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For six first-year students at Olin College of Engineering, the mid-March news of the campus closing and classes going online was more than troubling. It was so problematic as to require a solution.

Which led four of them to cram into an orange Subaru and drive some 1,400 miles from Olin’s campus in Needham, Massachusetts, to Duluth, Minnesota — two flew — where one student’s family had a vacant rental house. It would become, in parent parlance, “Satellite Olin.”

Students (from left) Meagan Rittmanic, Julia Chomowicz, Nicola van Moon, Caitlin Kantor and (in mirror) Alex Butler, all from Olin College of Engineering, brush their teeth at their “satellite” campus in a rental house in Duluth, Minnesota. Credit: Photo courtesy Alex Butler

Armed with laptops, Legos (with no shops to build mechanical structures, the school sent kits) and pads of Post-it Notes, along with their social rituals — meals together, Friday craft nights, a running notebook of their funny quotes — they created a quarantine campus.

Even at school, “we don’t have a clear line between our academic and our social lives,” said Nicola van Moon, who is from Oakland, California.  When news of Olin’s closing hit, she said, “I remember thinking, ‘I cannot imagine doing everything I am doing right now, working as hard as I am working, without these people.’ ”

It’s not just about empathy and socializing, said another group member, Julia Chomowicz, from Stonington, Connecticut.*  While studying, it matters to be able to say, “Hey, I have a quick question, can you help me out?” Arranging to Zoom or text a peer is not the same, she said, as “those little moments of in-person contact.”

“[Even at school] we don’t have a clear line between our academic and our social lives. I remember thinking, ‘I cannot imagine doing everything I am doing right now, working as hard as I am working, without these people.’ ”  

Nicola van Moon, Olin College of Engineering student from Oakland, California

The disrupted spring term has offered many lessons to college leaders trying to plan for the fall. But one unheralded takeaway: The powerful role incidental and impromptu interactions play in the college experience — and how hard it is to replace them.

Yet students have been trying. As soon as courses jumped online, students began DIY-ing campus life. They set up satellite dorms (some right near campuses), downloaded apps like “Beer With Me” (just what it sounds like) and planned Zoom parties, trivia nights and club meetings. At Dartmouth, a 135-year-old secret society engaged young alumni around the country for rush, having them visit recruits’ homes to tap in person.

“It was the next best thing they could have done to make it feel special,” said a member of the Class of 2019, a teacher in Boston who drove to the home of a current student in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and delivered the invitation in his yard.

Campus leaders and advisory committees are working furiously to upgrade and diversify their technology and ramp up training for struggling professors. But even as they evaluate new tools and platforms, there is a deepening recognition that putting courses online — even when well executed — is far different from going to college.  

That difference is not just about the course content. Time away has dramatically highlighted how a thousand incidental experiences — from joking about the odd food inventions of dining hall cooks to absorbing the jovial welcome of a professor during office hours — shape what it feels like and means to be a college student.

Related: Choosing pass/fail grades may help college students now, but could cost them later

A group of Colby College seniors calling themselves “The Boothbay Commune” gather outside the office of a cottage and boat rental property where they finished their spring term after their Waterville, Maine, campus closed. Credit: Photo courtesy Wendy Thorpe Allen

Yes, campuses provide essentials like food, housing and health services, which are of growing importance as jobless rates rise. But residential colleges also bring together a crucial community of peers and invested adults.

A survey of college students last month by Top Hat, a higher education technology company based in Toronto, found that 85 percent said they missed face-to-face interactions with faculty, and 86 percent missed socializing with other students.

That probably would not surprise Vincent Tinto, professor emeritus at Syracuse University, whose theories about student persistence recognize the value of both formal academic and informal social interactions and activities.

Students, he said, are “moving from being a teenager to slowly becoming adults,” and seemingly minor interactions matter in building relationships that help them thrive.

“These subtle engagements are very powerful for students,” he said. While they can happen virtually, “there is nothing that replaces the meanings that come about through face-to-face interaction” because so much of the communication is colored by “the posture, the look, the way it is phrased.”

Yet, having taught extensively in hybrid environments, which are partly in-person and partly online, Tinto said the mix can help more students to be “vocal.” Some, he said, “would be very quiet in class, and online they would be very different.”

He wonders if what students discover in this DIY moment might lead to more opportunities for them to “design their own learning environments.”

The crisis became a natural experiment in just that for a group of seniors at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, forced to leave campus as they were trying to complete capstone projects. The group, which reached 16, gathered at a summer cottage and boat rental property owned by one of the students’ families that was not yet open for the season.

campus life
Colby College seniors, members of “The Boothbay Commune,” show off masks sewn by student Sarah Tobey’s mother to wear when leaving the property to shop for essentials. Credit: Photo courtesy Wendy Thorpe Allen

They dubbed themselves “The Boothbay Commune,” set up an Instagram account to reassure parents and created a version of campus life at the harborside camp. They made and submitted videos for a class in contemporary dance, worked through an online statistics textbook and held study sessions. Several said they pulled all-nighters.

The DIY campus offered other, non-college, learning, too. The group organized food purchases, cooking and cleaning. They did yardwork (trimming brush and raking up thousands of acorns) and brought kayaks, rowboats, paddleboards, a sailboat and a motorboat out of storage and down to the dock.

To keep some feel of their old social life, they replicated trivia nights and, with several members of the ultimate Frisbee team present (including co-captain Bennett Allen, whose family owns the property), played a four-day Frisbee golf tournament with a green jacket from Ethan VanderWilden’s car as the prize.

Related: Desperate for students, colleges resort to previously banned recruiting tactics

Still, trying to be a student away from school was disorienting, said VanderWilden, who is double majoring in physics and government. On campus, while working on his senior thesis on the rise of the far right in Spain, he had relied on “going into my adviser’s office on a pretty daily basis to keep myself accountable.”

campus life
Colby College seniors Ethan VanderWilden (left) and Sam Wells do classwork in the main house of the cottage and boat rental property in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where a group of classmates gathered to complete the term after campus closed. Credit: Photo courtesy Lilli Garza

At the camp, it was hard to focus at first. Having another government major there also working on a thesis “pushed me to get on track,” he said, adding that “being in an environment where other people are working is helpful to stay motivated.”

The issue of motivation has been a major theme on social media this spring among students across the country suddenly unmoored from campus. Lynette Long, a senior at Dartmouth College from Norman, Oklahoma, found housing in an alumni couple’s New Hampshire home through an emergency list when her senior dorm became a facility for those on campus required to self-quarantine.

She said the absence of  “the little things, like your informal assigned seats, who you walk to and from classes with,” has hit hard. “Something I have noticed is how much space matters.”

Nonacademic interactions provide a rhythm to daily life that students lean on, said Sanat Mohapatra, Long’s classmate, who built an app, Unmasked, to facilitate anonymous mental health peer support. (Only Dartmouth students may download it.)

From left, Colby College senior Bennett Allen and his father, Tim Allen, along with Bennett’s classmates Topher Wang and Ethan VanderWilden, carry a rowboat from barn storage to the dock to ready the Allens’ property, Harborfields Waterfront Vacation Cottages, for the season. Credit: Photo courtesy Lilli Garza

Created before the coronavirus crisis, the app, which has 1,125 downloads and 220 daily users, has since become a kind of virtual campus gathering spot, Mohapatra said.

While students still seek help with dating and school stress, he said recent posts have “focused a lot more on open-ended questions like ‘What do you miss?’ ” even including dining hall food. Students, Mohapatra said, “have tried to recreate those conversations you can’t have on regular social media or with your family.”

At Dartmouth — where the spring term ends June 9 and the summer term, attended mostly by sophomores, will be online only — the Collis Center for Student Involvement has tried to help campus groups operate virtually, including offering 20 different Dartmouth-specific Zoom backgrounds.

“[Zoom sessions peter out] because you run out of new experiences to bond around. We are just sitting there in our bedrooms. You start talking about how your Zoom classes are going.”

Luke Cuomo, Student Assembly president, Dartmouth College

Long said there are virtual teas, meditation, yoga, public-policy broadcasts, home-brewing workshops, “QuaranTEAM” trivia. But it’s hard to stay involved, she said. “I went to my sorority meetings for a few weeks, then called it quits.”

Such waning interest concerns Luke Cuomo, the campus Student Assembly president, who, like Long, is among a group of undergraduates who regularly “meet” with administrators. Even Friday night Zoom sessions with his group of friends have petered out “because you run out of new experiences to bond around,” he said. “We are just sitting there in our bedrooms. You start talking about how your Zoom classes are going.”

Related: Little-noticed victims of the higher education shutdowns: college towns

campus life
Olin College of Engineering students (from left) Julia Chomowicz, Declan Ketchum, Meagan Rittmanic and (at bottom) Caitlin Kantor gather for a Zoom class at a vacant rental house in Duluth, Minnesota, that became their DIY campus. Credit: Photo courtesy Nicola van Moon

College social life, he said, “has a degree of organic-ness” that is hard to replicate virtually. For those who are “expecting a residential college experience,” said Cuomo, who is finishing the term at home in East Williston, on Long Island, “I don’t think there is a way to satisfy students in an online setting.”

This worries campus leaders everywhere. Which is why many, like Richard Kessler, executive dean at The New School’s College of Performing Arts in New York City, are trying new approaches to keep students connected to the cultural life of the school. 

When students left in March, Kessler, who is also dean of the Mannes School of Music, said the school shipped keyboards, electronic drum kits and USB microphones to those needing them. Faculty tested online music collaboration platforms, picked Soundtrap, then planned virtual jam sessions that (unlike on campus) let faculty and students share a stage.

With schedules disrupted, artists began dropping into online classes. When jazz legend Sonny Rollins was to call into a course taught by Reggie Workman, another jazz great, Kessler said the school reached out. “People signed on from all over the world,” which “maxed out” the 300-person online capacity, said Kessler. “The provost couldn’t get in.”

The crisis has forced campuses to innovate. “We’re learning a lot,” said Kessler. “These special things are not going away.” Colleges all over are now streaming virtual concerts and speakers, hosting open mic nights and offering museum tours.

But students, it turns out, also crave what technology cannot deliver. “People,” said Mohapatra, the Dartmouth app creator, “are used to joking around about nothing.”

This story about campus life was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

Correction: Stonington is in Connecticut, not California.

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