one of the lucky students to secure a summer internship despite challenging circumstances, and she will be working remotely with a law firm in Columbus while completing online courses in finance.

What’s Next?

As we move into the summer and towards the Fall 2020 term, there are still many things that remain undecided. This is a time that requires patience and resilience from all of us, but it will ultimately pass as all hardships in our life do. Many students have experienced unexpected cancellations in their summer plans and have worked to seek last-minute alternatives. We recommend students take advantage of mini-courses from Lisska Center, internships, micro-internships, volunteer opportunities and diverse career planning programs with Knowlton Center, and internship programs via Red Frame Lab

I hope you and your loved ones stay healthy and safe throughout this unprecedented crisis and wish the best luck during the last week of Spring 2020 finals. – Seyeong