A Snapshot of the SAIS Virtual Student Experience

Zachary Wheeler

“I am writing to inform you that we have changed our earlier position and have reluctantly decided to conduct all SAIS-DC classes and activities in virtual and online formats for the Fall 2020 semester,” wrote SAIS Dean Eliot A. Cohen on July 17th. That night, I imagined the coming semester filled with technological failures, stale Zoom discussions, and disheartening social isolation. Yet, nearly two months into online classes, SAIS x Zoom University has pleasantly surprised me — online courses can be engaging, professors’ Zoom abilities strong, and virtual happy hours fun. 

There is danger in a single story, however, so I interviewed a set of SAISers to get a snapshot of the student experience in this unprecedented semester. As a snapshot, these students’ experiences may not be representative of the student body as a whole — for a higher sample size, refer to SAIS Academic Affairs Student Survey results sent via email on September 15th. Regardless, their experiences may resonate, allow the university to further improve the virtual modality, or provide valuable advice to make the most out of a difficult experience.

To begin, nearly every student interviewed felt similarly in regard to the university’s decision to close its doors for the semester; the announcement was undoubtedly a disappointment, but the proper decision given the continued risks of the coronavirus pandemic. To Suzie Zhang, a 1st-year student in the SAIS-Tsinghua University dual-degree program who had just completed a virtual semester at Tsinghua in the spring, the decision was expected given the course of COVID-19. 

Asiana Cooper, a 1st-year IPE concentrator, disappointed that her first semester would be virtual, worried that the virtual modality would put her year at a disadvantage in comparison to student classes of years past. 

Expectations for the online semester were more wide-ranging than feelings towards its announcement. Hannah Dennis, a 2nd-year Strategic Studies concentrator, expected classes to be uncomfortable through Zoom, yet was pleasantly surprised by how the close-knit Strategic Studies community was able to overcome the barriers of virtual awkwardness. Ryan Jenks, a 1st-year EES student, felt that that virtual experience would be comparable to an in-person experience. Jenks’ expectations have been largely met, he says, as teachers have used digital tools well-enough to provide him with a learning experience equivalent to the physical classroom. 

Howard Berkowitz, 1st-year Strategic Studies, and Hunter Kristy, 1st-year EES, had more pessimistic outlooks. Kristy felt that Zoom classes would be less lively and study groups more difficult to create. Berkowitz felt that participating in class would be tough and awkward and opportunities to create personal relationships limited. Both feel their expectations have been largely confirmed through their experiences.

Of the students I interviewed, most expressed frustration at the difficulty of forming social connections on a virtual campus. In the virtual classroom, students feel the lack of sidebar conversations, after-class introductions, and genuine student-to-student interactions around campus. Conversations on Zoom are heavily moderated and formal, stemming from the limitations of the software itself. Walking through a list of raised hands coupled with muting and unmuting microphones stunts the natural ebb and flow of traditional class discussions that students so enjoy. 

Suzie Zhang, living in Singapore, decided to switch her online campus from DC to Bologna for course timing purposes. The SAIS Bologna campus, however, is open to in-person classes, so Zhang  Zooms into these live classroom sessions, the epitome of the “hybrid” modality. The awkwardness of being in “Zoomland” while her classmates discuss in person often leaves Zhang feeling excluded. On the bright side, she notes that her professors and teaching assistants have made consistent efforts to reach out to her to make up for the experience discrepancy. With the possibility of SAIS following the “hybrid” model in DC in Spring 2021, it is important to formulate a plan for how students who choose not to return to campus, opting instead to log in from Zoomland, can feel more integrated into the physical classroom.

Despite these difficulties, many students articulated unexpected silver linings of the virtual semester. The most notable being the flexibility that virtual courses bring to work schedules and living situations. Hunter Kristy mentions that in some ways, virtual courses allow him to maximize his time by eliminating walking and transportation time between his courses or work. For Ryan Jenks, the virtual semester allows him to continue living in North Carolina with his wife and dog, instead of moving to Washington, DC. For Carmela Irato, the virtual semester allows her to capitalize on experiences that she otherwise may not have had time for in-person, such as going to speaker events on topics in which she is less-knowledgeable and connecting with peers who are also taking online courses.  

Some of the interviewees made recommendations to SAIS for the improvement of the virtual semester. Howard Berkowitz suggests that professors maximize the use of tools on the Zoom platform to enable a more engaging learning environment. The most compelling courses, he suggests, are ones in which professors maximize student-to-student interactions through breakout rooms and class debates. 

In the vein of more student-to-student interaction, Hannah Dennis suggests that, when possible, class sizes should be smaller so students can leave their microphones unmuted. She finds that conversations feel far more natural when the formality of unmuting microphones is dispatched. Asiana Cooper suggests that SAIS provide students with SAIS-themed swag to foster a greater sense of community and school spirit.

Finally, some interviewees spoke to habits that have made their semesters smoother. Carmela Irato says that her semester has improved by making a conscious effort to attend professors’ office hours each week, and by taking periodic walking breaks to get a breath of fresh air. Hannah Dennis says she has switched her mindset toward taking classes themselves. Instead of viewing classes as another mandatory daily duty, she’s started viewing classes as a break from the constant feeling of needing to be productive. While small and seemingly insignificant, one life-hack that has improved my own semester is the opening of windows in my room while on Zoom. The racket of construction, hints of street music, and chirping of birds serve as a reminder that Zoomland is neither permanent nor all-encompassing. 

Speaking to fellow students about their own SAIS virtual experience was informative and, frankly, fun. I encourage each of you to reach out to your fellow SAISers; just a quick chat can foster interpersonal connections, build the SAIS community, and help us get through this unprecedented semester one conversation at a time. 

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