It’s 11 a.m. on Sunday, three hours ahead of Doha in Kathmandu, and Neha Shrestha is setting up her study corner to attend her first lecture of the day after a yoga session. Giving her company during the class lecture is her dog, Juju, curled up under the desk. Meanwhile her parents, who are just out from self-isolation after testing positive for coronavirus, are mostly occupied planning a hushed Bijaya Dashmi, the most prominent Nepali festival. Judging from the crowd of festival shoppers a few streets away from her home, it is hard to suggest that Kathmandu Valley is observing a massive daily outbreak of coronavirus cases. Waiting anxiously for the state entry permits, Neha laments about canceling her flight to Doha twice. She is yearning for her arrival to Doha and fighting shy of distractions in her room.
Neha is one of the 133 students that Georgetown University in Qatar welcomed as part of the Class of 2024. This is the largest batch of freshmen the university has accepted and includes students across several time zones. Although the transition to the online learning model began in March 2020 for all other students, the freshmen were mandated to follow the same trend in August due to circumstances arising from the COVID-19. The pandemic has posed an immense challenge for all the campus community members in trying to emulate their regular pre-pandemic routines. Nevertheless, we should admit that the challenges faced by the new members of the community outweigh what we all have been grappling with for the last seven months.
Most of them couldn’t bid a proper ‘goodbye’ to their high school friends, let alone have a high school graduation, which is something they acquiesce with as the world shut down. As the summer reached its peak and all the planned trips got canceled, the question of uncertainty loomed over their decision to attend university after years of hard work. The idea of attending the university virtually simply by pushing Zoom’s mute and unmute buttons might have seemed inconceivable at the beginning. But now, they have already spent half the semester attending Zoom lectures and racing against time to meet deadlines.
It was a testament to the resilience of these Hoyas. To build a community through Whatsapp chats and Zoom interactions was a challenge in and of itself. But this didn’t deter them from adjusting together into university life. From immersing themselves in the virtual orientations, to weekly “First-Year Experience” sessions, they have found ways to integrate themselves into the Hoya community.
“At first, I thought that it would be hard to feel like I am part of the Georgetown community because everything would be online. However, it’s important to keep in mind that as long as you put yourself out there, join [student] clubs and show initiative, you’ll definitely feel like a Hoya.” says Salome Mamuladze.
“During these times, it’s significant to keep in mind that you have a supporting [campus] community that is ready to assist you in more ways than you can imagine. Doing all of it on your own can be discouraging. That’s why I try to reach out to study groups, writing centers, and clubs. Having an encouraging community that is there to support me has been one of the main sources of my motivation.” added Salome.
To continue education virtually with online resources is a privilege, but it doesn’t necessarily cater to each student’s persona. Pointing towards that, Nada Elgohini, questions if online learning is leaving introverted students behind. She expresses, “making friends and communicating with others is not an easy task, especially if they [freshman] suffer from social anxiety.” Aptly she points out that online group chats are dominated by few people which builds pressure on the remaining students.
“Being in a new environment [means] that you don’t know how people will react if you say something, [it] might make the individual remain quiet instead of speaking due to the difference of culture and traditions.” said Nada. She also mentioned that “ there were several fights in the group [social media group] due to the difference of opinion. This might discourage people to actually communicate”.
Adjusting to campus is a critical issue because university education is about fostering a dynamic growth in students. While some students may be quick in seeking help from other community members, it may not be the same for everyone. Since they are new to the community, the pressure is much greater upon them. Therefore, it is a challenge for them to seek ways to engage with the community for a meaningful experience.
Devashish Regmi, who is attending classes from self-isolation housing at the Qatar Foundation (QF) dorms after a week-long quarantine in a hotel, is excited to finally get out this weekend. He stated, “I do not have much to complain about the service provided here [quarantine facility]. However, taking lessons from a confined room is not an agreeable experience that you would want to go through.” He wishes to have a free environment to concentrate on his studies and increase productivity.
In September, Maryam Daud flew into Doha from Pakistan to continue her classes from the QF student housing. Attending classes from home, she struggled with inescapable distractions that surrounded her and the enormous semester workload. She is glad that the university provided options and arrangements to travel here and accommodate international students’ needs. “It is very accommodating for students coming from regions with a considerable time difference and those who lack a proper space to concentrate on their studies,” explained Maryam. Although she did complain that her workload continued to cause stress even when the time difference doesn’t exist now.
When asked how her experience changed after moving to Education City, Maryam replied: “It is astonishing to see a diverse student body in real life, which was hard to realize behind the Zoom screens and chatbots.” She was also delighted to try different cuisines and travel around Qatar during the fall break.
As we move forward for another online Spring semester, freshmen students fear this would stand in their way from having a meaningful and interactive university experience. Due to understandable restrictions posed on travel and gatherings, this has undoubtedly blurred and distorted the traditional freshman-year experience. Regardless, the freshmen seem to have soldiered through the first half of the semester despite various challenges that came their way and that is nothing short of an accomplishment.