By Priya Hegde
When thinking about college, what first comes to mind? Maybe it’s the late nights at the library, the throngs of people walking to class, or the five o’ clock gym rush. Maybe it’s the game days and a lively buzz lasting into the wee hours of the night. Or maybe it’s the heady mutual agreement between night owls and early risers right around four in the morning, when one returns to bed as the other leaves it. It is a campus quiet over break, yet alive all other days of the year.
This is the typical college community, predicated on the physical proximity of campus, other students, and institutional promise–all providing an undeniable sense of “thereness”. College is a place where students are united, both physically and experientially . With the advent of online learning, however, UCLA has become “UZLA” (University of Zoom, Los Angeles) and college has entered the digital realm. Because of this radical shift, we find ourselves standing at a crossroads between the memory of what college used to be and what it will become.
The most apparent consequence of this transition, in light of our conventional notion of the university, is the translocation of a physical space to a virtual one. We sit for hours in front of a computer screen, confined to the monotony of our homes in lieu of walking from lecture to lecture; a physical experience has been removed, replaced instead with an abstraction of the collective college experience. While being on a college campus embodies a collective affair, attending lecture solitarily via Zoom is far more individual and isolating. A collective enterprise has sublimated to an individual one, and it feels as though we’re left with less than we started.
Given the departure from this collective experience as college students, the question of what becomes of the college community becomes relevant. At first glance, the community breaks down in the absence of the individuals piecing it together. A deeper consideration, however, reveals a shift in what community might mean. An alternate version of the communal college campus exists online, where we are united in our detestation of Zoom, awkward breakout rooms, and the social insufficiency of GroupMe. Instead of being held together by a shared physical space, students occupy fragmented online spaces which, though seemingly disparate, amount to a cohesive experience. Although the fabric holding together this community has changed, the community itself remains very much intact. Even remotely, there is a collective experience in which we are able to more fully immerse ourselves in the world around us.
Although universities are meant to be havens of learning and exploration, scholarly thought becomes circular at times due to the undercurrent of institutionalized belief that forms the basis of new ideas. Individual discussion is encouraged, but each original idea is founded upon the dominating opinion of the place where that idea is born. This established foundation of thought then inevitably shapes the direction of discussion in a fundamental way. Physically removed from this environment, we become citizens of diverse communities across the world in addition to bearing that scholarly affiliation to our alma mater. Carrying institutional thought to an external environment drives a wedge between the institution housing intellectual discourse and the abstract form of thought itself. Instead of anchoring thought to the institution that fosters it, thought has been unfettered by a change of space which allows it to occupy a unique niche away from its institutional conception. In this way, our communities have broadened and shifted shape, drawing our homes and college experiences into a single increasingly complex entity.
So what’s the sitch? We’ve seen this transition from a physical space to one that is virtual. We’ve seen the consequent broadening of community and thought, and the revolutionary reform to our education enabled by the increasing prevalence of technology in our lives. But, as with most revolutions, we find ourselves facing a novel set of challenges. As easy as it is to refer back to the traditional idea of college, we must rework our notion of what this amorphous “college experience” can mean now. Persisting through such a radical and uncertain transition, thebestwecandoistoletgoofour expectations and open ourselves to this new experience as much as we can. This idea may sound overly optimistic, but the act of relaxing expectations is, at its core, a wiping of the slate–a turning of the page of this thrilling narrative we’re written into. Welcome to UZLA: we hope you enjoy your stay.