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For most of the world, 2020 was an incredibly difficult year. Social distancing regulations to combat the coronavirus pandemic mandated that the vast majority of people would be working from home. For college students, this meant that they would suddenly be attending college online, via Zoom. This took away many of the most vital social aspects of the college experience.
I transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University during the spring semester of 2020, meaning that I had approximately eight weeks of a ‘normal’ college experience before the whole world seemed to stop and everything moved online. For me, this made it incredibly difficult to feel connected to VCU and make friends. I was simply attending classes, but I didn’t really feel as though I was going to college. I finished out the spring semester feeling incredibly burnt out and defeated, wondering if college was even the right place for me. I dreaded the start of the fall semester because I had no idea what to expect for a semester that took place entirely online.
Over the summer, I decided to enroll in a class in the VCU Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies department. The class was called Feminist Literary Theory, filling the literary theory course requirement towards my English degree. This class was taught by Dr. Liz Canfield. Rather than opting for a traditional format of meeting twice a week with the entire 25+ person class, Dr. Canfield opted to group students into “pods” of two or three students that would meet with her weekly to discuss the course material on a much smaller and more accessible scale. Undoubtedly, this format created far more work and took up far more time for Dr. Canfield, but it created an invaluable experience for students like me.
Within these pods, not only were we able to discuss and really absorb the material of the course on a far more personal scale, but we were able to get to know a few students in our group and have a weekly break from the sea of black screens in an ordinary Zoom class. Dr. Canfield also used this as an opportunity for us all to talk about our weeks, what stress we were facing, and feel listened to and connected to one another when this was an experience we were so greatly missing.
Of course this class also challenged me as a student. I began to question my own approach to intersectional feminism, confronting my own unintentional biases and sitting with this discomfort in order to grow and contribute to societal progress. This class focused largely on the decolonization of education and literature. This is something that I felt was missing from many of my English classes that focused so largely on white, English or American male authors. This class required me to think critically about my own beliefs and understandings of the world and who I wanted to be in it. I came out of it a far better feminist and wanting to learn more within the department. I am currently working to add a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies to my degree.
While I learned invaluable lessons as a student, what I have carried with me after this course is how it was acknowledged that we were all trying to go to college in the middle of a global pandemic and this was a far from average semester. Many professors opted to increase workloads with the idea that most students were merely sitting at home and needed a distraction. For almost every student I personally know, this was far from the truth. Many students were working as “essential workers” and having to face daily COVID risks from exposure to the general public. Others suddenly found themselves having to move home, losing out on the social experience of college and often a quiet place in which to complete classes, too. Some also returned to toxic home environments. On top of all of this, we were heading towards a monumental presidential election that, for most Americans, felt as though the fate of our country rested upon it.
Dr. Canfield chose to forgo our ordinary course work during election week, as we all sat with bated breath day after day, waiting to find out the results of the election. Dr. Canfield provided a space for us all to express our fears, to rant about those in our family or other parts of our lives who we may be frustrated with based on their differing opinions, and gain a better understanding of what the results would really mean for us all.
This class provided me with a space to feel safe, heard, and connected to other students at a time that I so desperately needed it. I really felt as though Dr. Canfield cared about us as individuals and was rooting for us all. She understood that many of us were facing issues in our personal lives that prevented us from doing our best and that this was okay and we were doing the best that we could. I will never forget my midterm meeting with Dr. Canfield where she told me to stop selling myself short based on my self-evaluation of my class performance. This was the class that made me realize that college was the right place for me and made me excited to continue learning. Even this semester, I find myself missing and longing for those Thursday at 11 a.m. pod meetings. I truly don’t think I would have made it through the fall 2020 semester without the motivation and sense of community that this class provided and I am continuously grateful for the experience.
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