SNU in the age of Covid

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SNU student Kayla Heidenreich studies on campus at SNU.

Norm Schoff, Contributor

College is supposed to be a time where linoleum floors, crowded lunchrooms, and awkward teenage angst are traded in for gilded corridors, prestigious academic accomplishments, and social enlightenment. As colleges across the country return back for their first full semester of the pandemic, however, students are confined to their homes while the classes they take are confined to their screens

Returning students have at least been afforded the luxury of experiencing what being a freshman in college is like: The strange new roommate, the nerves, and most excitingly of all, the new experiences. Freshman on the other hand are having to grapple with a vision of college that is undoubtedly in stark contrast to the vision nearly every child has had while growing up.

“I thought I was going to be able to move into a college dorm, and meet new people, and just do the whole college thing,” said Cailin Doty, a Sierra Nevada University freshman. “Now I just feel like I’m being robbed of that experience.”

Incoming students aren’t the only ones feeling the struggles of not being on the ground in Tahoe. Returning students also feel like they’re not only missing out on college experience, but also the education.

“I’d say the education online is roughly half as valuable to us as the education we would be getting in person if we were going to school there,” Dave Nunes, an SNU sophomore, said.

Some students say that value relies on the creative efforts of the faculty, who have been pressed to switch their curriculum online.

“I have a dear old friend who has been involved in online education for a long time that was telling me, you can’t just take an on-ground class and cram it into an online class. It’s a different animal,” said Richard Gire, chair of marketing at SNU. “So, I took his advice to heart and spent the last eight weeks putting together a marketing class and an intellectual property class that uses a methodology called, gamification.”

“Gamification,” as Gire describes it, is exactly what it sounds like. It is a method of teaching that transforms what would otherwise be a normal class into a game. It’s simple: Students have a set amount of time to complete the course. If they complete it on time, they get an A. If they don’t, they get a grade that corresponds properly to the amount of progress they’ve made. It is not only more interactive, using tools such as badges and leaderboards, but it also allows students to progress at their own pace and spend more time on the units that give them trouble. Even with the “gamification” method working as well as could be, Gire is still aware the quality of learning, while it may not has seen a decline, it has at the very least shifted.

“I think it’s dramatically changed what my students are learning,” Gire said. “It’s a big personal responsibility on them. You can’t get through these classes without reading the textbook and I know that a lot of my students don’t read the textbook, so rather than have a bunch of blank little boxes with their faces in it looking at me wondering if their learning anything, this is a departure from that. And I think it’s a wakeup call and it’s very challenging, but I think my students are loving it.”

While the academic side of SNU seems to be under control, the bureaucratic side is facing a enrollment challenge, a struggle that many small liberal arts colleges are facing.

“We knew as soon as the Covid pandemic started to unfold that it would be likely we would see an enrollment decline,” said Shannon Beets, executive vice president and provost at SNU. “Back in March and April we adjusted our budget numbers to show that expected decline in enrollment.”

This drop-in enrollment is expected to stay through the rest of the semester, even though the dorms have an anticipated move-in date of mid-October. The school doesn’t foresee a large number of those who didn’t come back in the fall due to Covid suddenly returning the moment in-person classes start. However, the decline in enrollment isn’t expected to last forever.

“If the pandemic is handled and we go back to face-to-face format, I think the numbers will go back up in the spring and every semester after that,” Beets said.

Students are eager to put the Covid experience behind them.

“I’m most looking forward to seeing all the friends I’ve made in the past year,” Nunes said. “Seeing them come back and seeing how they’ve all changed over the summer. I know it’s going to be a great time.”