Student Association first-year senators presented its first report last week detailing challenges facing freshmen during online learning.
Three first-year senators released a survey in October asking the Class of 2024 about their thoughts toward online learning and how respondents want to improve their “virtual learning experience,” according to the report. The survey found that freshmen feel virtual learning has weakened their academic experience and connections with professors.
SA Sen. Jack Bloom, U-at-Large, said he and his peers felt their voices were underrepresented in the SA when the SA Senate published a statement in July – a month before first-year senators could join – supporting officials’ decision to move classes online last fall.
“A lot of us started in the context of darkness,” he said. “We felt like we weren’t being heard, and so if anything, I hope that seeing this report lets them know that we’re here, we’re listening, we care.”
The survey asked freshmen about their adaptability to college, the pros and cons of virtual learning and if they felt prepared for virtual learning this spring. The survey, which received more than 250 responses, revealed 26 percent faced “learning and organization” challenges, 18 percent felt isolated and 17 percent experienced home distractions that affected their ability to learn, according to the report.
Bloom said freshmen reported that they are struggling to form connections with the campus community. He said living on campus during the first year of college offers experiences like meeting new people and developing relationships that can’t be simulated in the same way in an online environment.
“While returning students might have some support systems in place – great friends they met in person or professors they met in person or even just having a substantial connection to Washington, D.C., Foggy Bottom, Mount Vernon and GW – first-year students really don’t have that,” Bloom said. “And so that’s just one more additional hurdle that we’ve all had to overcome.”
First-year senators hosted a town hall for freshmen in October, also aimed at gathering students’ concerns to compile the overall report.
“We conducted the survey and the town hall to get concrete data points to support what we already thought to be the case in an empirical way,” Bloom said.
The senate passed a resolution last week calling on officials to help ease the challenges freshmen are facing by promoting student resources like academic and mental health help.
SA Sen. Charlene Richards, U-at-Large, said she plans to meet with two assistant directors from the Office of Student Life this week to encourage them to organize more freshman events that introduce the class to each other and increase promotion of Engage GW as a platform for freshmen to find student organizations.
The report recommends that student life officials promote GW Engage through newsletters with upcoming events that student organizations are hosting. The report also urges all student organizations to post all their events on Engage and reach out to freshmen with a “refresher” about how Engage operates.
Richards said she will work with officials to implement social programs to build relationships between freshmen that extend outside the realm of classes and GroupMe chats. She said she wants to organize more town hall meetings this semester dedicated to freshmen so they have a consistent forum to voice their questions and concerns.
Richards said feedback from the survey suggests freshmen felt as though officials weren’t providing students with adequate information to find and use resources, like mental health and disability support services.
“A lot of students with mental health and disability issues – they felt alienated during this whole experience,” she said. “And it felt like a lot of the resources that the University already had have not been publicized.”
The report recommends that administrators publish instructional videos for students to learn how to navigate University websites and resources, and the senators ask the Office of the Provost to pinpoint those outlets students can use to voice their concerns.
SA Sen. Yan Xu, U-at-Large, said he, Bloom and Richards plan to collaborate with student organizations like the International Affairs Society and First Generation United to create infographics and videos teaching students how to navigate University websites and resources.
“For example, I never applied for financial aid, but I believe some of the student organizations are very interested to work on that because that’s part of their advocacy, their plan,” he said.
He said the three senators plan to reach out to student organizations by the end of the month and post the videos on the SA’s website and social media and potentially on the Office of Student Life website.
Xu said they plan to host another town hall this semester as a place for freshmen to raise their questions and concerns directly to an administrator. He said he will invite officials like University President Thomas LeBlanc and Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Cissy Petty to attend the meeting.
“A town hall without an administrative person who actually makes the decisions there – it’s going to become just hearing the concerns, but we are not actually offering any solutions to the students,” Xu said. “Bringing the administrators on board is a brilliant idea.”
This article appeared in the January 19, 2021 issue of the Hatchet.