In early February, I pitched an idea to The Reporter about a piece on 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg.
As an environmental biologist, it was frustrating to see teenagers grasping the notion that human activities are causing monumental deterioration in the climatic conditions, while our policymakers are doing nothing about it.
However, within weeks, everything changed.
With the COVID-19 induced lockdown, I was stressed out and teaching five classes online—a requirement that crept up on us without the slightest warning. I did not have time to be creative, I was just trying to achieve a smooth ending to the semester. I eventually heard back from The Reporter about whether I was still interested in writing an opinion article.
I was. But instead of writing about Thunberg and her cause, I wanted to champion my students who have taken unprecedented measures, and shown resolve and stoicism amidst conditions that are economically and mentally terrifying.
The responsibility of taking classes to a satisfactory end where students have adequately learned the material and have tested for it seems like a giant task when the shutdown was announced.
However, in the process of achieving this, it hit hard that face-to-face learning in a physical classroom is irreplaceable. My students made me realize this, and they have taught me much more. That is what I want to share.
Firstly, I learned that several of my students do not have a computer or a laptop, which changed when they received a laptop from the College. But everyone has a phone and some students joined my Collaborate sessions used their phones because the audio on their personal laptops did not work or was configured incorrectly, or even more dire—they did not have Internet connection at home.
Thus, as many students accessed study material on phones, they’d get disconnected and go in and out of a session; instead of learning, securing uninterrupted Internet connection had become their main concern.
I video recorded all my sessions and posted voice over presentations for them. Uninterrupted Internet service, which we take for granted in this country, was not so granted for many of my students. Moreover, it is incredibly hard if not impossible to complete a test, or view scientific images and diagrams, on a phone.
Several of my students could not get connected but did not want to drop the class because graduation was near for them. They could almost touch it, but alas, it seemed to be slipping away.
“Professor wait! I asked my boss for permission to use the computer at work after hours!”
“I am buying a new router, I will be ready then.”
“I was going to a public library, but that is closed too!”
“I have COVID-like symptoms, and I am also suffering from depression. Could you please accept late assignments?”
“I am an essential service provider and cannot attend classes during the day at all.”
“Darn! The physical classroom is an important escape for me. I have so much going at home, and college allows me to take a break from that.”
“Professor, I miss the classes so much and learning, it is so hard to concentrate from home.”
With COVID-19 in our day-to-day dictionary, I assure my students that learning is the primary goal, and rest will follow, as long as we communicate whenever possible. My email is always open, and the phone is also an option; and they know it.
While I am the professor, my students have taught me a life lesson during this process: to persevere against all odds.
Sonali Saha is an adjunct biology and environmental studies professor at the North and West Campus.