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Pipe cleaner chemistry kits and 13-hour time differences: Students adjust to remote classes

Illustration by Yifei Zhang

By Anna Ta     4/14/20 10:39pm

For some students, moving back home two months earlier than expected to finish out the semester has meant the mixed blessing and curse of home-cooked meals and navigating impossible time differences for Zoom class; for others, it has meant trying to focus long enough to pass courses amid unstable internet access and the burdens of financial stress. For all students, the pandemic has posed unique obstacles to obtaining the education they had hoped to get out of the semester. 

Within a day of Rice announcing that classes were canceled for the week of March 9, Joyce Chen booked a flight and left Houston to join her family in Taiwan. Chen, a McMurtry College senior, said she felt certain the situation would only worsen in the States, and worried that Taiwan would close their borders if she didn’t get there soon enough.

Chen said transitioning to remote learning has been “less than ideal” due to obstacles such as the 13-hour time difference and unstable internet connection.

“As a humanities student, my classes are all quite small and discussion-based, and they've all transferred to synchronous Zoom sessions,” Chen said. “I'm unable to attend most of the sessions due to the time difference.”

Lillie Plaza, a Lovett College junior, said that since moving back home to California, even the two-hour time difference has presented obstacles, with class starting at 7 a.m. every day and most office hours overlapping with meal times. Besides that and the strain on her internet caused by the seven people living in her house, Plaza said she has also struggled with the lack of available school materials given that she wasn’t able to take all of her school supplies during her rushed move out.

“I have to get creative to do my homework,” she said. “I would just order the supplies I need, but I’m limiting the packages I order.”

Instead, Plaza made an organic chemistry modeling kit out of tape and toothpicks she found around her house. When she kept finding pieces of it stuck to her, she enlisted the help of her mother, who works at a preschool, and upgraded the makeshift kit using pipe cleaners and other children’s arts and crafts supplies.

Access to materials is affecting students across all disciplines. Sumin Hwang, an art history major, said that with finals coming up, students are feeling the loss of the library and what it offered.

“It makes me realize how much the actual environment of the university affects the academic experience both psychologically and practically,” Hwang, a Sid Richardson College sophomore, said. “A lot of my final papers are research-based and I've relied on Fondren really heavily in the past semesters to complete that work. Now that the library is pretty much cut off, we're limited to the material that's online, which to be fair is still a lot of material, but cannot in itself replace the library resources.”

However, students have also felt the loss of other on-campus resources and their impacts on the ability to feel productive. One sophomore said that her petition to remain on campus was denied, and moving back home meant her access to mental health resources was mostly cut off. 

“Coming to Rice and being able to go to the counseling and wellbeing center and the SAFE office made a huge difference in my Rice experience academically and socially,” she said. “Due to quarantine, I can't do most of the things that ease my anxiety, like going to the gym ... or sitting outside to read and do work. Since my mom doesn't understand my mental health issues and ignores signs of my anxiety, I can't talk to a therapist or a psychiatrist. Not to mention since she's been laid off and we no longer have her insurance, we can't afford to get me an appointment even if she approved.”

The sophomore said that these issues have made it difficult to complete assignments, but the pressure to be productive remains even in a pandemic.

“Everything takes so much energy and at the end of the day it's hard to stop shaming myself for how much work I didn't get done. It's hard to focus on work or even concentrate enough to try to write an email,” the student said. 

Bilal Rehman, a Duncan College senior, moved back home to Dallas to be with his family. Rehman said that since he sleeps in the living room, space can be tight and make certain class conversations (particularly for his women, gender and sexuality courses) a little uncomfortable. 

“It's harder to focus in a tighter space, and I didn't think much beforehand about how having to pick up certain responsibilities around the house would leave me with less time for schoolwork,” Rehman said. “However, it's a pretty minimal burden overall.”

Rehman, a philosophy major, is completing a senior thesis regarding 20th-century Marxist thought. Rehman said that his original plan was to spend most of March writing, but that plan was quickly derailed while he prioritized figuring out his housing, financial aid and work-study situation. While he said he’s been grateful for his adviser’s understanding and deadline extensions, the situation has required a shift in mentality as well.

“From the start, writing a thesis is a process which requires a lot of motivation — the only people who will read it are yourself and your adviser,” Rehman said. “In the context of a global pandemic, when there are very concrete material realities to worry about, I think my adviser and I both understand that academic projects like this can only be taken so seriously.”

While this transition to remote learning has certainly posed educational obstacles, Chen said that the online learning environment isn’t as harmful to learning objectives as the pressures of the broader environment brought on by the pandemic.

“Besides having loved ones’ health at risk or already impacted, lots of people are experiencing massive changes in family and personal financial circumstances,” Chen said. “For some seniors, we’ve lost not just our graduation ceremony but also job offers.”

Plaza said she also worries about this semester’s impact on her future.

“You have to physically be in the lab to do research,” she said. “It’s unfortunate because graduate schools look for research, and because I switched into [the chemistry] major late, I already feel behind.”

Hwang said that motivation has been hard to come by.

“The thing that I struggle with the most on the day-to-day is finding the motivation to finish off the semester when the world seems to be falling apart as we speak,” Hwang said. “It's also difficult to continue pushing forward when it seems like everything that we typically look forward to, like spending time with friends or participating in a summer program, no longer exists as an incentive.”

Hwang, Plaza, Rehman and Chen have said that their professors have offered a range of accommodations, from recorded Zoom classes they can’t attend, extended or specialized office hours, compiled resources and changes to the structure of classes.

“I feel lucky that my professors have responded to the pandemic in this way,” Hwang said.  “At the same time I've heard from a lot of other students at Rice who are in classes with professors who are less willing to accommodate varying circumstances.” 

One junior, who was granted anonymity for fear of retribution, said that while all of her professors acknowledged the stresses of the pandemic, they have not necessarily lessened the additional academic stressors on their students. 

“Because people haven’t been able to keep up with [the classwork], a lot of people haven’t been able to get stuff turned in on time,” she said. “I know this because during class [one of my professors] went through every assignment that she’s given since quarantine and named every person who hadn’t turned it in. I haven’t been on top of my work because I had to move back home after classes had started — something my professor knew — and she told me I was ‘very far behind’ in front of the rest of my class. I really don’t think any of it is intentionally malicious, just oblivious.”

The junior said another one of her professors has not changed the workload of his class.

“[I think] he felt like he didn’t need to ease the class up despite the administration’s urging because during class we all seemed fine,” she said. “He asked if we thought things needed to be eased up, but of course no one was going to disagree with him and say that he should ease up.”

Hwang said that she urges the Faculty Senate to consider the various burdens on all of Rice’s populations in their decision making in the last few weeks of the semester.

“I'm a student with food security, stable internet and a quiet place to work every day and I'm still struggling to keep up with coursework in the same way I did on campus,” Hwang said. “Asking for help is incredibly intimidating, and everyone deserves support and academic security from their administration.”

Editor’s Note: The identities of some students and sources in this story have been removed to protect them from potential backlash. Any questions about our anonymity policy and sourcing should be directed to thresher@rice.edu.

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