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'I haven't experienced a normal year at Carolina': Eight months of a virtual UNC

Junior Yang Chen poses for a portrait outside Sitterson Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Chen is a TA for COMP 110 which is being taught remotely.

Eight months ago, UNC senior Metra Sheshbaradaran was sitting inside the Greensboro Coliseum, watching the UNC men’s basketball team play in the second round of the ACC Tournament with her brother — a first-year at the time.

That same day, March 11, the University sent a formal notice announcing a Spring Break extension and a move to remote instruction starting March 23. At first, Sheshbaradaran didn’t realize the announcement meant that she wouldn’t be returning to campus with her brother to experience all the things she loved about spring at UNC.

“When that started to become clear, it was sad because I think spring is a lot of people’s favorite semester,” she said. “It’s definitely mine.”

After online spring and summer classes, when students returned to campus for the fall semester, the University had less than two weeks of instruction before shifting to fully remote classes. This spring, UNC will operate with five modes of instruction.

These changes over the last eight months have left UNC students and faculty to navigate Zoom lectures, virtual office hours and the stress of the pandemic.

'A complete 180'

Before UNC’s Spring Break, Kris Jordan, a teaching assistant professor in the computer science department, had been tracking COVID-19 cases in Italy on a white board in his office. As the days went by, case numbers were rising exponentially.

Jordan sent a survey to his team of teaching assistants to get their thoughts on instruction after Spring Break. Of the 19 responses, no one thought UNC would change to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester.

“In spring, it felt like a complete 180,” Jordan said. “I’m very thankful we had the additional week to prepare because I think without that, we would’ve been in a very bad place, and many schools didn’t have the fortune of it falling over spring break and doing something like that.”

Sophomore Kendra Randle said it was hard to process the idea, not just of all online classes, but also missing out on college experiences. Randle and her roommates had planned to “soak up every ounce of Carolina” after break, and she’d been accepted to study abroad in Spain during the summer.

“I remember getting a bunch of emails all the time saying, ‘Hey we’re changing this, hey we’re changing that,’ and it really overwhelmed me.”

Virtual learning in particular, she said, has been a challenge over the past two semesters.

“I love learning in a community and with other people around me, and it’s not the same over Zoom,” Randle said.

In addition to losing the classroom experience, the markers of a UNC experience like FallFest and football games looked different this semester.

“So when campus shut down after one week, that hit me very hard,” Sheshbaradaran said. “And I was super upset about it because I kept thinking about all that we were losing.”

'We’re all just trying to get through it'

Despite the difficulties, UNC students and faculty found ways to adjust both in and outside of the classroom. In a normal semester, Jordan said he and his team of around 50 computer science teaching assistants conduct thousands of one-on-one office hour appointments for students in COMP 110:  Intro to Programming.

“When we’re not knowing that people are physically in seats, we’re looking for other ways to engage that help to enhance the learning,” he said.

Jordan’s computer science students answered questions on Poll Everywhere, participated in a collective GroupMe and were divided into "Harry Potter"-inspired houses this semester. During lectures, he used screen backgrounds that showed live code demos.

“I figured out how to do some things with my camera that helped run a course online without feeling like we’re losing some of the experience together,” he said.

Junior Megan Butler served as a peer mentor for a BIOL 202: Molecular Biology and Genetics class this semester. She said that during Zoom review sessions, she made sure to check in with the other students.

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“It was nice to sort of always be reminded that you’re not alone, everyone is going through a really terrible time right now,” Butler said. “And we’re all just trying to get through it.”

To make sure they took care of themselves this semester, Randle and her roommates planned movie nights and football watch parties in their apartment, cheering and playing music like they would have if they’d been in the stadium.

“We just really try to make it feel like we’re there and we’re a part of it, and just have fun with it even in the hard circumstance that we’re all in right now,” she said.

Though it’s uncertain what next semester will bring, Randle said she hopes to see her peers and professors face to face, and experience more regularity during her junior year.

“I haven't experienced a normal year at Carolina yet,” she said. “So I'm looking forward to that.”

As a senior, Sheshbaradaran won’t have another semester at UNC where the days aren’t overshadowed by COVID-19. She'll miss going to basketball games and sitting with friends outside on campus during the spring in Chapel Hill.

But, she said, she's happy her brother will get to have those days in the years to come.

“I'm excited that the underclassmen in future Carolina classes will get to make their own traditions and still get to enjoy Carolina,” she said. “Because it's not going away."