As we begin to embrace our spring semester at William & Mary, I have begun to face the reality of what this semester means for me as a student. Not only will this semester mark the official half-way point in my college journey, but it will also be my third semester of navigating college during a global pandemic. It feels as though time has escaped and plagued me throughout this entire process. Yet, as I look back on my time I can happily say that positive is the only way to describe my experience.
Online school and virtual learning are not particularly new concepts to me as a 21st-century student. My education has always been intertwined with relatively new technology. From interactive whiteboards to digital notebooks, using technology in school has never felt daunting, just a natural progression of learning. Still, education was always paired with physical experiences. I woke up at seven in the morning, took the bus, and sat in a chair for eight hours every day for all my educational life. So to say the switch to online school was a seamless transition would be a lie.
This was completely uncharted territory for educators and students. The learning curve was steep, but it opened a new world of opportunities for me as a lifelong learner. So, as a seasoned veteran of William & Mary online, I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of the lessons I’ve learned as a student who has experienced the majority of her college career at home, alone, and online.
The most prevalent challenge of online learning, in the beginning, was the sheer amount of possibilities. Things that used to be inaccessible to me because of location, or time, or prior commitments, became very viable options. Opportunities came rolling in faster than I could personally process. There was a real concern in finding a balance between the fear of missing out and the fear of overloading my plate. With a schedule of places to be and things to do, the feeling of gratification — a hard job well done — was much easier to find than it was sitting in my bedroom for hours at a time. Finding the push and pull between rest and work, and gratification and exhaustion, was daunting. It truly felt endless and that was as exciting as it was terrifying. I had to make conscious plans for how to implement boundaries that were previously set for me by a division of space. I had to reimagine what those boundaries would look like when physical indicators were no longer viable options.
When you have those simple grounding limitations in place, it puts back into perspective the reality of what you can accomplish at your best as a student, despite being at home and having all this additional time. This was the foundational step to finding success in online school. I really encourage students to find this grounding point for themselves to begin to build a healthy relationship with the online world.
Finding your identity
Once these boundaries were set for me, the next important step was determining an identity outside of work and rest. I’ve been an involved student all my life, contributing to my community was my form of entertainment. Going from being constantly active; only having two to three hours of leisure time a day to leisure time being indistinguishable from school was difficult, to say the least. My outlets for creativity and fun were no longer available, so getting lost in work became easy even if it wasn’t fun. When I saw a pattern of my days becoming wake up, work, eat, work, and sleep I went out of my way not just to break the cycle, but to find substitutes that would sustain my sense of self. This led to a hodgepodge of hobbies and what my dad would call an excessive amount of Amazon packages, but it was essential to me.
I intentionally prioritized creating moments where I felt present and could continue to stoke the fire that I believe makes me myself. I think for students going through a similar feeling of isolation and loss of identity this can be the step that makes online school authentic and enjoyable.
Reframing the value of time
The final lessons of this online world I wanted to share has been the most meaningful experience I’ve gotten out of online school. I’ve grown up appreciating time because it was limited, so when this ley line of thought was thrown into limbo, I had to develop a deeper understanding of what time meant to me. Ultimately, this meant finding opportunities and projects that would not simply fill my time, but were worth my time. I had to reframe what was valuable to me as a learner. This meant understanding that while my availability opened and my ambitions grew, quantity is not a substitute for quality. If I spent all this extra time filling my resume by half-heartedly dipping into a lot of projects that seemed easy and only sparked my interest, then it would not feel like time well spent. When lots of opportunities are rolling in and you have the ability to cram things into your schedule, and you’re looking for a sense of fulfillment without fully understanding what that looks like to you, it’s very easy to become a worker bee. Personally, I don’t think that should ever be the intention of work. Once again, it was a conscious decision to reframe my way of thinking. I had to dig deep to reaffirm my personal values and goals over the next year of my life. After forming that framework it became a lot easier to narrow down opportunities that fit my interest and worked with my schedule.
To me, this was one of the harder processes to go through during my online school transition, simply because it was trying to plan the unknown. We have little knowledge of what the world will look like two to three months down the line. Attempting to find a path and locking on to long-term opportunities was difficult for a planner like me, because there was no certainty. I found that the only way to overcome this was with pure intentions and good faith. It really was a case of trusting the process and taking the leap. I encourage students to take the time to really get to know their passions on a deeper level to begin the process of making this time not only productive, but meaningful.
Those are my three main takeaways from online learning. My goal was really about adding substance, continuing personal growth and development. This is what I needed to prioritize as a student to continue to make these formative years a transformative time — not only for my mind, but for my spirit. I think pondering these three lessons can do nothing but add to your journey as an online student and make it a more layered positive experience. As I went through online school I would constantly evaluate and ask myself what’s missing. This allowed me to really fill in gaps and solidify the creation of more innate personal developmental moments that I think you can only get through schooling. I want students to feel motivated to take this time and truly make it everything they want it to be. Different does not have to mean bad. Students having the tools to make the online school what they need it to be for themselves is essential. It’s what will change the perspective from a time of physical restriction to mental creative freedom. I think that’s what brings the spark of joy back into learning.