Virtually Equal?



The switch to remote learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all members of the University’s large and diverse student body. But the burden of finishing the school year away from Harvard’s campus weighs more heavily on certain students than others — and often those from first-generation or low-income (FGLI) backgrounds, from rural homes, and from time zones across the globe shoulder a disproportionate load. While the possibility of a fall semester conducted entirely or partially online looms, students must weigh the continuation of their education against the frustrations and fears that accompany college during quarantine.



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Getting ahold of Keanu V. Gorman ’22 proved more difficult than anticipated.

After the first few calls failed to connect, Gorman texted to explain the situation.

“I think the service is spotty because of the wind today,” he wrote. He promised to call back when he arrived at his aunt’s home, where he planned to complete an assignment. “There is generally better service there.”

Gorman lives in Tselani, a Navajo chapter located about 23 miles southwest of Chinle, Ariz. Before March, completing online classes in his hometown would have been impossible. “My household did not have any WiFi or internet connection whatsoever,” he says. “There is no cellular service or streaming.” When Gorman texted to explain the interview’s delay, he was about to begin a familiar 26-mile drive to his aunt’s home in Chinle; before his home had WiFi, it was there that he carried out all of his internet-related tasks.

Gorman’s family installed a satellite service when it became clear that internet access would be essential for Gorman and his sister to complete the school year. But their shared 20 gigabyte plan can be both unreliable and short-lived. The data cap turns everyday platforms such as Zoom and FaceTime into luxuries and forces Gorman to complete his online work between the hours of 2:00 and 8:00 a.m.; he is not charged for WiFi services during this window.

But WiFi is not the not the only concern that has surfaced during quarantine. Gorman’s late work hours ensure him the “peace and quiet” that eludes his small household during the daytime, and in those quiet hours, he says he feels that he can finally focus.

Alone, Gorman says he often finds himself “anxious and worried about how [his] family would get through quarantine given [their] financial circumstances.” Leaving Cambridge meant abandoning his campus jobs — cutting off an important stream of income on which Gorman had relied.

The switch to remote learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all members of the University’s large and diverse student body. But the burden of finishing the school year away from Harvard’s campus weighs more heavily on certain students than others — and often those from first-generation or low-income (FGLI) backgrounds, from rural homes, and from time zones across the globe shoulder a disproportionate load. From slow WiFi, to housing uncertainties, to personal and familial unemployment, systemic disadvantages have transformed completing problem sets and writing essays into unusually arduous tasks.

While the possibility of a fall semester conducted entirely or partially online looms, students must weigh the continuation of their education against the frustrations and fears that accompany college during quarantine. This decision not only affects the next semester of classes for students, but also their families, their incomes, and their health. Equalizing and preparatory measures may prove ineffective against the obstacles that inhibited their learning this spring — obstacles that will likely endure throughout the summer and into the fall.

For now, Gorman navigates the spring semester plagued by restricted WiFi access and a lack of quiet workspace by downloading PDF files and watching lectures between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. “At that time, the WiFi is just a bit faster.”

‘A Ticking Time Bomb’

Now that Jordan H. Barton ’23 has returned to the small oil town of Andrews, Texas, the housing security that Harvard’s residential system provided him is no longer a guarantee. During the oil economy crash of 2018, Barton’s father lost his job, and his family was evicted from their home. Since then, Barton has lived his life switching between his great-grandmother’s house and his uncle’s house, where six people currently reside.

“When you live in a big family that’s all in one house, it’s pretty hard to find a place of reserve and quiet to do things,” he says.

Since returning to Texas to finish his first year of college online, he has found himself travelling to yet a third place to get work done — his girlfriend’s house, where things are quieter and WiFi is faster. He has been able to get a lot of his work done there, away from the crowd of six people in his uncle’s house, but he says, “Honestly, my solution to the house problem is going to a different house, which means it’s probably not that useful as a solution.”

Nick T. Wyville ’20 also faces an uncertain housing situation. Wyville originally hails from Anniston, Ala. but is currently living in a rental house with friends of his sister in Chattanooga, Tenn. He hasn’t returned to his home in Alabama because his grandmother, who has pre-existing health conditions, lives there; he says he also did not think returning there would be good for his own mental health.

Because his housemates are also completing their school years online, Wyville says that their WiFi frequently crashes under the strain of too many users and finding a quiet place to work can be difficult. Getting work done can “be a big, a big mess,” he says.

However, the biggest stressor for Wyville is what he will do come June 1. “It’s just almost like a ticking time bomb,” he says. The lease on their rental house ends at the start of the month, so Wyville and his housemates will have to move out. At the moment, he does not know where he will live or what his source of income will be this summer and beyond — the post-graduate fellowship he had secured earlier in the semester was cancelled.

“So we’re just waiting until June 1,” he says. “I don’t really know where we’re gonna go after this. But it’s gonna be a journey.”

‘Paycheck to Paycheck’

As national unemployment rates skyrocketed to 14.7 percent in April — their highest level since the Depression era — for some students, family finances are more pressing than a research paper.

“My family lives paycheck to paycheck,” Tauheed Z. Islam ’21 explains. “So it’s already been sort of a precarious situation.”

Islam lives outside of Atlanta, Ga., and the pandemic has exacerbated his family’s prior financial struggles. His father, who is a full-time driver, his mother, who is a daycare worker, and his aunt, uncle, and cousins, are all currently unemployed. Islam’s family members are immigrants originally from Bangladesh, and he has had to help them file for unemployment. Since being home, Islam has filled out five separate unemployment applications. He describes the process as long, complicated, and bureaucratic.

“The implementation took so long that we’ve had to go weeks without receiving those benefits, and that hurt. We’ve had to borrow money; we’ve had to figure things out,” he says.

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Now that Georgia has reopened its economy, Islam’s parents will soon be expected to return to work. But should they do so, they will stop receiving unemployment benefits, and Islam worries that they will not make the income they need if people continue to stay at home — not utilizing the services of drivers or daycares.

Islam has also felt responsible for tutoring his brother and cousins, who are in middle and high school and also completing their school years online. “It’s definitely been a lot of obstacles that I’ve had to face along classes,” Islam says. “I am still a full time student; I still need to make sure I’m on top of my classes, but at the same time, I’m having to navigate an unemployment system for multiple people, having to keep track of these things, and just trying to survive.”

He continues, “I have really tried to devote a lot of my time towards making sure my family is okay.”

A baby’s yells and cries can be heard through speakerphone when talking with Henry A. Villarreal ’21. Villarreal lives with his mother and his 11-month old brother in Norwalk, Calif. “I have a baby brother here, so it’s nice having him around, but it’s also a worry around classwork,” he says. “And my mother, too — she’s not working right now, so that’s on my mind.”

On top of being currently unemployed, his mother has a significant amount of debt, Villareal says — so in addition to his school work, Villarreal has had to worry about his family’s finances. He has been able to keep his paid internship with Harvard’s Office of the President, so he can pitch in for bills, grocery shopping, and buying things for his baby brother. However, when we spoke, he was unsure if his position would continue into the summer — he had only been told the job would last until the end of May.

If he can’t keep his internship, he will consider getting a job at home. “I worked at Target on campus, so there’s a possibility that I could work at Target here. I just don’t want to because of my baby brother,” Villarreal explains. “There’s more of a risk of transferring the virus at home if I work at Target.”

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Barton, too, has felt the financial effects of the pandemic on his life and his school work. The economic woes the pandemic had wrought in his oil-dependent town were magnified when the per barrel price of crude oil dipped below $0. “You have the intersections of a health pandemic, with a town with a lot of old people, with an economic recession for a lot of poor people, with an oil crisis for a town that runs on oil. So you can see those puzzle pieces are going to create nothing but chaos, and that’s what it is. It’s really bad. And it frames my experience a lot,” Barton says. “I’m certainly not at a place where I think I can perform at 100 percent academically. That’s certainly true.”

Wanting WiFi and Workspaces

The ability to focus on schoolwork, or access it at all, is an obstacle in and of itself for many students. WiFi access has always been a hurdle for students from rural and low-income backgrounds — only about 63 percent of Americans in rural areas have broadband internet — but the return of college students to these areas has exacerbated the issue. Finding quiet places to focus in homes that house more people than can be counted on one hand proves a struggle as well.

Upon his abrupt return to Los Angeles, Calif., Andrew Pérez ’20 spent the first month of quarantine attempting to settle into the role of an at-home student.

Pérez’s home is a stark contrast from his quiet single in Mather. “In my household, there’s eight of us here,” he explains. “I sleep on the bottom bunk in my nephew’s room, and there is no space. There’s no conception of space, of alone time. I have to find some random room that they’re maybe not in at the moment, but obviously someone will be in at the end of the day.”

But even as he locates study spaces in his crowded home and maintains his jobs as a tutor and course assistant, there is one more barrier that is out of Pérez’s hands — his WiFi access. At the time of his interview, Pérez’s home had been out of WiFi for a week, as their cable box had broken down. He and his nephew, who was also completing online coursework, resorted to using hotspots — the workload, however, put them 20 gigabytes over their hotspot limit.

“We’re trying to figure out what that bill is going to look like in the next couple weeks,” he says.

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Gorman, too, was no stranger to limited WiFi access before this semester. Even pre-COVID-19, all of his internet-related work required a trip to his aunt’s home. “I would have to make a list of what I had to do [online],” Gorman explains. “Once I arrived [at my aunt’s home], I would spend a couple of days and complete all of those tasks online and then I would return home.”

Quarantine, however, eliminated that safety net early on, as visiting his aunt posed a risk to her health. The satellite WiFi Gorman now relies on can be unreliable, but he considers himself fortunate.

“I have the privilege of having in-home satellite wifi, even though it’s very slow and not very stable,” he explains. “There are many other families here that don’t have any WiFi or any type of internet connection because the reservation is out in a very rural area, very similar to mine, where they can’t get any internet reception at all, and having to even get there to install a satellite for WiFi is impossible.”

Like Pérez, Gorman also struggles to find space to do work in his home. His relatives often stop by to drop off essentials, resulting in a “completely full house.”

“It’s very hard to have a quiet time to do my work,” Gorman says.

In his uncle’s household of six, where Barton lives most of the time with siblings and cousins, it is also difficult to find a conducive place for studying. “Kids are energetic and they like to make a lot of noise, so finding time to find the place within a smaller house with that many people is just difficult to do conceptually,” he says.

WiFi connection has not been a walk in the park for Barton either. Zoom constantly crashes, and he always has to have his camera and microphone off. Not only has this made work difficult, but it’s made Barton self-conscious.

“In a weird way, I always kind of felt judged,” he says. “Because it felt like everyone else had their mics and cameras on and I didn’t want to seem like I was not paying attention, or that I wasn’t supplying the same amount of effort.”

Skewed Schedules

For a select number of students, returning home has turned their lives upside-down. With a class schedule that remains firmly rooted in the Eastern time zone, students living on the West Coast or halfway around the world grapple with a hindrance that was once a constant — time. Differing time zones turn 9 a.m.’s into 6 a.m.’s or 9 p.m.’s.

Michel B.R. Nehme ’22 offered to schedule a call for 1 p.m. EDT — for Nehme, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, this equated to 3:00 a.m..

Nehme routinely goes to sleep around 3:30 a.m. after his 2:00 a.m. Arabic section, and then wakes up at 10:30 a.m. to go about the rest of his day. Despite following this schedule for a month, he still hasn’t gotten used to it. “[Waking up at unusual times] is purely not good for your health,” he says. “I mean, I’ve woken up at different times of day, I don’t really have the best sleep pattern, and when I wake up sometimes it’s dark outside, which is not as ideal for mental health.”

Ruth H. Jaensubhakij ’22, who lives in Singapore, has seen her sleep schedule take an erratic turn as well. While a 2 a.m. bedtime might not seem too abnormal, Jaensubhakij’s wake-up time of 6:30 a.m. is a little more out of place. To compensate for the minimal rest, she often naps for a couple hours in the afternoon when there’s “no one from school to talk to and not much going on.”

Shifting schedules have required ample coordination between international students and professors, as some class times prove unreasonable. In her current time zone, Jaensubhakij’s 2-hour Women, Gender, and Sexuality seminar would take place from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.

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“I talked to my professor and I was like, ‘I can’t do it,’” Jaensubhakij says. Thankfully, her professors have been accommodating — in lieu of having class before dawn, she attends one-on-one office hours with her professor for 45 minutes each week.

Nehme’s professors have been similarly flexible with class times and deadlines. His Arabic preceptor also offered to conduct a one-on-one section with him at a more suitable time; the combination of classes and extracurricular meetings that revolve around Eastern time zones, however, render Nehme’s schedule fairly rigid, and he continues to attend the 2 a.m. section.

Jaensubhakij maintains that time zones are an issue for a significant proportion of Harvard’s student body, and the issue should be weighed as such.

“I was talking to one of my professors, and she was saying in all the discussion they were having about the fall, it seemed like the university was kind of forgetting that international students are something like 15 percent or 12 percent of the undergraduate student body,” she says. “I think it applies even to people in California who are now having to wake up at 6 a.m. for their 9 a.m.s. Time difference is kind of a big factor in having classes live.”

‘Inherently Unjust’

On April 27, Provost Alan M. Garber ’77 sent an email to the Harvard community detailing the University’s commitment to opening in the fall. In discussing the limitations of online learning, he wrote, “with more time to prepare, we are confident we can create a better, more engaging experience for the fall should many of our activities need to be conducted remotely. Rather than seeking to approximate the on-campus experience online, we can focus our efforts on developing the best possible remote educational experience.”

Nonetheless, many students feel that even with “a successful shift in pedagogy,” their immutable living conditions will not allow for the “better, more engaging experience” that Garber promises.

Barton says that whether or not he will take a leave of absence next semester depends largely on how the fall semester will be structured. He does not think it is possible for the University to equalize online learning for its students. “For Harvard to try to move into this next semester business as usual — returning to normal grades, normal research, etc. — of course, it’s going to be something that I believe will be inherently unjust, because the great equalizer of the Harvard campus itself has been lost,” Barton explains. “I don’t even know if it’d be possible. I know it would certainly be really hard for me.”

Others also claim that school cannot continue, “business as usual,” in a way that is fair for all students. Jaensubhakij feels that the administration’s decision to implement emergency SAT/UNSAT this past semester is a testament to the “vastly different situations, some of them unchangeable things, that make it difficult to complete school work.” Nehme asserts that the conditions that encouraged the SAT/UNSAT system remain “constant and particularly salient for the international community.”

Though it remains unclear what the grading system would look like for an online fall, Jaensubhakij says, “I don’t really know what the argument would be for bringing back letter grades.”

Villarreal feels that the messaging about the fall semester towards FGLI students has been particularly lacking. In his experience, some professors have not acknowledged the different experiences FGLI students may be facing, and the messaging from the administration about the fall semester has been too general. He says the news he has received “sounds like a sounding message that they’re trying to generalize everyone together, like, ‘We’re all Harvard students.’ But that’s not the case. There’s some people who are doing more to choose a survival situation.”

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain and College spokesperson Rachel Dane did not reply to requests for comment on the student concerns regarding the planning for the fall semester.

Ultimately, many students are grappling with issues that extend far beyond the promises of classes better adapted to Zoom or placeholders for the extracurricular activities that brightened campus life. The uncertainty of the fall weighs heavily upon their own, and their families’, well-being.

“What it has come to for me is not just a choice of ‘can I take online classes or not?’” says Gorman. “It’s ‘should I continue with struggling and taking online classes, being frustrated with the WiFi, being frustrated with not having a space where I can study or concentrate or focus on my work, or struggling to find a job within those months having to stick to that job?’”

He continues, “And of course, now getting a job would have to mean taking extra precautions and isolating myself from my family. And because we’re such a family-oriented family, and because we live in such a small household, it’s very very difficult, near impossible, to completely self-isolate myself from my family because there just isn’t enough space to do that.”

Although he is a senior, when asked if he could complete another semester online in his current situation, Wyville is adamant in his response. “Absolutely not,” he says. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done, ever.”

— Staff writer Jane Z. Li can be reached at jane.li@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @JaneZLi.

— Staff writer Maya H. McDougall can be reached at maya.mcdougall@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mayahmcdougall.