Remote But Relevant: Acknowledging Off-Campus Learners

I’m one of few people who actually enjoyed high school. I was able to take fascinating classes taught by (mostly) engaging teachers, participate in fulfilling extracurriculars, have a semblance of a social life, and still get eight hours of sleep a night. Despite the fact that my grade-school journey was viewed through rose-colored glasses, I always thought I’d find my true place in college–a place where I’d have more flexibility with my schedule (translation: I’d never have to take a math class again), be entrusted with independence, and be surrounded by others who, like me, loved to learn. Most of all, I was ecstatic to be part of a community steeped in spirit. You can imagine, then, why I was so disappointed when I realized I wouldn’t be college-bound after all.  

 

As I already explained in my October article “Being Quarantine Conservative,” I am one of those people who, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, carries a batman-esq utility belt equipped with hand sanitizer and wipes. One of those people who has barely left the house since last March. And one of those people who chose to be a remote learner, delaying my idyllic collegiate journey.  

 

I’ve now survived a semester and a half – almost a full year! – of college from my bedroom at Washington University in St. Louis. I’ve been challenged academically, inspired by unique perspectives, and able to engage in thought-provoking conversations despite the online environment. But my dream of connecting on a deep level with peers and feeling a part of something larger than myself has been, unfortunately, unrecognized. I’ve heard many students express this sentiment – of course, it’s a challenge to engineer a sense of closeness in a world in which we must be six feet apart. However, feelings of isolation have been worse among remote learners such as myself. I’ve sincerely appreciated WashU’s efforts to look out for those off campus – faculty have supported our choice to stay home, offered virtual classes, and hosted events like Bearadise (our mascot is a bear – get it?) to facilitate student connections. But there are several steps that I believe WashU should be taking to recognize us and remind us of our membership within the university community. And I suspect that other universities may be falling into similar patterns. 

Even before school started, I began to see that my status as a Bear would be modified because I chose to remain off-campus. Eager to meet peers, I participated in a trivia night during orientation and won third place (largely owed to my above-average knowledge of all things Disney). Third place came with a prize, but, when the program hosts realized I was not living on campus, sending me the prize was not a priority. Similarly, those within the remote students group chat were appalled when on-campus students posted photos of themselves with WashU-provided stuffed bears. After emailing WashU staff, we were eventually sent our own furry friends, a much-appreciated gesture. Clearly a lack of trivia prizes and stuffed animals isn’t the end of the world. But for a group that is already suffering from extreme isolation, it doesn’t help us feel closer to the WashU community when we’re the only ones not able to enjoy the perks that come along with being a student.

Beyond tangible goods, we’re also frequently left out of experiences. To a certain extent, of course, this is understandable; we obviously cannot participate in on-campus activities as we aren’t physically present. And, on-campus students should be able to enjoy in-person events. However, there are instances when it makes sense for remote students to be involved and they are still excluded. Toward the beginning of the year, a faculty member expressed interest in bonding with our small group; he wanted to take a stroll around campus and get to know each other. The other students in the group – all of whom were physically on campus – nodded eagerly. I bowed my head, knowing I’d be the only one who couldn’t come. I wish that staff members–and other faculty in similar situations – had acknowledged the fact that I couldn’t participate and thought creatively about ways to include me, perhaps by keeping me on a FaceTime call during the walk.  

Finally, remote students frequently feel out of the loop because, well, we’re frequently out of the loop. There have been myriad instances when a blast email will be sent explaining how on-campus students should prepare for class registration, complete housing contracts, etc. Meanwhile, my remote peers and I have frantically contacted the housing department asking how remote students must respond to these pressing concerns. I recently sent an email inquiring how remote students should declare their intention to stay home during the spring semester: Was there a form to complete or someone we needed to email? I quickly received a lovely reply, but it would have been nice to be acknowledged and informed from the get-go. 

I recognize that remote students are in the minority. But though we are few, we are still part of the WashU community. We still pay tuition and call ourselves Bears, just as students studying off campus at other schools similarly identify with their universities. Should WashU and other universities take steps to better incorporate remote learners into the collegiate circle – by shipping us prizes given to on-campus students, by finding creative ways to include us in group activities, and by emailing us about remote student-specific matters – they would not only be making those far from campus feel just a little bit closer, they’d also be sending a message: that every student, regardless of their location, matters. And, sure, the year is almost over, but as we head into the spring and students on campus begin to gather outdoors, it is perhaps more challenging than ever for those of us who are still at home. It is my hope that all on-campus readers of this article strive to aid their remote peers by including them when possible and advocating for them, and that university staff work harder to recognize those who are remote but relevant.