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Student Jeffrey Kelley's online rendition of the Southern Methodist University campus.EXPAND
Student Jeffrey Kelley's online rendition of the Southern Methodist University campus.
Jeffrey Kelley

DFW University Students Face Virtual Reality as They Prepare for Online Graduation

After hearing that classes at Southern Methodist University had been moved online, Jeffrey Kelley has already clocked a dozen hours on his computer. But he’s not quite back to his sociology classes. He’s creating a Minecraft replica of Dallas Hall. So though the coronavirus outbreak means no real-life classes for a while, at least SMU students will be able to enjoy their pretty campus virtually.

It’s not just SMU that is dealing with big changes. Every major university in North Texas has moved all courses online for at least the near future in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

And while students spend years picturing the day they get to throw their graduation caps in the air with their fellow graduates, the class of 2020 didn't get so much as a handshake.

“It’s definitely sad that I’ll never see some of my friends again," says SMU student Allie Hartman. "Especially since the decision was made during spring break, so we were already on a break, we didn’t have time to say goodbye before, which was sad. So it’s just kind of shocking overall."

Hartman still has supported the end of classes from the beginning.

“But I mean, everyone’s making sacrifices right now and having to adjust to this new normal, and we’re not excluded from that. It’s just unfortunate that the timing is what it is," she says.

Theodore Price, a professor in neurobiology at the University of Texas at Dallas, thinks the transition online is necessary given the scale of the pandemic.

“The safety of our students and their families has to come first,” he says. “The biggest consequence of over-reacting will be lives saved. I am perfectly fine with that.”

For a few universities, online classes are a regular occurrence. Other schools, like smaller private colleges, aren’t used to operating online on such a big scale. Furthermore, some areas of study, like the arts, are a lot more difficult to move into the virtual world.

“My institution is a hands-on, face-to-face kind of university, so it’s a big change in how we go about our daily business,” says William Gibbons, an associate professor of musicology and associate dean of the College of Fine Arts at Texas Christian University. “No one is thrilled about having to suddenly change the way we operate, especially as we all wrestle with the impact of the pandemic on our personal lives.”

Maybe not “no one.” Some are rejoicing. “Some kids are taking advantage of the free time and are going out there and probably partying more,” says Lili Banta, a markets and culture major at SMU. “From what I’ve seen, they’re not too worried about it.”

Banta is glad that SMU is moving online. But she’s worried about how this will affect grades, since she can’t go to office hours, and some professors aren’t great at answering emails. “I think it’s just going to pose some difficulties in terms of communicating what the professors expect from the students and vice versa,” she says.

Banta has also heard of other students at her school still traveling and carrying on with their spring break plans, ignoring the pandemic. “I can understand why they would want to, but I think that is somewhat naive and somewhat careless for other people’s health,” she says. “And something people have to remember is that we will be fine, because we’re young, healthy adults. [But] if we contract the virus, we could easily spread it to people who would not be able to handle it.”

Southern Methodist University had its spring break beginning March 16, and moved classes online starting the following week. While the students were on break, the professors had to  do a lot of learning of their own.

“You will not believe how full my inbox is with professors sharing resources back and forth,” says Willie Baronet, a professor at the advertising school at SMU who's well-known for his philanthropic work with the homeless.

SMU administration is holding workshops for their faculty throughout the spring break week and flooding their inboxes with resources and information. “I think this is actually quite a bit more difficult for the professors,” says Baronet.

“Some professors barely know how to use Canvas correctly,” says Banta of the platform, which is regularly used at most universities to post grades and assignments online. “I think it’s going to be a learning curve, and some professors are going to be able to do it well enough but some professors are going to struggle with it.”

But some professors are optimistic about their abilities to adapt. “We’re having an online happy hour during spring break to learn more about Zoom features as a group,” says Sandra Duhé, an associate professor at SMU. “I’m chair of my department and fortunate to have faculty who are tech savvy, so we’re in good shape to teach online.”

We spoke to TCU music faculty who are disappointed in having to cancel concerts and recitals, an SMU art professor who said he's trying to figure out how to do drawing workshops online and a UNT student who is wondering how her nonverbal communications class is going to work.

“There is a lot of uncertainty going around about if we are actually going to be back in a few weeks. And I think SMU is going to have to figure out how a lot of these kids are going to graduate,” says Banta. “Like, my boyfriend is graduating in May and he doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to walk or not. And a lot of kids are wondering that.”

“My biggest concern is that some will not have consistent access to Wi-Fi,” says UTD's Price.

Another question plaguing the schools is what happens to students who don't own computers. who'd be forced into public spaces like libraries.

“This transition to online learning will challenge all of us,” says Dr. Kristen Queen, an interim director at the TCU School of Music. “Sometimes it will feel seamless, while other times it will be bumpy and bizarre. We must all exercise grace and patience with one another, especially under stressful and unpredictable times.”

Professors are asking for patience. “Let us know what is working and what is not working,” says Price. “We are in this together.”

Baronet hopes that the coronavirus outbreak will make everyone more appreciative of getting together. “I am an optimist and I would like to believe that it’s also going to help us to reconnect with our humanity and wanting to be kind to each other, to wash our hands not just for ourselves but for other people and to change our habits and to make sacrifices not just for ourselves but for other people.”

Sanaa Ghanim, who is majoring in human rights and English, and pursuing a minor in Arabic, is also disappointed at the prospect of missing out on the ceremony.

“Honestly it’s like the saddest news ever to hear that our graduation might be postponed, because I think every college student looks forward to that day that we walk the stage and celebrate four years," she says.

Ghanim is quick to add that university graduates aren't the only ones missing out on celebrating major life milestones.

“There’s people having their weddings being canceled, their birthdays ... all kinds of crazy life milestone events are being taken and postponed for people without warning," she says. "And it’s hard and I could have never imagined this situation would happen, but that is life."

Universities are made up primarily of young and healthy students. Even if every kid on campus contracted the coronavirus, students are likely to be able to bounce back from it with no real danger. But schools are closing in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus, with hopes to protect students’ grandparents, elderly neighbors and friends with pre-existing health conditions.

“A lot of people I've seen on social media have been blowing off the virus and traveling for break anyway, which, to say the least, is a bit irresponsible,” says Kelley, as he continues to work on his Minecraft server. “I think that's what I wish people would understand. Just because they're healthy doesn't mean that their decisions won't affect others.”

Kelley is high-risk because of a heart condition, and his mother is awaiting a kidney transplant, a big reason he’s grateful that SMU is moving classes online, he says. Until students are back on campus, they can gather around Kelley's virtual Dallas hall, complete with a welcome sign cussing out TCU. 

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