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As Drexel University students transitioned from the classroom to their living room or bedroom this past March when remote teaching was fully adopted this spring term in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to adapt to virtual interactions rather than personal ones, as did most other students and working professionals.
But the University did everything in its power to not make this feel like a slight of hand. Most departments offering student services began functioning fully online in the blink of an eye — including academic advisors. And for two students who struggled with the accessibility and accountability necessary for the jump to all online classes, those personal touchpoints with advisors and professors — though they were over the phone or through a computer screen —helped turn their hardships into triumph. Here are their stories:
Annie Michele Clark, a pre-junior majoring in hospitality management and 68-year-old veteran of the U.S. Army, had her first term at Drexel this spring. Needless to say, the pandemic did not make the transition an easy one. Previously, Clark did not have a computer or internet at home.
“I didn’t know anything about a Zoom and how to get on a Zoom. Oh, my God. It was horrible,” she said. “I couldn't get access. I couldn't get the books. Couldn't do this, couldn't do that. And I was going to quit again. My daughters told me, ‘Mom, you've never quit on anything. You can't quit.’ I said, ‘I can't handle it.’”
And she didn’t quit, just like she hadn’t when she contracted Legionnaires’ disease and wound up in a coma. When she woke up after nearly two weeks of being unconscious, Clark says she had to relearn everything, from brushing her teeth to walking. After she recuperated, Clark couldn’t go back to work at the VA taking care of backlogged claims. She wanted to retrain in a new profession, which is what brought her to Drexel and carrying a full-time course load in the midst of a pandemic.
Clark’s pastor helped her get a computer, and get internet set up for her at home. Then, Clark got to work reaching out for more help she needed to be successful for classes —from Drexel’s IT department to the Offices of Equality and Diversity and Veteran Student Services to her academic advisor. Clark said she was amazed at how readily available everyone was to come to her aid.
“When you've been accustomed to being the kind of person to take care of other people — I was a case manager for homeless veterans for all these years — and now I had to be able to advocate for myself, do all this stuff, because I couldn't do it by myself,” she said.
Two people Clark said she was appreciative and grateful to have in her corner from the start of the term were Senior Academic Advisor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions Kelly Quigley, and Assistant Vice President of Student Life Rebecca Weidensaul, PhD, who oversees Veteran Student Services. And they agreed that Clark’s ability to not let the obstacles she faced with remote learning become hindrances stemmed from her curiosity and her willingness to learn and ask for help.
“For Annie to come through this term with everything that she faced, and do it so well and with such grace and dignity, she is an exemplar,” Weidensaul said. “She’s a Dragon, and honestly, I think Anthony J. Drexel founded our school for people like her.”
“You can just hear how grateful [Annie] is just to be given the opportunity,” Quigley said. “She really she takes advantage of any resource that you give her, anything extra that a lot of students I don't think would take advantage of. She does the extra tutoring. She's doing summer work just to keep up on Excel. She was logging into Zoom from her phone, all this stuff.”
Another unexpected resource for Clark? Her younger classmates, especially on tasks like using the aforementioned Microsoft Excel. If using the program was part of a group project, her classmates would let Clark take on another task until she becomes more comfortable using it. And the comradery they formed — even over Zoom calls and Blackboard discussions — was reminiscent of something for Clark.
“I am so honored to have been with these young people. A couple of them, they reached out to me and we stay in contact now,” she said. “It's like being in the military again, when you have a good cohort, cohesive unit, working like a lean green machine, when everybody's working together to get a mission accomplished.”
Clark’s key advice for other students struggling with accessibility in remote learning: Put your pride in your back pocket and sit on it. That's the first thing. You get a box of tissues, ‘cause you’re gonna have to shed some tears. But the most important thing is open your mouth and ask questions, ask for help. Let people know that you're struggling. Even your classmates, let them know that I've got a problem. Can you help me?
Grandma always used to say a closed mouth can’t get fed. I’m old school, and I came up through the school of hard knocks. You have to learn how to advocate for yourself. If you don't tell somebody “I’ve got a problem,” they are not mind readers. … You can't be ashamed. You can't have pride. You've got to be humble. Humility is the key to success. I don't care who it is, what they're doing. Humility is the key to success. And I would encourage them to please, please ask for help.
For Sanjana Ahmed, a rising second-year accounting student formerly in the first-year exploratory studies major, this academic year has been full of adjustments.
First, it was adjusting to college life in a new city, as when Ahmed moved to attend Drexel this fall, her family moved with her to northeast Philadelphia.
“I had no friends, no classmates that were going to the same college as me,” Ahmed said. “So, I was a complete stranger to the community, to college life, everything.”
She studied hard, maintained a 4.0 GPA, and then started to make friends and feel like part of the Drexel community come winter. She was looking forward to treating herself to more touring around the city once the weather got warmer — but with spring came the coronavirus.
“We shifted to remote out of nowhere. I never got to tour around the city. … The entire year was a surprise,” she said. “I had just begun to adjust to the college life, to the late-night studying, and then out of nowhere I needed to change my sleep schedule.”
Grappling with maintaining her schedule and usual self-discipline became difficult at the onslaught of quarantine for Ahmed. She found herself staying up late with family instead of getting the rest she needed for the day of classes ahead.
“I would constantly show up to the laptop, my Zoom classes, with like only three, four hours of sleep,” she said. “… The reason why I was able to maintain my 4.0 was I set my own guidelines, I set my own sleep schedule. I told my family, ‘Look, I cannot hang out with you guys. I'm going to bed,’ even though they were watching movies until 3 a.m.
“So, I think if I didn't make sacrifices of spending time with them, then I wouldn't have been able to maintain my GPA, but it was all worth it in the end.”
These sacrifices meant sometimes doing school work throughout the week with very little “me” time built in, which Ahmed said she constantly had to explain to her family as a first-generation college student. But she spoke up, advocated for herself and got back on track.
Then, when Ramadan began in late April, Ahmed had to adjust once again. She said this year’s month of traditional fasting for Muslims was the hardest of her life because of remote learning.
“We cannot eat from sunrise to sunset. So, that's 5 a.m. We were eating at 5 a.m. and most of us had classes at like 10,” she said. “That really messed up our sleep schedule, and concerned my parents. They thought I was being very unhealthy. But the thing that I learned out of that is you need to make your own schedule.”
Karen Christie, senior academic advisor for the First-Year Exploratory Studies program in the Goodwin College of Professional Studies, was Ahmed’s advisor this past year, and said she heard the same thing about this year’s Ramadan from other Drexel students. Christie cited Ahmed’s work ethic, accountability and inhibition when it comes to speaking up as how she was able to overcome struggles with maintaining a consistent schedule and maintain her perfect GPA even while taking 17.5 credits from home.
“She's every adviser's dream student to advise, and always brought sunshine into the room when she visited my office,” Christie said. “Sometimes we struggle with getting students to advocate and find their voice because often that's more important than those letter grades anyway. And she's definitely got that. She's ahead of the curve on that.”
This proved true once more before the quarter closed out. Ahmed approached Christie with a decision she was having difficulty facing, as she believed other students may as well: whether or not to take advantage of Drexel’s pass/no pass grade option. Ahmed told Christie she wanted to be able to take her finals before making such an important decision, but at that time, the deadline to opt in was set for before finals week. Fortunately, Interim Nina Henderson Provost Paul E. Jensen, PhD, and other University leadership were already exploring the option of extending the deadline in response to the civil unrest following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd. Ahmed was relieved to see the announcement a few days after her conversation with Christie that the deadline would be extended to after finals week was over.
“Drexel made me realize that speaking up does make a difference,” she said. “Even if it's, you know, the smallest spark, the smallest voice does make a difference. I will always remember that. And then I was so happy to make the final decision after taking my exams.”
Though she did a lot of adjusting and self-advocacy this term, Ahmed said it also helped to know that, even from afar, she wasn’t alone — she had her Drexel professors and advisors in her corner.
“[It’s great] just knowing that people are there for you to talk to and you don't have to feel like just because you're at home, you can talk to your family and no one else,” she said. “These people were available. These people were open. They constantly said, ‘If you need anything, just do a quick Zoom call and we'll be here for you.’ Just knowing that, it was soothing.”
Ahmed’s key advice for other students struggling with accountability in remote learning: I've been telling myself since ninth grade that no one is going to pay your gas bills or any other utility bills. And I don't know, for some reason that just motivates me every day. No one is going to build your GPA. You need to do what you need to do. Your parents can’t do that, your professor can't do that. They can help you. They can guide you. But at the end of the day, when you go to bed, it's all on you. You need to make your own schedule. That's the most important thing.