Real talk from students and faculty about the challenges and triumphs of academic life during a pandemic

As a year unlike any other in NYU's history draws to a close, we asked students and faculty to talk frankly about the highs and lows of physically distanced learning. Read their words below. 

Sofia Monfiglio (Tandon '23)

Major: Civil Engineering
Hometown: San Francisco, California

photo of Sofia Monfiglio outdoors. Text reads: Keep Each Other Safe

graphic reads: "I wouldn't say the semester's been great, but I'm definitely appreciative that I can be here." Sofia

“I don’t like to quit things. I know a lot of people say that, but once I’m committed to something, I’m going to finish it. This semester has been a testament to how committed I am to getting my degree. Doing it at a time like this, in these conditions, has shown me how much I care and want to keep pushing through. I took two classes last summer that were supposed to be on campus. With everything that happened, they got moved online and I took them from home. It wasn’t a great experience for me because it’s already hard for me to stay focused, and everything being online made it even harder. I spent a lot of time weighing the pros and cons and talking with my parents and friends about coming back to campus. I knew this semester was going to be intense in terms of my course load and the classes I’m taking for my major. I’d worked so hard over the summer to get on track with my classes, so the idea of taking the fall off was like ‘what am I going to do instead?’ NYU had a plan in place, so I felt like coming back to campus was the best decision for me. I wouldn’t say the semester’s been great, but I’m definitely appreciative that I can be here. The workload has been crazy, but I’m making the best of it because, at the end of the day, I really want to be here. I feel like, among students, everyone has bonded together because we’re all going through the same thing. Even taking classes online, everyone has been really willing to connect, exchange numbers, and get some form of contact. It’s a ‘helping each other’ mindset.”

Kirill Bykanov (Tisch and CAS, '22)

Major: Film & Television and Journalism
Hometown: Moscow, Russia (currently studying in Wilton, New Hampshire)

photo of Kirill Bykanov outdoors

Graphic with text: "It's been an involuntary test of how ready I am to be an independent adult and a working professional in the film industry." Kirill

“It’s a whirlwind thinking about the spring semester. I’ll be closer to being a senior and things will get more serious, so I’m a bit nervous. I’m not sure if I’ll go back to New York for classes. I’ve found all these great opportunities outside school that I can take advantage of being fully remote. I would love to continue to do that because I know there’s more out there that I can do in the spring. One unexpected upside of being remote is that professors can invite guests to come to class so much easier on Zoom than they can in person. In my film class, my professor invited Todd Phillips to talk with us about his films. My journalism class brought in writers from the New York Times and the Washington Post who shared how their work takes them through life. I feel like I’ve had a lot of freedom this semester, so I’ve been trying to take advantage of it while staying safe. I’ve been able to meet people, take gigs, and be part of productions while taking a full course load. It’s great because I’m able to work on a job and then bring my experience back to class where I can ask questions and share information. I’ve realized that I can learn and work at the same time. Even though it’s a bit strange, I’ve found that if I think about online learning in the right way, it opens up a whole new set of doors on how I can work effectively and use this time well. I think the main issue is not physically being in class. That leaves it up to me to find motivation and ways to be hands-on. When I’m on campus, I go to class and I’m assigned a crew. I’m in a studio and there’s a camera, a mic, and a script. I can’t do that right now, so I have to do it myself. As soon as the pandemic hit, I had to adapt. It’s been an involuntary test of how ready I am to be an independent adult and a working professional in the film industry. Filmmaking isn’t the same as it used to be. It’d be so easy to say ‘Oh, it’s shut down. There’s nothing else.’ But there’s so many opportunities for me to be a creative filmmaker and visual storyteller during this pandemic. One of my favorite musicians says something like ‘limitations are the most freeing thing ever.’ That’s become my credo. I’m limited, but I can be resourceful. I have to be creative and I still have to deliver.”

Rida Ali (GLS '22)

Hometown: Ashburn, Virginia

photo of Rida Ali outdoors. Text reads: Keep Each Other Safe

Graphic with text: "When I look back in 10 years, I don't want to think, 'Oh, that was just a horrible semester.'" Rida

“It’s frustrating being a Global Liberal Studies student and not being about to have that global experience. Especially this year. As a junior, I’m supposed to be studying away. I’m supposed to be on a beach in Spain or learning to cook in Italy. If you had told me a year ago that it would be this way, I would’ve said ‘oh, heck no!’ But we have to make the best of it, and hopefully next fall I can study away. At the beginning of the semester, it seems like people were frustrated because it felt like the University was being too strict. But this is an unprecedented situation. They don’t have a guidebook for colleges to follow during a pandemic. Getting tested once a week and filling out the daily screen is tedious, but what’s the alternative? Yes, there’s a pandemic going on, but when you zoom out, people are quite literally fighting for their lives in so many ways. When I look back in 10 years, I don’t want to think ‘oh, that was just a horrible semester. I just sat inside and did my classes.’ I want to be able to look back and say that I went out and voted in one of the most important elections of my lifetime. That I attended a protest. That I did everything I could. I want to be able to say I didn’t waste a year or lose any time. I’m afraid of that, especially living in New York. I feel like it goes by so fast. This moment won’t last forever, so I look at everything that’s happening and, rather than drowning myself in pity, I realize that people are fighting for their lives. So much change is happening in the world, despite the current circumstances. I want to be a part of that change, even if it’s not part of what’s considered a ‘normal’ college experience.”

Casandra Delgado (Gallatin '21)

Major: Criminalizing Narratives: Advocacy, Public Policy, and Law
Hometown: Detroit, Michigan

photo of Casandra Delgado on the subway. Text reads: Keep Each Other Safe

Graphic with text: "...it's important to give a space where people can spend time talking about what's really going on." Casandra

“I’m still here and trying my best. That’s really all I can do. Right now, it seems like you can either orient yourself toward the future or just try to make the best of the present. For me, it’s orienting myself toward the future because the present situation is rough. I’m looking forward to the spring not really because anything’s going to change, but because I’ll be done with law school applications. I’ve had a lot of time to focus on them this semester, and I’ve gotten a lot more responses than normal when I’ve reached out for help with personal statements and scholarships. It’s been a really stressful process, so I’m glad I’ve had more time to dedicate to it. I’ve also continued to be the community service committee chair and a mentor in the Academic Achievement Program. I run a mentorship and tutoring program called World Changers. It’s a partnership with a high school in the Bronx. We connect virtually with students every Friday after school to help them in any way we can. We aren’t just helping them write their college essays. It’s just as important to talk with them about mental health, because we’re all struggling. We talked with the school’s directors over the summer and they really emphasized that a lot of their students were sharing that they don’t feel any type of hope and don’t feel like anything’s ever going to be normal again. In talking with other mentors, we realized that we wanted them to be productive, but also that we understand that something is going on in all our lives and we can’t just expect people to act like everything’s normal. One week, we did a workshop where the high school students wrote personal statements. So many of them talked about having a family member pass away from COVID, or COVID hurting their mental health. It’s affected everyone, and it’s important to give a space where people can spend time talking about what’s really going on.”

Spencer Asch (Stern '21)

Major: Business and Political Economy
Hometown: Whitehouse Station, New Jersey

photo of Spencer Asch studying. Text reads: Keep Each Other Safe

Graphic with text: "For a business student, or any student who's professionally oriented, it was completely unsettling." Spencer

“This semester has been exhausting. I feel like my days are longer and my classes drain so much more out of me because I’m not physically there to connect with other students. Since it’s all through a screen, it feels like it’s just me and the professor. There’s no horizontal connection happening. And I think that’s been the theme. A lot of things that students are involved in, both extracurricular and academical, are much more labor intensive despite being virtual. Even though I don’t have to physically go to my classes, the hours that I spend in front of a computer screen are so lengthy that by the time I wrap up my average weekday around 7 p.m., I’m completely spent. One of the reasons I came to NYU in the first place was to connect with other students and broaden my network. Some professional development programs have done a good job of adapting to the virtual environment. But things like on-campus recruiting, which is a huge part of being a Stern student, are completely remote now. I was fortunate enough to secure a job for after graduation, but there are many students, especially sophomores and juniors, who aren’t getting the same facetime with employers that they would have otherwise. Even though I have a job lined up, it was uncertain for a long time. I didn’t know how it was going to work or how I could efficiently network with recruiters. When I was studying away at NYU Washington, DC, last spring, I saw the impact COVID had on the economy. I watched the numbers fall in real time. For a business student, or any student who’s professionally oriented, it was completely unsettling. But we looked for ways to find hope. Stern’s alumni program coordinated a speaker series with students who graduated in 2008 and 2009. They came and spoke about their experiences with a recession market and shared their wisdom about what to do when it feels like the sky is falling.”

Paloma Franco (Meyers '22)

Hometown: Davis, California

photo of Paloma Franco wearing a mask. Text reads: Keep Each Other Safe

Graphic with text: "I'm not the best virtual learner. Sometimes it's hard for me to feel engaged in lectures." Paloma

“There’s definitely been a lot of adjusting going on. All of my lectures are online, but I do have clinical work every other week and a weekly simulation for another class. For clinical, I go to NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital. I’ve been lucky not to have any close calls with COVID, and I think a big part of that is how diligent NYU has been about its own testing program. Clinicals have been smooth overall, other than having to wear a face shield. It’s a pain because it fogs up and gets in the way of my stethoscope, which is really just inconvenient. The simulations have been cut from three hours to an hour and a half, split between two groups so there aren’t as many people in a room at one time. I totally understand the reason for it, but I feel like sometimes I don’t have enough time to practice the skills I’m learning. But when that happens I can register for open simulation times to go back in and get more practice. If coronavirus wasn’t a thing, I probably wouldn’t have to put in that extra time, but I’m grateful to have the option when I need it. I’ve always been organized, and it can get pretty hectic trying to keep everything straight, but if I ever feel like I’m falling behind, I reach out to my nursing group to get back on track. I’m not the best virtual learner. Sometimes it’s hard for me to feel engaged in lectures. But professors post lecture recordings after class, so if I ever feel like I missed something important I can watch them and really focus on those parts that I missed or am feeling most nervous about. And since I don’t have to travel to and from class, I’ve had time to finally get involved in other things I’ve had my eye on. I joined Nursing Students for Global Health and am currently the vice president.”

Christian Hamilton (CAS '22)

Major: Psychology
Hometown: Bronx, New York

photo of Christian Hamilton with text "Keep Each Other Safe"

graphic reads "It goes without saying I was pretty upset about it, but surprisingly, another opportunity opened up for me." Christian

“I was supposed to be doing an internship this semester. Actually, it was supposed to run from last spring through the fall, but it was canceled because of COVID. It goes without saying that I was pretty upset about it, but surprisingly, another opportunity opened up for me. I’ve had the chance to get involved with a research project called DETER. It’s run through the Center for Urban Science and Progress and we use vector tracing and 3-D models to track the spread of COVID through urban environments. We’re focused mostly on New York City because that’s where we are. It’s been a really cool thing that popped up that I wasn’t expecting, and that wouldn’t have been there at any other time. I do feel like Manhattan has changed a lot since the pandemic started. Stores close earlier. The streets are a bit emptier. But I’ve also found that the spots in the city that would usually be filled with people are filled with people in a different way. I walked through Times Square the other week and saw at least 30 groups of people filming TikToks on their phones. It’s like a whole new culture is emerging and people are finding new things to do. They’re getting outside more and exploring while they have the space and time to do it. Personally, I’ve been inclined to try new places to eat, especially when I’m at Tandon in Brooklyn. I wouldn’t say I’m a food connoisseur, but I do like discovering new foods. I’ll walk around and find new restaurants, see different areas and different people. The atmosphere changes from block to block. It’ll be sad if the spring semester ends the same way last year did. I’m really hoping for the whole purple lights, Yankee Stadium graduation. If that’s not where it’s headed, it’ll be disheartening. I think a lot of seniors coming into this year thought and hoped it would be different.”

JJ Briscoe (GLS '24)

Hometown: Gardner, Kansas

photo of JJ Briscoe outside. Text reads: Keep Each Other Safe

Graphic with text: "...I definitely had the feeling of 'I don't know if I'm ever going to make any friends." JJ

“It was hard deciding if I wanted to come to campus or not because the pandemic had made everything so unpredictable. I had taken a gap year after high school and was living at home, so I say only half-jokingly that, for my soul, I couldn’t stay there anymore. I had to get to New York City. Moving across the country made me nervous, for sure. Everything seemed so fragile thanks to COVID. And I was super worried that I’d have a hard time meeting people, which is such a big part of going to college. The normal events that would kick off the semester weren’t happening, so I definitely had the feeling of ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to make any friends.’ I was completely surprised. My roommate and I talk all the time about how the semester has been so much better than we expected. Every time we go outside, we see people we know or meet someone new. Plus, being in New York City, even when it’s operating at like 50 percent, enhances everything so much. I love just walking around, visiting different neighborhoods, and taking in the buildings and the culture. I’ve visited the Met a bunch of times and still haven’t seen the whole thing. We also love to go to Washington Square Park to listen to music or have a random street artist write a poem about us. Even now, there’s so much life in the city. I’m a pretty optimistic person in general, which I think has helped me a lot. I mean, we’re in a pandemic. What could I possibly expect? It can be frustrating not being able to do more, but it seems to me that the vast majority of people have the same mindset: it’s not ideal, but this is how it is right now. Some things don’t work out, and there are bumps in the road, but NYU has done and continues to do so much to try to make it easier. Think about it. Who has done this before? No one. Who would’ve thought we could even go to campus right now with all the restrictions and stuff? But we’ve been able to come together to make it work.”

Professor Wendy Suzuki

Neural Science and Psychology
Hometown: Sunnyvale, California

photo of Wendy Suzuki with text "Keep Each Other Safe"

graphic reads: "I was inspired to try something new and engage students in a new way." Wendy

“I ended up doing something this semester I never would have done in person. In talking with my colleagues, we came to a consensus that it’s hard to get conversations going on Zoom. There’s a lot of silence to work through. Going into the semester, I was worried about that silence and a lack of engagement. I’ve taught my class, Brain and Behavior, many times, usually in a big classroom. I also research the effects of exercise on the brain. I thought ‘There’s this three minutes at the start of class that gets wasted waiting for students to sign in.’ That adds up over a semester. I figured, since I’m at home and they’re at home, I’m going to make everybody exercise for three minutes at the start of each class. They can even do it with their video off. Really this whole semester is about mental health, and neuroscience teaches us that exercise can enhance mental health. So I set a timer for three minutes, we get up, and I teach exercise that combines physical movement and positive spoken affirmation. When the three minutes are up, we jump into the lecture. I’ve found that it really gets the energy levels up. It’s been a big, big benefit of the online format. I was inspired to try something new and engage students in a new way.”

Keiarn Chesebro (Steinhardt '21)

Major: Vocal Performance
Hometown: Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia

photo of Keiarn Chesebro with text "Keep Each Other Safe"

graphic reads: "This experience has change me and refined what I want for myself." Keiarn

“I was pretty disappointed when I got home in the spring. Junior year in music programs is when you break through and really start to grow and make connections. I was starting to see a path for myself. The plan was to go to Massachusetts over the summer for my first theatre contract, so I was upset and confused when I got home. I remember thinking ahead to senior year and crying to my parents about not being able to have the graduation I’d imagined. I’d always dreamed of my final days at NYU and my senior recital. I really put those things on a pedestal. It was hard to see something I’d been working toward change. But I don’t think I realized the impact of being away from my family and how I grew up in Australia. When I got back here, it was like a release of pressure for me. It was relaxing and grounding and calm. And when it came time to decide whether to go back in the fall or not, a lot of factors helped me determine it would be best for me to stay home and go remote. This experience has changed me and refined what I want for myself. Having one thing almost taken away actually made me realize that other things are important to me. Yeah, my career is important, but so are my family and personal relationships. I’m excited for my senior recital this spring because I’m going to be able to do it live in Australia, and my family and friends—all those people who really matter to me—will be able to be there. If I was in New York, they wouldn’t be able to come. That would be really hard for me, having something that is so personal and final happen without the people who’ve been here for me from day one. I’m really excited that now it’ll be something I get to share with everyone here. There’s something that feels very full-circle about it. This is where I grew up and now I get to show everyone all these great things I’ve learned while I’ve been away.”

Professor Jay Van Bavel

Psychology and Neural Science
Hometown: Fox Creek, Alberta, Canada

photo of Jay Van Bavel with text "Keep Each Other Safe"

graphic reads: "We've been able to do things that we probably never thought were remotely possible." -Jay

“The remarkable thing is how much we’ve managed to normalize. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. New York was the world’s hotspot for a while. We had an election with an enormous amount of conflict and uncertainty. We have a recession going on. Every single thing is stressful by any objective measure. And yet we’ve been able to manage and cope. We’ve been able to do things that we probably never thought were remotely possible. To me, that’s uplifting and hopeful. In addition to moving everything virtual, a challenge for me is having two kids and not having a lot of child care. My class starts at 3:30 and I pick them up from daycare at 3. One day a little while ago, I’d spent all day prepping for class before rushing to get them and get back to our apartment in time. I was relieved when we got in the elevator at our building at 3:20 and I realized I was going to pull it off. But all of a sudden, the elevator lurched and fell a bit. Then it froze. And we couldn’t get out. We all started to panic a little and I realized I wasn’t getting to class on time. I called the doorman, who called the repair company, so I knew we’d get out eventually. But we had no idea how long it would take. At the same time I was calming my daughter down, I used my phone to email my class. I didn’t have the best reception, but I sent the email and started trying to figure out a way to get into class. Normally I would’ve canceled it, but it was the last lecture before the midterm and I knew my students would be anxious if I didn’t have the chance to go through the material with them. I was trying to access apps and get to my slides, but I just didn’t have a strong enough internet connection to make it work. So I called into the Zoom meeting without any video or slides or notes and gave my lecture until we finally got out of the elevator. We were stuck in there for about an hour, and when we were freed on the first floor, we scurried into the other elevator and zipped upstairs. I was able to finish the rest of class on my computer at the kitchen table. My students had a really good sense of humor about it. Some of them ended up sharing my email on Instagram. I think they just got a kick out of being part of the story.”