In a typical fall quarter at UC Santa Barbara, incoming freshmen would eagerly unpack their belongings in their dorms, meet their roommates and join clubs — hallmarks of the traditional college experience. But as colleges across the nation continue with remote learning, students are being forced to change their perspective on what the college experience, at least in 2020, looks like. 

While some freshmen say that there is no complete replacement for an in-person experience, campus organizations are still expanding their reach by working to cultivate communities online. Melody Wang / Daily Nexus

Though online learning presents unique difficulties, such as the lack of in-person interaction and having to find different ways to stay motivated, both students and faculty are working to create new opportunities to facilitate the college experience in an online format. 

Incoming first-year English major Helen Huang was excited to experience the friendly and active atmosphere at UCSB, calling it “an environment you could really immerse yourself in.” But learning from home, Huang said, makes it difficult to get involved in the campus community.

“Say I want to go to a club meeting. On campus, I could be like, ‘It’s just a short bike ride away, I might as well go,’” she said. “At home, I’ll take a nap, miss the meeting and two days later, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, shoot.’” 

“You’re a lot more zoned out and distanced,” Huang added. “I feel [like] there will always be some component missing.”

Huang said that one upside of remote learning is studying from the comfort of her home. She said that she’s becoming self-sufficient at her own pace and getting more advice from her family than she would have if she were living on campus.

Alhees Basharmal, a first-year pre-communication major, had been expecting a more “hands-on” experience when it came to learning independence before college became online.

“I could go on to college and make my own mistakes, be my own person and see what I really like” if things were in person, Basharmal said, contrasting that hypothetical scenario with the reality of staying home during this period of her life — a setback in her college experience. 

“Right now, the closest thing to social interaction and making friends is through emails or playing games like Minecraft online,” Basharmal said.

Basharmal was originally eager to join a few dance clubs on campus but now has doubts that they’ll work online.  

“It’ll just be dancing in our own rooms, and that’s not as fun,” she said. 

While some freshmen say that there is no complete replacement for an in-person experience, campus organizations are still expanding their reach by working to cultivate communities online. 

Danielle Quiñones-Ortega, the acting director of Student Engagement & Leadership (S.E.A.L.), said that many clubs are still trying to figure out what they can offer throughout the year in a virtual format.

While the capabilities of virtual engagement are still being explored, Quiñones-Ortega said that she continues to envision a healthy college experience in which students are able to continue being involved in clubs and department activities through online events.

Quiñones-Ortega said students can utilize Shoreline — UCSB’s official online engagement website — to connect with each other and find upcoming activities to participate in. Some academic departments have also taken to Shoreline, holding virtual “walk-in” hours or general introduction meetings for their courses.

The website is still a work in progress, Quiñones-Ortega said. As S.E.A.L. continues to build and improve the platform, she hopes more organizations will recognize the benefits of creating online communities. S.E.A.L. is encouraging more student groups to join Shoreline by providing instructional resources on navigating the website, ideas on how to recruit members and a virtual manual on the functionality of Shoreline. 

“There’s some fear to something new, to something that you don’t know,” Quiñones-Ortega said, describing the reluctance people have shown in trying out the platform.

Malaphone Phommasa, director of the Opening New Doors to Accelerating Success (ONDAS) Student Center, said that Shoreline provides a centralized space to showcase campus events and offers a streamlined experience when searching for organizations to get involved with. 

“We’re still putting in effort to send emails to students we’re trying to reach using our social media — our Facebook, our Instagram — but it means that folks have to find these media outlets first before following us,” Phommasa explained, adding that sticking to traditional online outreach methods can be inefficient for growing an organization’s membership. 

For ONDAS, Shoreline has become a marketing tool. It serves as a place where students can access meetings, advisors and other campus resources, with links to many events all in one place, according to Phommasa.  

This year, ONDAS hosted its first ever fully virtual “#FirstGen Scholars Welcome” through the platform and offered several workshops and panels through Zoom, during which it introduced students to the program and gave them the opportunity to meet others with similar backgrounds. 

“We’re preparing folks to know that it’s a different start and we want to be as engaging and as inviting as possible,” Phommasa said as she described the complications of being a student during a time of mass uncertainty. 

Phommasa highlighted the positives of a virtual campus experience, noting that while it may be difficult to get students to participate, the online format makes looking for specific communities more accessible. The campus involvement calculator on Shoreline, for example, assists students with finding groups and events that best suit their interests based on results from a short survey. A member from S.E.A.L reviews each student’s responses and sends a list of suggested campus organizations or events to the student’s email within a week., according to Quiñones-Ortega.  

S.E.A.L. and other campus organizations, like ONDAS, are continuously working to develop new programs and technologies to help students feel fulfilled during a college experience spent in front of a screen. Groups can facilitate as many activities as they’d like online, but in the end, it is up to the student to dedicate the effort toward participating.

Many of the events planned by ONDAS are mindful of helping students through remote learning and creating spaces to build community, Phommasa added. ONDAS has also expanded its outreach by establishing a UCSB First-Gen Community website, where students can find important information and learn more about the ONDAS community by getting to know staff and peer mentors through activities and stories on the website.

Though online activities may pale in comparison to their in-person counterparts, Phommasa said that students should approach the year knowing that the people hosting events are genuinely interested and eager to foster a sense of community for all students.

“There are challenges to put yourself out there, and you are going to be visible because you are a face on the screen,” Phommasa said. “It’s challenging, but once you come into this Zoom space, you know that the folks in there really want to support you.”