Episode Notes | Episode Transcript

Episode Notes

Episode Title: Ivy League Online. Abhinav Sriram of Brown talks about his virtual semester.

Episode summary introduction: College campuses have closed due to Coronavirus. Students have gone back to different corners of the globe. They are finishing the second half of their spring semesters Online. How is that working out?

In this Episode, we hear from an international student, Abhinav Sriram who is attending classes in Brown from Chennai, India.

In particular, we discuss the following with him:  

  • How is the online semester being conducted?
  • How are courses being graded?
  • What does that mean for the Fall 2020 semester?

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Learning of the Brown decision to close campus [1:02]
  • Scramble to get back to India [4:58]
  • Spring Semester continues - Online [8:28]
  • The Online Experience [10:40]
  • Fall 2020 semester?  [17:53]
  • About being back home [20:16]

Our Guest: Abhinav Sriram is a freshman at Brown University studying Computer Science and Economics.

Memorable Quote: "I was on a flight back home, and you know, 24 hours before that I was just going about my life at college like, like usual.

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Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

Venkat  0:06  

Hi, Abhinav, how are you?

Abhinav  0:08  

Hey, Venkat, I'm doing well, all things considered, how are you?

Venkat  0:12  

I'm good. I'm good. So first of all, thanks for making the time. I just wanted to talk to you about your experiences during this period, especially as it relates to your school. So I really want to sort of, start by talking about Brown, how that decision was made to shut down the school and, you know, close campuses in some sense. And, you know how it all came about. So, anything that you could add, that'd be great.

Abhinav  0:49  

So I think I think really what happened was so amongst atleast the Ivy League schools, I think Brown was the last one to make a decision on how it would [deal with]

Abhinav  1:00  

The whole situation.

Abhinav  1:02  [Brown decides to close campus]

And I think, I think in some ways that was good, because Brown, I feel like Brown handled it the best amongst the Ivy League schools in the sense, they kind of had, you know, contingencies for people who would not be able to go back home people who, you know, needed to stay back on campus. And, you know, they kind of addressed lots of the concerns that students had, you know, even related stuff like refunding the room and board and meal plan fees for the rest of the semester, and things like that. Um, so in that sense, the people were kind of upset about the fact that Brown was taking was kind of the last one to make a decision. But I think in some ways it was, it was a good choice. So they had, you know, enough time to make sure that they were kind of covering all, all bases and making sure that they had a they had a good plan to deal with the fallout from from deciding to, you know, shut down completely.

Venkat  1:58  

So how did they, how did they go about doing that, how are you guys informed? Well, yeah...

Abhinav  2:04  

So, so, um, well, so, specifically the thing was the kind of, um, well, they sent us ah, so I specifically had to come back home pretty pretty quickly, because of the travel ban in India. And, and so, you know, I, I kind of needed to decide whether or not I was going to leave even before Brown made its official announcement. And so I sent an email to one of the deans you know, I just asking them, you know, how I would deal with this because I really had to go back and they were honestly super nice, and they kind of immediately responded, and they sent, like, you know, an email to all of my professors saying that, you know, to kind of be flexible with me regarding deadlines and you know, my academic work, so at least that pressure would be on me, and they also at that point, informed me, as well as many other students, who kind of had the same concerns as me that they were going to be making it like, you know, a large announcement addressing the whole whole college on the next, the next morning.

And I think at around 9am, they sent out an email to all the students, in which they kind of laid out exactly what was going on how they were going to respond, and what that meant for all of us for the rest of the semester. And that's, that's kind of how they, they made the announcement. And I think another like, Good thing they did was, obviously for students who like, you know, needed to get that information. Before you know before, if they had to, like, you know, leave in a hurry, they did do a good job of, you know, assuring students that they don't need to worry about what would happen to their academic progress, and that they could get back home safely. And then the academic stuff is something that can be worked out once we're back home and safe.

Venkat  3:57  

That's very nice. Now, what date was this, when, round about?

Abhinav  4:02  

So I think this was probably March 11 or March 12, Yeah, I think it was March 12. So March 12, was when they made, you know, the official announcement that everything was closing. And I think yeah, they were, I think one of the last schools to do it. And I guess in some in it was, the good thing was that at least like, I know that Providence didn't have any [COVID-19] cases at at all. Um, so there wasn't any immediate, like, you know, concern for students at Brown, but they just, you know, wanted to get ahead of it, and ensure that as many people could leave campus as quickly as they as they potentially could, just so that you know, they could get back home before everything gets gets much worse.

Venkat  4:50  

Tell me a little bit about your packing up and leaving from campus? How did that [go]?

Abhinav  4:58  [Scramble to get back to India]

Yeah, that was, it was honestly pretty, pretty surreal, because it was like, in a matter of like 24 hours, um, you know, I was on a flight back home, and you know, 24 hours before that I was just going about my life at college like, like usual. And so that was it was it was pretty surreal. And I think that that the last 24 hours, it was also super emotional, because everyone was super upset about the fact that our semester was being cut short, and also that like, you know, everyone was just like, you know, leaving immediately and so suddenly, when we all expected that, you know, we would have so much longer before we had to say, you know, not say goodbye, but like, you know, have that long break of not being with each other. And this was, I think, especially in my case was honestly, everyone who lived on my floor in my dorm. We grew super close to each other. And so, you know, it was, it was emotional. And I also think that, at least for me, they were they were all super nice. And so they said, you know, they said that since I had like less than 24 hours to pack up all my stuff, they said, I can just try and pack up as much as I can, and that they would, you know, pack up the rest of the stuff once I was gone. And they would do like the storage and all of that stuff because like, we had to clear out our rooms completely. And so they said they would take care of the storage, the packing all that stuff. So they were super nice about it. And, and so that, that really helped. Because if I had to, like do all that on my own, it would have been much harder within that short 24 hour period.

Venkat  6:30  

So once you arrived in India, how was it? I mean, were they sensitized to it? Or did you think that it was [business as usual ?]

Abhinav  6:39  

Yeah, it was, it was, honestly, it was actually pretty interesting because like in [the] US, everything was pretty relaxed. And so like, it seems as though you know, like, as I boarded the flight, everything was like what was like usual, and I think that could also be because I was probably leaving the country.

But when I landed in India, they had, so I think they kind of the plane landed, I think in the terminal that was the furthest away from like the actual, like immigration counters. And so, and over there they had, like these, so they had us, like fill out this form with, you know, basic information about us. And basically, we just had to say that we have had none of the symptoms of COVID in the past like two weeks, and they also had like, you know, nurses and doctors on like, as soon as we landed, and they tested everyone's temperature to make sure they didn't have a fever. And the doctors also kind of just seem to be looking at people and kind of, you know, observing them whether or not they were showing any symptoms or trying to hide any symptoms and things like that. And, you know, if they felt like someone was trying to do that, or if someone had a fever, they would kind of, you know, they kind of just pull them aside.

But for the rest of the people once we all got cleared at like the health health screening, then they kind of just after that it was business usual, but you know, before that they had that kind of thing set up to, you know, uh, make sure that they had information on you like, you know, the addresses of everyone who are coming in and, you know, ways to contact them. And also they were like pulling out people who were, who showed simple who they who showed symptoms or they felt concerned about.

Venkat  8:22  

[Now] are you doing something new, something different, taking advantage of the opportunity...?

Abhinav  8:28  [Spring Semester Continues - Online]

Um, yeah, so I think I think so now, that school has kind of started back I think there's, there's adequate work from school to keep me occupied, occupied for most of the time. And I also think that, you know, many of the professors are trying their best to make these online classes as interesting as they can.

And for one of my classes, my professor, he basically makes each lecture like you know, he puts in a lot of effort, so he makes each a lecture on like, you know, like a professional like YouTube video where he has, like, you know, video clips, and articles and stuff like that, that he references and shows us on the screen. And, yeah, he, he puts in a lot of effort to, like, make those videos and so, you know, the professors are trying their best as well, to make, to make remote learning as interesting as possible.

And, and, and, and so I think that's, that's, that's, it's been, it's not it, we're obviously disappointed that like, you know, we can't be having classes in person, but I think that the professors are doing a great job of trying their best to you know, either try and maintain, you know, the same feel of having classes in person, or, you know, doing different things to try and compensate for the fact that, you know, all of the classes are now like pre recorded lecture videos that we're just watching.

And, and so you know, I've got I've got schoolwork and I'm also on obviously now I have a lot more free time and so I'm kind of And looking into, you know, things that I can, you know, do over the summer projects that I can work on things like that.

Venkat  10:10  

Let’s talk a little bit about [this], your semester started, you are doing distance learning, but this is not just distance learning, it's also kind of time shifted learning because, it's and, and so, how is that? I mean, obviously, how's that working out? And what are the challenges and what do you like about it? And what are the challenges or what are the things that you definitely are not working?

Abhinav  10:40  [The Online Experience]

It's, it's, um, yeah, I won't say it's, it's, it's easy because, um, I mean, I think the, the university has taken steps to try and make it as smooth as possible by basically instructing all instructors at the school and telling them that like, you know, all of these lectures have to be asynchronous, so they pretty much have to be like pre-recorded, and then we can watch it at any time.

So I guess one advantage is that like, you know, see I have an exam coming up in one class. Um, normally, if I was at Brown, I would have had to still go and like, actively keep up with both learning and just the workload that I have in all my other classes. But now, I guess I have some flexibility in the sense, I could focus on studying for the exam and kind of push off the rest of my work for a bit, and then, you know, catch up with it at my own pace.

So that's kind of I guess, the, the, the great thing about everything being pre-recorded, but I think one of the one of the biggest challenges is that for, for lots of, lots of the classes, especially some of the more more challenging ones, you really need to work with, with others, on on, on lots of the lots of the assignments, projects and stuff that you get on and it's it's kind of it's I, I think I can confidently say that it's pretty much impossible to try and do any of it completely on your own.

And I think lots of these, these projects and assignments are designed in such a way that you really need to work with others as well, in order to, you know, figure these, figure these things out. And so I think the challenge is that obviously, like, if I was at Brown, I would just meet up with people, you know, during the day and stuff like that. But now, obviously, it's kind of, you know, kind of coordinating across time zones, especially because even in the US, we have people kind of, even though it's not as big, big of a difference as compared to like, you know, the US versus India, even in the US, you know, you have people in, you know, on the West coast, the East Coast and, you know, in the middle and so, um, for lots of things, you know, just scheduling across the different time zones, trying to pick times that kind of work for everyone are, is is, um, it's, it's, it's challenging, but like, you know, we, we kind of have fun with it in the sense you know, I every kind of if we're working on you know, as an assignment or something, we usually do this thing where I'm on one of the days my friends in the US will stay up late at night so that you know I can work in in the Indian Indian timezone, you know, and then up for like, you know, another assignment or project, I will be the one who stays out while they get to work on their timezone. So, you know, we're figuring it out, but that I feel like is honestly, like, one of the biggest challenges with with the whole, like, transition to online learning and also being scattered all over the place is that, you know, just just coordinating to like, you know, work, work together is kind of kind of hard, but it's, it's something that we're trying to figure out.

Venkat  13:36  

I can imagine, I can imagine.

Venkat  13:40  

Um ,so, so you guys are... What about? Yeah, so one other thing I wanted to ask is, what about office hours are the equivalent things or tutorials or, you know, those sorts of things? Are they still conducting those?

Abhinav  13:54  

Um, so, so they're there I think they're Um, so I, so for some of the courses, what they're doing is they're kind of, um so, for example, in my math class and my econ class, they kind of have done it in such a way that they have an equivalent office hours in both the, for people on like, you know, the the US side of the world and then people on this side of the world, they have, like, you know, like a two hour session on when it's, you know, or when it's in the morning for the US and then a two hour session in the morning for like, if you're like in the Indian or like Asian time zones. And so I think the professors and lots of the TAs [Teaching Assistants] are kind of you know, biting the bullet and you know, just having to like sometimes stay up at night if they need a whole office hours for students on this side, the side of the world, and I think for some other classes on the way it turned out that like, you know, they have some of the TAs are in fact students who are now in Asia like they've come back home, so they basically kind of split it up where like, like, all of the TAs were in the US continue to hold their hours that like, you know, the regular times for the US. And then the TAs who are in Asia hold hours on, you know, at the equivalent time, but like in the Asian time zone. And so that's, that's, that's been a good thing as well where it hasn't been, it hasn't been too bad. So they're, I think they're trying their best to accommodate people across, across time zones.

Venkat  15:26  

That's, that's very convenient, actually, that, that is very nice. The fact that there's a good distribution of students, geographic distribution, which allows you to not get as much of an impact, you know, being sort of time zones away.

Venkat  15:46

For this semester, you have pass fail, right, but brown always had that, right. It's is that not Yeah,

Abhinav  15:51  

So Brown, in general always has this policy where I think it's pretty much up until the third week into the semester, you have the choice to pick whether or not you're going to be taking your class for a grade or whether you're just going to be taking a pass fail on and you can do this for any class. Um, and so Brown was kind of debating between making all of its classes mandatory pass fail the semester, just like Harvard and Yale have done or if they're going to be just extending that deadline to choose whether or not you want to do it for a grade or pass fail.

And they kind of decided to, you know, just extend that deadline and let students choose. Obviously, they kind of have had a lot of opposition because of that, with people advocating for mandatory pass fail, and even people advocating for universal pass where everyone passes all of their courses this semester, and I think there was, there was a significant kind of, you know, um, the significant attempt by students to get the college to a either make a mandatory password fail or make the universal pass system. But unfortunately that did not... Unfortunately or fortunately, that did not work.

And so they kind of have said that up until the day before our final exams start, we have the choice to pick whether or not we're going to be taking a class or grade or if it's going to be pass fail. And that's kind of the policy that they said they're going to stick with for, for this semester.

Venkat  17:32  

So that's, that's great. Now, would you like this to continue? So if you look ahead, and if for Fall you have to do this, I mean, obviously it works. But obviously, um your choice will obviously be, you know, on campus rather than virtual. Right?

Abhinav  17:53  [Fall 2020 semester?]

Yeah, I think I think with, with for the next semester, I feel like the general consensus is that most students are just planning to take the semester off if it's going to be online, because almost no one really wants to have another semester online. And so,

Venkat  18:11  

Wow! That's interesting

Abhinav  18:12  

Yeah, I know that officially at Brown, they kind of have this policy where you can, up until the day before the first day of classes for every semester, you are allowed to just literally just send an email to a dean at the college and say, I want to take the semester off. And like, you know, no questions asked, you can take a semester off. And, and, and so I think most students are planning to like, you know, exercise that, that and kind of, you know, just not not just, just skip that whole semester because really no one wants to do another semester online.

But I also feel like the college will go ahead and conduct that semester even for like, even if it's for a small number of students because, um, they sent us an email just yesterday talking about how, just from the past two weeks they have had about $20 million of losses. And if they are able to resume university, like operations for the fall semester, they said despite that, they expect another between 50 and 100 million dollars of losses over the next financial year. And so I feel like the university will try its best to hold the semester in person. Because or online if they have to, because I feel like if they basically said that, even if they do hold it like online, then they will be facing [losses] like, you know, it's a pretty, pretty large amount. And so, I feel like the university is still going to go ahead, but I feel like lots of students will probably just take the semester off.

Venkat  19:50  

I just wanted to kind of wrap up with asking you how you are doing. I mean, obviously, you're back with your family, and so in some sense you're not alone. So I'm assuming that that obviously makes it a little more palatable than otherwise. I'm assuming. So, how are you doing? How are you doing emotionally, psychologically?

Abhinav  20:16  [About being back home]

Yeah, I'm certainly so I think it's, it's great that I'm back back with my family. Um, I mean, I have lots of awesome friends in the US or super kind and, you know, they, they offer to, you know, let me come and stay at their house for as long as I needed to. Um, but I do think that it's great that I'm back with my family because we don't know for how long this thing is going to go on for.

And I think I think overall, I think I'm doing I'm doing pretty well. I will say that in general. Yes. I'm disappointed that this everything that's happening is happening, but I'm also thankful that I am, um, you know, privileged enough to not be severely affected by this in any way, and to you know, kind of continue to go on with my life, you know, without having to make you know, too many sacrifices or too many changes. And so I will say all in all I am I am doing pretty well obviously extremely disappointed but, you know, given everything that's going on, I feel like I shouldn't be complaining and that I should, you know, I'm, I'm pretty happy about how, how things have turned out given given everything that's happening.

Venkat  21:33  

And staying at home for you know, over a month or month and a half? That has not been a big issue for you that has been alleviated by being with your family and parents and all…?

Abhinav  21:45  

It's, I will say that it's it's been initially used as kind of a challenge because, you know, I had gotten used to, you know, just living on my own, you know, my own rules I could, like, you know, in college, you can pretty much do whatever you want. So, you know, just like things like, um, you know, just just, you know, not not I, in college, most of us never necessarily eat meals at, like, you know, designated times, many of the dining halls are open super late. And, you know, sometimes, you know, you just wake up really late and you know, you're just, it's, it's you kind of just live life, life, you know, you're on your own terms.

And so you're coming back home and kind of having to get used to, you know, living by just like, you know, you know, just just the normal rules, like, you know, you have to, you know, set this time lunch at this time dinner at this time, you know, sometimes you have to help around the house, things like that.

So that's, that's kind of been been a bit a bit of a change that I've had to get that I've had to get used to but, um, and also back home here I have a younger brother and he’s, I guess he's also super bored right now and his, his, the one thing he loves to do is, you know, come in interfere with my work and just like you know, and just, just, like you know, try his best to piss me off. And so it's, it's, you know, there, there's things you know, being back home, but, um, yeah, so those, those were things that I kind of had to get kind of get used to, I think initially like the first two weeks at least, that was kind of a bit of a bit of a shock, like, you know, just just coming back to this whole thing of like, you know, having to actually live, live by certain rules. But, But I think now it's I've had I've had time to, you know, get, get used to it.

Venkat  23:33  

Well, no, this is great, this is great! I wish you well.

Venkat  23:40  

Stay safe and enjoy what you can, you know, find the best in this situation. And again, thanks for taking the time. Yeah, this has been very, very insightful and thanks for being so elaborate in their descriptions. So I will work this out, and put up the podcasts and let you know in the next day or so, yeah, but thanks again and take care.

Abhinav 24:10

You too.

Venkat  24:11  

Okay, thank you so much. Bye

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