A Peer Educator Reflects on Personal Decisions, Challenges and the Importance of Inclusivity in the Transition to Online Learning when COVID 19 Changed our Worlds

Graduating Engineering senior, Camelia Wu, considered her options when it was time to decide where to live after the Cornell Campus was closed due to COVID 19.  She chose to return home to New Jersey.  Though she lived off campus, and could decide to stay in Ithaca, she was without a vehicle, friends were all in isolation, and so she decided that the best option was working on her final college disciplinary work and on facilitating AEW workshops from her parents’ home. As we all did, college students had a lot to process very quickly.  When Camelia was asked via discussion thread to create an analogy about what it felt like, as an AEW Facilitator, to transition your workshop sessions to an online mode.  Here is what she wrote:

“(it was like)…when I first moved to the United States. After moving, I needed to get used to a new lifestyle with a different language, food selection, friend group with different backgrounds, and so on. I had to find a new flow in my social and general everyday life. It was kind of like how I used to have a good flow for how to conduct the AEW sessions in person, but had to find new online teaching tools to achieve a new flow in the virtual AEW sessions. Both involved a lot of flexibility, empathy for others, and curiosity to explore new things.”

Living at home, reconsidering everyone’s roles, thinking about internships that are likely to be substantially reduced or altered, if not completely cancelled, and considering job options as a graduating senior are a few other personal/professional concerns. These say nothing about the lost social aspects of college and being a senior: the celebrations, the kudos, the final presentations and the all-important ‘goodbyes’. Camelia shared some of her own sadness and how she attempted to cope with the abrupt nature of the transition:

“This fast transition made it kind of sad for me because I am a graduating senior, so it was disappointing to leave campus without being able to do everything that I had planned. I had been pushing off a lot of things, but I now regret that decision. It also cut short my time with my friends, some of whom I was not able to meet before leaving. Before I left, I decided to at least write a message, make a card, or leave something for my closest friends at Cornell to show them my appreciation and hopefully reminisce on some of the good memories…”

AEW facilitators have a rare opportunity to share thoughts about this emergency online transition to teaching and learning.  Facilitators are undergraduate students and experiencing their own course transitions, in addition they are peer educators struggling to stay positive, flexible and apply best practices for online learning in their AEW sessions. Camelia appreciated that students and instructors were respectful and used icebreakers that allowed students to share fun facts about themselves and their backgrounds. The game encouraged students to also be inclusive and find common ground.

As a student: she expressed thanks for her professors who were role models for the transition to online teaching practices.

“… It gave me a lot more respect for the professors who were trying to deal with this transition. In fact, some of my amazing professors were an example to me when I had to provide this transition for the AEWs…”
“ I felt that some of the professors were even sadder than we were for the missed class time and senior celebrations… they had to suddenly readjust the course to completely virtual classes. Overall, I appreciated their genuine effort and still learned a lot.”

As an AEW Facilitator: Learning the names of people in her AEW workshops, (and pronouncing them correctly) was a practice she used in her own peer education to make all feel included regardless of their different backgrounds. Camelia also shared other practices she and her co-facilitator, Matt Ziron, used to address engagement and create inclusivity in the new teaching venue:

“Being respectful and flexible to students who are under different time zones. For example, this may include using different contact methods, recording course material, or posting material in multiple places to make sure everyone has access.
“We sent out a few surveys and polls to find out best times, how to share the course material, deliver the lecture portion, and use Slack. The responses gave us a lot of direction for what to do.”
“… There was overall a very open and accepting environment and going online did not change that. One specific situation that Matt and I had to deal with was one overseas student with limited access and a different time zone. We tried to be flexible and discussed with her alternative ways to participate, recorded the lecture portions, and posted the AEW material in multiple places to make sure that she had the proper access. As a result, based on what she said in the email communication, she was able to stay updated”.

Finally, Camelia considered the occasional poor practices she experienced and why these actions make students feel uncomfortable and promote exclusion rather than inclusion. For instance, when students or the TAs are more familiar with one another and start going about some everyday conversation.

“inside jokes or personal conversations … may make other students feel left out or unhappy that it seems off topic. They are still important to address to build relationships with the students and help them on a more personal level, but it should not take class time from everyone else or suggest favoritism.”

As if there wasn’t enough work to do, Camelia and her peers on the eboard for a student organization called the Language Expansion Program decided to keep meeting to maintain that community for students who wanted to continue to share language learning.

“… I found these conversation hours very relaxing and enjoyed sharing jokes in different languages and fun facts about those languages. I think my zoom training as an AEW facilitator helped me learn how to better organize and set up these language meetings.”

Finishing her reflection on a happy note, this extra commitment turned out to be one of those personal social activities, albeit remote, that provided Camelia with some of what was lost when the physical community was no longer available on campus and she chose to head home to New Jersey. It eased the stress and feeling of disconnect from her home at Cornell.  This was, and is, a challenging time, and also one of immense growth, especially for graduating seniors who are both students and peer educators.  This resilient young professional learned how to negotiate new circumstances, to experience and facilitate inclusive learning in a new environment, and very successfully complete her college career. Congratulations Camelia, and thank you for your insights!

 

 

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