Scranton students adjusting and finding ways to thrive in new reality

Student's at home work station

Luci Polanco's home work station, where she now not only does homework and class projects, but "attends" her classes, as well as virtual student activities and online social events.

Credit: Luci Polanco

DUNMORE, Pa. — As the world contends with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the entire Penn State Scranton community has found itself having to adapt in unprecedented ways.

For campus students, the first couple of weeks of remote learning have proven to be a big adjustment — academically and socially. Still, these need not be insurmountable challenges, according to several campus students who shared their initial thoughts regarding the virtual learning experience and being away from the physical campus.

Student Government Association (SGA) president and nursing student Emily Scarfo admitted she’s been struggling to adjust to remote learning, noting the close interactions she fostered with professors and students in the traditional classroom environment haven’t translated just yet to the virtual realm.

Likewise, SGA treasurer and adult learner Dan York said he’s found it more difficult to connect with the course material remotely, despite the admirable efforts of the faculty to maintain a uniform experience for students.

“It is a new format. When you've been learning and, in the case of the professors, teaching, in a certain environment, a sudden switch is tough to negotiate,” York said. “Being adaptable is definitely a valuable life skill, and if nothing else this situation is definitely teaching us that.”

As a corporate communication major, senior and SGA Public Relations Director Luci Polanco has already taken a number of online courses. According to her, it’s important for students to try and develop a “work from home” mentality in order to stay properly motivated.

While social distancing and self-quarantining have taken people out of their normal routines, Scarfo has diligently stuck to hers. That means waking up every day at 7 a.m., and no binge-watching TV shows she’s wanted to catch up on because “although I’m home, I’m still in school and I need to keep that routine,” she said.

York also quickly adopted a few coping strategies of his own, including one suggested to him by Chief Academic Officer H. Durell Johnson.

“Routine — create one and stick to it,” York said. “A routine gives you a sense of normalcy, a sense of persistence. Wake up at the same time every day. Eat breakfast and lunch at the same time. Maintaining a routine really does help.”

“It takes discipline to wake up early when you technically have nowhere to be, but discipline can help make you a stronger person and builds character,” said Scarfo, noting she’s appreciative of the University’s efforts during the transition, including the decision to change its grading policy in order to give students some peace of mind while adapting to the new learning environment.

Scarfo also has made it a point to leave her computer camera on at all times during classes and meetings, in hopes of having more fruitful interactions. York is an advocate of this approach, as well. While students, faculty and staff can’t share the same physical space, they can still see each other’s faces sometimes — a key aspect of human interaction and connection, and a good way to help combat the isolating effects of social distancing, he said.

York said many students aren’t turning on their cameras during class sessions on ZOOM, resulting in “a wall of names as disembodied voices answer the questions of one lone face.”

“We're robbing ourselves of our community,” he said. “I don’t think as students we think about it, but giving lectures this way is hard on professors as well. They rely heavily on our facial cues to judge the level of comprehension. Professors, believe it or not, are people, too, and they need that social interaction just as badly as students do.”

During these interactions, students should be looking out for each other’s well-being, too, York stressed. For instance, if you notice a student hasn’t been attending class, or maybe just doesn’t look like their usual self, by all means consider reaching out to them with an email, he said.

Support systems are hugely important, said Scarfo, noting SGA is actively promoting the many virtual services and events currently being offered by the campus’ Student Services and Engagement office. Meanwhile, she said, SGA is conducting all of its regular meetings online, and recently held its officer elections virtually.

“Showing the student body that we’re operating as close to normal as possible is crucial in keeping involvement up,” Scarfo said. “In this time of stress and anxiousness, it is very important that we still have the support system of each other and our faculty and staff. I appreciate all that the staff has done to stay connected with us.”

“It's extremely important for students to stay connected to the campus’s virtual community,” Polanco added. “This means trying to keep up with emails, social media posts and much more. These events can be very beneficial and give the students something to look forward to during the day.”

York said students can even take it upon themselves to create their own ZOOM meetings for any reason, be it a study session or simply just to hang out with friends.

Pre-social distancing, York hosted a game night every Sunday. It’s now gone virtual and he’s considering allowing the student body to join in on the fun.

“I own just about all the Jackbox Party Packs and they are designed to work with hundreds of remote players,” he said.

For Polanco and fellow senior Gina Romano, perhaps the hardest part about the online transition is the fact that they won’t be able to finish their undergraduate careers on campus.

On top of that, Polanco remains in the Scranton area while her family is home in New York City, the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

“As of right now, I don’t really have time to cope with everything because I’m still heavily involved in the Penn State Scranton virtual community,” Polanco said. “I’m just going to keep pushing forward because I know that there are greater things that will arise from the current situation.”

Romano, a psychology major, lamented the postponement of the campus’ commencement celebration, and said she’s struggling with the fact that she won’t be able to have those final few weeks of cherished classroom and campus time with faculty and friends.

“With that being said, some things are bigger than us,” Romano said. “This pandemic is bigger than us, and staying home is how we as the Penn State community are doing our part. I think the University has made the right decisions moving forward and I am hopeful for better things to come.”

“We're all trying to learn how to function in a new environment. It's not easy,” York added. “It may feel like the end of the world, but it truly isn't. … Adaptability is an incredible skill, and every one of us is capable of succeeding. We can do this. We are Penn State.”