A makeshift gym in a neighbor’s garage, an expanding collection of house plants, and a new outlook on a sudden change. Students have adapted to the worldwide pandemic that has created a semester at Brown University like no other.

COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS have created a world of online learning, Zoom meetings, and significantly reduced interpersonal interaction. While these unprecedented times have caused great difficulty, students in the Brown
School of Public Health have found unique coping strategies and inspiring sources of positivity.

In the spring, COVID-19 restrictions caused an abrupt change at universities across the country. Since then, U.S. colleges have had to adapt to online learning and socially distanced campuses. In this new format, Brown University students have abided by the University’s Healthy Brown policies. Students in the School of Public Health, in particular, understand the impact of the pandemic and its effect on population health. Because they are invested in the topic, public health students see the pandemic through a critical lens. However, maintaining safety practices during a pandemic, while working toward an advanced degree, comes with costs. We reached out to current public health students to ask how COVID-19 restrictions have impacted their lives, and to learn their methods for coping.

Zoom Fatigue

Several current students described decreases in productivity and trouble focusing while watching a screen for hours on end; a concept increasingly referred to as ‘Zoom fatigue.’ This disconnected feeling is compounded by fewer interactions with peers, TAs, and professors, which often negatively influences comprehension of course materials. Many students voiced feelings of loneliness and a lack of camaraderie in the absence of social connections. Despite seeing others on video calls, the technological separation can cause awkward silences, voice delays resulting in interruption, and a lack of body language. We’ve grown familiar with the embarrassment of forgetting to mute oneself or the wild hand gesture pointed a one’s ears that is associated with a glitching microphone. While many students agree that this time of disconnect has created a general lack of self-accountability and feelings of isolation, the Brown School of Public Health community is meeting these challenges with resilience.

Finding Balance

Last spring when Ma. Irene Quilantang, an SCM student in Global Public Health, suddenly had to shift to online learning, it was a struggle. The shift forced the blending of her personal and work life. When she lost the ability to study and work in an environment separate from personal life, Irene sought to combat this by reorganizing her apartment to create ‘work-only’ and ‘no-work’ spaces and times. Quilantang also goes for long (socially distant) walks to recharge and explains that it “has also allowed me to explore Providence more and discover interesting parts of the city.” Irene also searches for free mini libraries in Providence while on her walks. This clever idea is one of the many ways in which Brown School of Public Health students have adapted during a time of quarantine and online learning.

Elizabeth Silva (in pink sweater) and Hannah Ray (in black) wear masks and socially distance.

Other students found sources of positivity in learning a new language, trying new baking recipes, growing their collection of house plants, going outside, listening to inspiring or humorous podcasts, spending time in their backyard, writing in their journal, reading, visiting different beaches, conversing with coworkers, therapy, meditation, spending quality time with roommates, adopting pets, and learning to play the guitar. Several students have used various forms of exercise as a coping strategy. One even created a small, socially distant “gym” in a shared neighbor’s garage. An overwhelming majority of students sought family and friends as their source of positivity during these tough times.

The Upsides of Online Learning

Students have found positive aspects of remote learning. Some appreciated the extra time due to the lack of commute to and from classes, work, or other campus activities. With this, students embraced the additional time to try new recipes, call family members, or focus on self-care. Others took advantage of the newly established format of recorded lectures that can be watched or re-watched on one’s own schedule. The new online format has also created appreciation for a classroom that includes students living in various locations throughout the world and new global perspectives on course content.

While remote learning has caused hardship, students have found ways to have a ‘glass half full’ mindset. One SPH student, Malina Yago, said “my favorite aspect of remote learning is how much it has reminded me to appreciate education.” Yago went on to express a newfound gratitude for the ability to receive an education even if one cannot be in a physical classroom. This demonstrates a profound perspective that appreciates the ability to continue to learn, despite a completely new format.

A New Outlook

These student perspectives give an inspiring new point of view on remote learning and COVID-19 restrictions. While we reminisce on the simple pleasures we took for granted—a soccer game, a dinner party, or a group study session at your favorite coffee shop—it is important to appreciate the potential of a new outlook. With online learning may come an appreciation for free mini libraries in Providence or a newly perfected recipe. Or perhaps a classmate is a fan of your favorite band, which you only discovered from the poster in their Zoom background. Maybe your professor is a dog person, a fact you only learned when a golden retriever interrupted lecture.

In the last six months, Brown University students and others worldwide have felt the burden of an online world. Yet, we have done so collectively. While SPH students, faculty, and staff are challenged with a great physical separation, we have met the difficulty of online learning with resilience. The Brown University School of Public Health community has a new perspective and ability to adapt when some extra time is needed to complete a task or a Zoom microphone isn’t working.