A closer look at the College’s adjustments to on-campus summer programming

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In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the College has been forced to make large-scale changes to both spring and summer scheduling. An all-campus email sent by Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom on April 13 laid out alterations to the College’s summer programs and housing, including announcing that students who need housing will be able to stay on campus during the summer and that normally on-campus research and summer programs will move off campus during June and July. These programs include the Summer Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS) and the Summer Science programs (SSP) for incoming first-year students.

To determine how many students will need to remain on campus over the summer, the College sent out a survey last week to first-years through juniors who are currently on campus, with responses due by April 20. This option was not open to seniors or students who are not on campus at the moment. 

Survey recipients need not provide justifications for their stay. “We are aware that the same reasons that students needed to stay on campus this spring may very well still be in play now,” Sandstrom wrote in an email to the Record. The survey only asks whether students will be able to leave by May 26, the scheduled departure date; if they are planning to stay, whether it’s for the entire summer or only the first part; and if only the first part, what their anticipated departure date is.

For students who do remain, the College expects to maintain Dining and Facilities as they are currently operating. “We can’t predict the course of the pandemic or future regulatory responses to it,” Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass told the Record, “so anything we’re planning now will have to be modified as those shifting variables impact our region over the next several months.” 

Klass added, “Everything we’re doing is focused on keeping our students and essential staff safe and healthy, while simultaneously working to ensure that we’re not putting any additional pressure on our strained local healthcare system. Those will remain our guiding principles for the foreseeable future.”

The College has also taken measures to adjust other summer experiences. Sandstrom’s all-campus email stated that the College has decided “that summer experiences will not be held on campus in June and July.” 

 “Since it’s not possible to confidently predict the pandemic’s trajectory that far into the future,” the email continued, “we’re committed to being flexible and creative so that we can support as many summer opportunities as possible, even if they have to shift form in some way.”

Accordingly, SHSS and SSP will be conducted remotely for incoming first-year students. Faculty who are teaching in the programs have been collaborating with Office of Special Academic Programs Director Clinton Williams, along with SSP Director and Professor of Chemistry Christopher Goh. Neither Williams nor Goh responded to a request for comment.

The STUDIO’62 Summer Theatre Immersion Program run by the College has also undergone drastic changes to be conducted remotely. Shortened from seven weeks to five and meeting five days a week instead of six, the remote program will involve virtual classes, readings and presentations, with final public performances streamed on Zoom. Students will receive the same weekly stipend, but for fewer weeks. Since the program was originally designed as an intensive, collaborative immersion, some students have expressed reservations about its ability to fulfill the same purpose remotely.

Lour Yasin ’23 said she had been looking forward to the hands-on theatrical work and worries about the challenge of internet access and varying living circumstances presented by an online program.

“But the deeper and bigger challenges surround the lack of intimacy of the program,” she said. “In my opinion, theatre is a hands-on craft, it needs to be felt in order to be learned. Virtual classes will feel inorganic in a way, and this might hinder our work and progress.”

Partially due to these limitations, Yasin is not sure whether she will participate in the program or not. “I really don’t know what’s in store for me in the next couple of months,” Yasin said. “I am an international, and there is a possibility that I might go back home to Jerusalem in the next couple of months if I am allowed to. And if I do go back home, I don’t know whether I would be able to travel back to the U.S. again. Everything is up in the air at this point.”

As for current students who originally had summer research plans on campus, the College has advised that they communicate directly with faculty members to determine whether and how research projects can be conducted remotely. 

Professor of Mathematics Colin Adams, who conducts on-campus research over the summer with students as part of the SMALL Undergraduate Research Program, said he is already planning a remote iteration of the program.

SMALL, which typically hosts 30 to 45 undergraduates from around the world, including 10 to 12 Williams students, will continue to receive funding from the National Science Foundation and the College. “I’m going to have a group of seven students working with me,” Adams said. “I will be doing it via Zoom, but the tricky part is at least one and maybe two of my students will be in China, so the time zone is going to be a bad match.” Typically, SMALL students get one or two papers published in a research journal, and many faculty take their students to mathematics conferences.

“That’s a part of the process that I really enjoyed,” Adams said, “where the students go to a conference and give a talk. That’s almost certainly not going to happen — most likely the conference will get cancelled. It has a huge impact, it really does.”

He also spoke on other impacts of the move to online research. “It’s really good to have them all in the same room and be able to say, ‘Hey, does anybody know about this topic or that topic?’ They can teach each other and learn from each other, which is really important in this kind of a process.”

“It’s going to be a huge experiment,” Adams said. “I’ve never done this before, this idea of trying to do original research with students where the students are in seven different places… It’ll be interesting.”

Patrick Zhuang ’21, a chemistry and psychology double major, originally planned to do research this summer for his thesis with Professor of Chemistry Thomas Smith ’88. The chemistry department held a virtual meeting last Thursday to decide on details for the summer. 

 “They are thinking they will allow students to do some remote research, like writing introductions [to senior theses], doing literature research on our own, and then doing that as part of summer research,” Zhuang said. “If conditions allow us to return to campus, they want us to do some research on campus in August.”

For majors such as chemistry, “it will be very difficult to write a thesis without getting hands-on experience in lab,” Zhuang said. “We’ll have a hard time figuring out what the end goal of the project is because we haven’t conducted the experiment.” In particular, Zhuang is working on a project that hinges upon the results of current students, so “we don’t know what the project will look like before [current seniors] hand in their thesis.” 

At least in the chemistry department, students with on-campus research positions will still be paid the full stipend for the program. 

Katherine Melkonian ’21, a biology major and recipient of a Summer Science Research Fellowship, was supposed to start her thesis work in Associate Professor of Biology Tim J. Lebestky’s neuroscience lab this summer. “Now hopefully I will go back to start in August if the COVID crisis allows that to happen,” Melkonian said. 

“I am not really sure what I will do in the meantime,” she said, noting in addition that actual lab work is practically infeasible for her off campus. “I may start the background reading for my thesis or go back to where I worked last summer, but everything is unclear at the moment.”