Distant but not disconnected: Zooming in on remote learners

By Genny Gottdiener

Remote learners balance online courses, jobs and other responsibilities from different time zones, all while trying to connect with on-campus classmates and student organizations. (Sarah Fagan)

Most students log into their Zoom classes under the glow of dorm room lights, but others’ cameras capture less familiar backdrops, as they Zoom in from around the globe. Of the 2,757 students enrolled at Middlebury this semester, 329 — more than one-tenth — are studying remotely.

Some students made the decision to study remotely, but some didn’t have a choice.

Rachel Lu ’23 is studying from her home in Shanghai this semester. In order to return to campus, Lu would have needed to spend two weeks in another country before entering the U.S. due to a travel ban, she said.

“There’s always a chance of catching the virus while travelling. It just felt a lot safer for me to take the semester remotely in Shanghai,” Lu said.

Since Shanghai is exactly 12 hours ahead of Vermont, the majority of Lu’s classes take place at night.

Hanwen Zhang ’24 is also taking his classes from Shanghai. Unlike the remote learners in the grades above him, Hanwen Zhang has not yet experienced an in-person semester.

Hanwen Zhang is spending his first semester of college as a remote learner and told The Campus that he is currently living with his parents. “You don’t really feel like you’re transitioning from a kid to a college student,” he said.

Travel was also not a viable option for Hanwen Zhang. He decided to start college as planned rather than taking a gap year. While he feels that the academic aspect of college is going smoothly, the social limits of online learning are a challenge.

“By looking at a small box on my screen, I can’t get to know someone, really. That is simply not possible if you’re learning remotely,” he said.

Hanwen Zhang did have an opportunity to meet up with other remote Middlebury students during MiddView, the first-year orientation program that ran both on campus and via virtual programming this year.

Hanwen and his friends have organized a study group among Chinese students who are remotely attending liberal arts colleges in the U.S., including those enrolled at Middlebury, Williams and Vassar. He said this arrangement has served as a stand-in for some of the typical social aspects of college.

“It’s hard at times, but remote students are forming tight bonds to help each other,” he said.

Hanwen Zhang hopes that travel restrictions will ease in time for him to be on campus for the spring semester, when he plans to get involved with the Debate Team and German Club.

However, travel was not the only factor that students considered when deciding to study remotely. “I thought it was important to stay around family and really connect with them, which I haven’t been able to do in the past,” Zoya Kobets ’23 said. She is studying from home in Bellevue, Washington.

Though Lu’s primary reason for studying remotely was travel complications, she has enjoyed the opportunity to be with her family for an extended period of time. She has also been able to reconnect with childhood friends, many of whom were similarly unable to return to college this fall.

“We try to make a learning and social community out of what we have,” Lu said.

Lu and her friends spend their free time going to the gym, eating at restaurants and exploring their city, where many of the Covid-19 restrictions have already been lifted.

Christian Kummer ’22, Community Council co-chair, has also found a sense of freedom in remote learning. Kummer is from Southbury, Connecticut but has used remote learning as an opportunity to move to New York City.

While he has stayed connected to Middlebury through his position on the Community Council, Kummer has also had the chance to immerse himself in the world outside of the Middlebury bubble. He works at an Eastern Mediterranean restaurant called Shuka and goes for runs along the East River.

“It’s kind of beautiful to have Middlebury still be a major part of my life without it being the only part of my life,” Kummer said.

Nellie Zhang ’23, a remote learner living at home in Northborough, Mass., said her remote learning experience has been similar to small-town Vermont life.

“There are moments when I feel disconnected from the Middlebury community,” Nellie Zhang said. But she has still found ways to stay involved; she even co-founded an on-campus volleyball club this semester. She organizes the logistics while the two other co-founders manage the budding organization on campus.

Remote learning has allowed some students to forge relationships beyond the confines of the college.

“There are people whom I’ve met along the way in my life who are also in New York, so it’s given me the opportunity to form genuine friendships with them.” Kummer said. He was surprised by how easily he was able to form a new social circle while learning remotely.

“I feel like people are much more open to meeting friends initially through social media because of Covid,” he said.

While Kummer stays in touch with his friends from Middlebury, learning remotely has allowed him to connect with communities that he says are not widely represented on campus.

“Something that I really struggled with at Middlebury is that there isn’t a very strong gay community,” Kummer said. “Queer life is pretty disparate there, so it’s been really wonderful for me to meet gay friends and have that sort of experience in New York.” 

Other students have managed to stay involved with the Middlebury community in their own ways. Kobets is one of the presidents of Prajna, a meditation club, and she leads virtual meditation sessions every Monday.

“That’s been really positive and grounding to me as a connection to Middlebury,” Kobets said. 

She noted that it is easy to feel like an outsider when you are learning remotely. Despite the physical distance, Kobets still believes that there are ways to bridge the gap between remote and on-campus learners.

“Reaching out to [remote learners] is really powerful and brings the community a little closer,” Kobets said.