Distance learning is not so bad: A remote first-year’s take

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I haven’t been in a classroom since January. 

When my new classmates hear this, most of them offer their sympathies. “That must suck.” “It must be so difficult.” 

Of course, there are many obstacles that come with distance learning. It feels a lot more unnatural to forge new connections, a 12-hour time difference doesn’t help my sleep schedule, and I still catch myself telling people “I will be attending Williams,” as if this semester is just senior year 2.0. However, I don’t find myself moping as much as I thought I would. While distance learning has definitely closed some doors, it has also made the transition into college a bit smoother. 

Few can say their college setup involves sitting in pajama pants (don’t judge me – you can’t tell on Zoom) in front of a computer screen at 11 p.m., but that’s all I know about college academic life so far. Although attending TA office hours has become virtually impossible thanks to time differences, classes have been pretty accessible and my professors have all been extremely understanding. What surprises people, though, is when they hear me say my first-year remote semester has not felt stressful compared to some parts of my high school experience. Thanks to remote learning, I’m able to plan my days as I want to. Besides a few synchronous class meetings, I can decide exactly when and where I learn content, which has given me a new sense of freedom and control. The ability to fast forward, pause, rewind and screenshot lecture content has helped me learn efficiently. Obviously, with this new “free time” come increased time management responsibilities, and nothing can really replace in-person conversations — my English seminar is often filled with polite, muted (pun intended) smiles between awkward pauses. 

Perhaps the greatest benefit from remote learning is the social ease of breaking into new extracurricular environments. Growing up in Shanghai, I will enter a completely new social, cultural and academic world when I arrive on campus. As a remote student, can I truly understand the complex social fabric which binds Williams students together? Definitely not. However, the remote setting has actually encouraged me to branch out more. College is already overwhelming. For many of us, this is the first time we’ll live away from our family and life as we have known it. Being able to interact with everyone on campus virtually has helped take away some of the intimidation of networking and reaching out. Obviously, this will be different for different people. An extrovert who thrives on interactions may find remote learning to be utterly horrible. As an ambivert, I find comfort in large Zoom call introduction meetings. I may have never joined the Record, for example, if that involved shuffling into a room filled with 50 strangers. But when I can log on to Zoom and not feel that sense of pressure or isolation? The appeal of trying new things becomes much greater. As the weeks progress, of course, I find myself wishing I could meet people in real life. As an introduction, though, the remote learning platform has actually encouraged me to put myself out there much more than I otherwise would have. 

Of course, college isn’t just about classes. One of the main reasons I chose to attend Williams was the tight knit community here. An obvious pitfall of remote learning, as a result, is not being able to forge these deeper connections. In a way, though, it has helped me learn to be more intentional with the connections I do make. It takes a lot more effort, and feels a lot more rewarding, to host a Zoom call with other students to catch up. Our weekly sessions, whether that’s studying together, playing Among Us, or just chatting about life, always serve as a reminder that I do have a community at Williams. Although I have no doubt my connections with other students would probably deepen if I were on campus, I’m also in no hurry to seek out connections with Williams students at the moment – this remote semester has offered me the chance to stay at home and hang out more with my family, friends and dogs, and I’m definitely not letting that go to waste. 

In a way, it’s hard to consider this first semester as a part of college. It’s a weird transitional period of sorts, where my professors sometimes feel more like Youtubers than actual people and my Williams life feels like just a small part of my life at home. Maybe I’m missing out. Maybe it’s much better being inside the Purple Bubble right now than it is viewing everything happening in it from the outside. But, as a first-year who’s pretty intimidated by everything going on, this remote learning period offers me exactly what I need: a chance to slow down, reorientate myself and explore new things without a sense of intimidation. When I, and many other remote students, return to campus either this spring or next fall, I believe we’ll be more ready to learn, engage, and connect. 

Jamie Liu ’24 is from Shanghai, China.