Guest columnist Joanna Buoniconti: Attending college remotely gives more than it takes

Published: 7/7/2020 4:33:15 PM

When I was 7 and my parents decided that remote learning would be the best option for my fragile body riddled with the effects of a debilitating neuromuscular disease, little did they know that this would help prepare me for the chaotic future that would unfold 13 years later. Years before wearing masks in public was normalized, I had grown numb to the inquisitive stares that accompanied my mom slipping the loops on my ears before entering a public setting.

Now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone has to deal with the harsh consequences of being in close contact with others that I have been conditioned to be hyper-aware of for as long as I can remember.

Because I was a young child with fragile lungs, my parents were warned catching a bad cold from one of my peers could prove to be deadly. It would only get worse as I got older. My muscles were bound to progressively deteriorate and the anxiety from extreme mental and physical fatigue made the prospect of getting sick almost unbearable. So in hopes of preserving my health, I resigned to attend school from behind a screen for the majority of the years to come.

Throughout elementary and the beginning of middle school, my unconventional class attendance was considered “cool” by my peers and teachers. I cannot count the number of times my teachers would make corny jokes about being ready for their “close-ups” accompanied by a roomful of hesitant laughter. And on the rare occasions when I would physically attend school at the very beginning and end of the academic year, I was always welcomed back by my peers’ bright smiles and chatter about the latest playground gossip.

Looking back on it, those years were one of the few periods of my academic life where I felt included and accepted.

During middle school, the novelty of my situation inextricably wore off. And while I had known the majority of my classmates since first grade, sometime over those years, they stopped seeing me as a person and couldn’t see past my wheelchair or, more likely, the technology I was using to attend school remotely. Furthermore, it became virtually impossible to make new friends. Even with the help of rising technology and messaging platforms, girls whom I had attempted to befriend ghosted me without so much as a second thought.

With the exception of my close friends, whom I have known for the majority of my life, I spent much of high school mastering my introversion and doing my best to ignore the mounting feeling of loneliness in my chest. College loomed with the same prospect for remote learning. I knew it was the only option. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help feeling left out of yet another integral life experience.

I never could have imagined how so many would have similar experiences to mine, but under much different circumstances.

On what was supposed to be another dreary Wednesday of March in New England, the week before spring break in which everyone’s need for some time to relax was increasing by the hour, the news came that would change the collegiate experience for thousands. The UMass chancellor sent an email to the campus community announcing that classes would be online for at least two weeks following spring break. I had been taking my classes through Zoom for months at this point, but I still felt the impact as the news ricocheted through the campus. Were we going to be coming back to classes at all, or was life as we knew it definitively over?

And two days later, on the first night of spring break, that question was answered when the chancellor sent out another solemn email announcing that remote learning would take place for the remainder of the spring semester. I spent that night in a melancholy haze, and it wouldn’t occur to me until more than a month later why. As much as all my peers were mourning a loss, so was I.

The last time that I was physically on campus was the fall of 2018. I had a lab for my Introductory Anthropology class, and had to rush home immediately after to orient a new nurse. I had hopes of returning to campus to attend some of my classes this spring, but with the uncertainty of the world right now it’s unclear whether I’ll ever be able to return to campus again in the year that is left of my undergraduate career.

Being in class remotely has meant a lot to me, even if it has looked different from my classmates’ experience. And if I had known then that it would be the last time where I was physically able to be there, I maybe would have stayed a few extra minutes to bask in the controlled chaos or look at the buildings once more.

It remains an understatement to say that the switch to remote learning was easy for me. Because the fact remains that remote learning was my reality long before it was deemed the new normal.

But the pandemic has made one difference for me. It allowed me to form friendships with some of my peers because for the first time in my life, I’m not alone in many of my fears.

Joanna Buoniconti is an English and journalism major at UMass.
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