We’ve all been hit unexpectedly hard by this pandemic, but students are a particularly vulnerable group. They are young and are still sorting out their lives, and their identities and careers are still unformed, so this disastrous pause button is particularly difficult for them. The good news is that pretty much everybody is in the same boat worldwide, so the language of this suffering is, and will remain, universal. As a colleague of mine has said, there will be an asterisk next to Spring 2020 worldwide!
But the differences are clear too. Both worldwide and in India, poor, working-class and ethnic minority students are suffering a lot worse, as the closure of campuses has meant the loss of a place to live and a meal ticket to many of them. The students lucky enough to ask career questions at this moment – as they should – are still among the more privileged ones.
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To students, I would recommend three things above all else: safety, self-directed study, and self-care. No compromise with health and safety at a time like this, so please follow all directives. And self-care is more important than ever, as this pandemic comes in the midst of already-aggravated mental health crisis for students worldwide. But this pandemic offers a great window for self-directed study, especially for older students, which is worth noting carefully.
Education follows a universal trajectory where the more senior you become, contact-hours (with the instructor and/or peers) come down and more and more time is allotted for self-study and research. Such is the trajectory from kindergarten to the doctorate – younger students need heightened contact as they consume knowledge while older students need time on their own as they begin to produce knowledge – eventually original research. The pandemic has forced as all on an accelerated curve of self-directed study, and that can be a good thing if we accept and celebrate this “forced” maturity.
In terms of actual practice, over and above the traditional resources, books and texts and papers (many of which are also digitally available), the internet has opened up a whole wealth of new resources. Coursera has made many of its courses free, a lot of libraries and publishers have made their content freely downloadable. There are countless opportunities of training in languages and many technical fields. And finally, many institutions have simply closed their campus life and shifted entire instruction processes online.
That being said, the loss of a peer company is a serious one. Not only is college a lot less fun when it’s on a laptop screen between trips to the bedroom and the bathroom, the valuable learning that happens through interaction with peers, not only in the classroom, but out in the canteen, the grounds and the campus bookstore, is suddenly all gone. The educationist Howard Gardner once said in a lecture that back when they were students in Harvard in the 1960’s, they joked that they didn’t need professors – all they needed were each other, and the college’s famous Widener Library. So it’s very important to keep student groups and social connections alive while you attend college through your laptop, or even your mobile device – not only for happiness and good mental health, but for the actual sake of learning itself.
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This is all advice to get through the semester, or whatever is left of it. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re a long way from returning to full functional normalcy. And even if lockdowns are lifted, some form of social distancing is likely to continue for a while, and it’s very likely that on-campus may be disrupted for the time being, with many US universities already predicting a fully online academic year for 20-21. Higher education experts are even predicting a 5-year period that universities in Western Europe and North America might need to recover to return to pre-pandemic conditions of optimum functionality if indeed the world becomes normal again.
What is the advice in the face of this reality, especially for students thinking of going abroad for higher study? We have to take time in small parcels. In a couple of months into summer, we’ll know that the next academic year is going to be, whether study abroad will be experienced physically, or just virtually. For students who quickly need to take a decision about going abroad next year, the specific answer will depend on universities with which you’re in conversation – and in countries where they are located. Generally speaking, however, I think it’s a very good idea to take a “break year” now, unless you have dire financial exigencies. I’ve always been sceptical of the Indian student’s endless-treadmill approach to higher education and career. School to college, college to university or professional school, to the job and being set for life – except that’s no life, and neither is it the wisest way to carve one’s career.
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This might be the year when the Indian student between college and further study come to do what students in the post-industrial West have been doing for while – take a break. One big option for the break year – travel – might be out or severely limited in a COVID-ravaged world, but this might be the opportunity to do more local work or internship, or anything else that is accessible remotely or online. Read, think, contemplate, acquire experience, press the pause button – we could have done it all under more ideal conditions, but what the heck, we’re here now, with very limited options, and taking a break, waiting, thinking, doing things on our own – before jumping on to the next step in the academic or professional ladder – will certainly prepare us to become more mature and prepared citizens for that next step when the world adjusts to a new, and hopefully healed normal.
(Saikat Majumdar writes about arts, literature, and higher education, and is the author of several books, including, College: Pathways of Possibility. @_saikatmajumdar.)