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Citlaly’s experience attending PSU during virtual learning

Students find new ways to learn, live and connect both online and on campus

by Suzanne Pardington Effros - November 30, 2020

Citlaly Arroyo-Juarez’s world has shrunk to her single dorm room at Portland State University.

Since March, she has done almost everything remotely. Her classes. Her campus jobs. Even her social life is almost all virtual now.

But, like everyone else at PSU, she is making it all work, mostly without leaving the safety of her 10th floor room, where at least she has a view of the city.

“There’s no handbook on how to get through a pandemic as a college student,” she says. “But the school is doing as much as it can to adjust and trying to make it as normal as possible.”

The rapid worldwide spread of COVID-19 changed everything last spring for college students like Arroyo-Juarez. Classes went virtual almost overnight. Campuses went into lockdown. And many students went home to stay safe.

But as the pandemic stretches into fall and winter, Portland State is creating new ways for students to learn, live and connect both online and on campus. It’s not just about getting through the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s about redefining higher education to make it more flexible and accessible to more students — now and in the future.

Classes will remain mostly remote through winter term, but the campus is open — with extra safety measures — to support students. The library, residence halls, dining halls, computer labs, study spaces, Campus Rec and Student Health and Counseling Center are serving students in person with masks and distancing. Other services, such as tutoring and advising, are available virtually.

The campus is changing to meet the needs of students where they are, with classes and resources in a variety of formats that best fit their work and family schedules.

“This is a challenging time,” says PSU President Stephen Percy. “And we are making new investments to ensure that we are able to support academic innovation and the vibrancy of our campus community. We will emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever.”

Meeting students where they are

Before the pandemic, Portland State’s School of Business was already preparing for this new world of Zoom classes and Google discussion boards. It has six global classrooms, each with ceiling microphones and two high-definition cameras that adjust angles and zoom in and out as the instructor steps on floor pads in the front of the room.

As a result, the MBA program was among the first to launch six in-person classes this fall with a livestream to students at home. Each class has a maximum of 15 students in the classroom (with masks, distancing and good ventilation), and the rest are on Zoom. The business school plans to adapt all 21 of its classrooms with livestream technology.

This dual teaching model reaches business students wherever they are, whether they’re traveling for work, stuck in a Beaverton office because of traffic, or staying home to stay safe in a pandemic, says Tichelle Sorensen, academic director of the MBA program.

“It opens more opportunities for students to get an education when there are barriers in the way,” she says. “The whole campus is looking at this dual mode and seeing how it plays out.”

Refining remote education

PSU faculty, like Sorensen, are refining their teaching practices to help students thrive in a virtual environment, and students say they see the difference.

Conor Paterson, a University Honors College history major, said both students and professors are getting better at interacting in an online environment.

Many professors now ask students to watch video lectures and comment on discussion boards before the class meets together for a live class. Paterson’s anthropology professor, for instance, asks students to write a 300-word post about the reading assignment each week before class. The extra prep work takes time, but it makes class discussions livelier, because students already have some talking points about the topic, he says.

Those strategies could improve in-person classes after students return to campus.

“I think the ideal class is going to make use of the best aspects of online learning and the best of face-to-face learning,” he says.

Paterson also likes that some professors are giving students a little more slack on deadlines, because of the pandemic.

“The thing that I appreciate is the legroom,” he says. “Why should someone’s main concern be this due date, with everything else going on?”

Connecting on campus

Francine Iopu, a senior from American Samoa, changed her major and her career goals after her classes went fully virtual last spring. And it’s all for the better, she says.

At first, it was hard for her to adjust to having only online classes. Her pre-med classes were mostly large Zoom lectures, and she learns better with hands-on projects and social interaction.

So she switched to public health, where she found smaller classes, more discussions, empathetic professors, and a career field that better fits her personality.

She even has a senior capstone course where students are working with the Boys & Girls Club to create a new curriculum of pandemic-safe family activities, like backyard scavenger hunts.

Her professors are “super quick” in responding to emails, she says. “Every time I reach out, they are always there. They are on it 24/7.”

Iopu came to PSU through BUILD EXITO, a health research training program. She still wants to return to American Samoa to help improve the wellness of her island community, but as a health educator instead of a doctor.

But for now, she’s studying in her single room in a quiet residence hall and taking walks through campus in between classes. About 900 students are living on campus in single rooms, but she rarely sees them in person. Her RA sets up Zoom meetings for the residents on her floor to play games and safely get to know one another.

“It’s like you’re the only one living in the building,” she says. “It still feels like it’s school but the difference is I’m in my room. It’s hard, but I think I’m getting used to it.”


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