ATHERTON, Calif. — In almost a year of virtual classes at Silicon Valley-based Menlo College, the pandemic has brought up unique challenges to its diverse student body. It was March 2020 when the university went remote, and its students have been scattered throughout the globe since then. While some students attend Zoom sessions from campus in their dorms, others—often international students—face timezone challenges, travel restrictions, and other pandemic-related difficulties.
As of February 12, 2021, there were “219 students living on campus,” according to Vice President of Student Success Angela Schmiede, Ph.D. Out of 753 students, almost 30% are back on campus, which implies that a significant majority of students have remained off-campus.
Human Resources junior Makiala Gibbons from Rock Springs, Wyoming, is one of those students. She laments that “online learning has made it hard to be interactive in class,” something she has struggled with due to the distractions present at home instead of a physical classroom. Students cannot avoid their family or neighbors being loud during online classes or lack suitable study spaces. These struggles tend to disproportionately affect low-income students who often do not have their own room to study in. “Lack of control of what’s going on in your environment can make it challenging to focus,” Gibbons asserts. This lack of control is more apparent when there isn’t a physical classroom that makes distractions like social media or video games less tempting.
Nonetheless, she points out that “being in a classroom does not guarantee that you’ll pay attention or understand what is going on within your class.” A short attention span seems to be an increasingly common problem for people, even before the pandemic started. In April 2015, the Statistic Brain Institute published a study comparing the attention span of humans and goldfish. It concluded that “the attention span of humans has decreased over the 13-year period to eight seconds, one second less than a goldfish.” Though it might seem like the pandemic has intensified this, the overall outcome might not be apparent until students return to in-person classes.
Even though Gibbons faces difficulties with the online learning environment, she also sees some positive aspects. “One benefit of online learning is there is more freedom on how you may spend your time and gives you the opportunity to really take charge in your education while gaining discipline and time management skills.” However, according to enrollment statistics, these benefits are not enough to keep all Menlo College students enrolled.
According to Christine Rabago, the from Menlo College Registrar, the college allows two terms of leave of absence. Currently, 45 students are on one, over 5% of the student population. The data indicate that international students seem to be disproportionately affected by the consequences of COVID-19, as 18 out of the 45 are international students, which is a whopping 40%. 10 of the 18 students are on leave of absence for two terms, taking off an entire academic year of college education. Eleven students listed the virus and consequences like travel restrictions as to their main reasons for taking one or two terms off. Whereas students like Gibbons only have to deal with a one-hour time difference, international students have to endure a bigger time difference. For example, Japan and California have a 16-hour time difference. Attending classes in the middle of the night is a unique situation that international students have never faced before the pandemic.
Long-term consequences remain unknown, but some students decided to go back to campus and attend online classes from their dorms despite the ongoing threat that the virus poses. William Bruns from Madison, Indiana, has returned to campus for the spring semester after staying at home during the fall semester. Bruns, who is double-majoring in Entrepreneurship and Marketing, recounts: “Since being back at Menlo, I have regained a sense of a student community, and it is nice to have this again. It is definitely nothing like before COVID, but we can’t necessarily help that. Transitioning to Zoom also resulted in some motivation being taken away from students, including myself.” Motivation seems to be the most difficult aspect for Menlo students navigating the virtual learning environment. Though he feels like “Menlo has done well in adapting, and doing what we can to stay safe,” he also criticizes a side effect from the indoor dining restrictions: “I do not like all the plastic and styrofoam we use three times a day for meals. We pay enough money to afford to contribute a slight margin to our planet.”
Overall, it seems that the pandemic has given rise to unique problems and opportunities for the Menlo College community both on- and off-campus. Attention span, motivation, health concerns, and environmental pollution due to increased waste are apparent concerns in the college community. However, online learning has proven that the vast majority of Menlo students have adapted quickly to changes and gained self-discipline. These skills could be crucial for an increasingly remote workforce.
Sion Hovsepian is a junior at Menlo College, majoring in Psychology and to graduate in May 2022. Born in Hamburg, Germany, he is fluent in English, German, Armenian and some Spanish. His areas of knowledge include critical thinking, digital humanities and diversity in the workplace.