• Sofia Sulikowski

The Blank Canvas of Next Semester

Planning for another virtual semester

Last semester's jump online was unexpected and sudden—1 week to pack and move out, 1.5 months of rocky adjustments with protocol varying wildly between professors, and 2 weeks of virtual finals.

Breaking away from the historical view of personal reflection topics with long timelines, today focuses on the future.

Due to the effects of COVID-19, my university announced next semester will be fully virtual (minus freshman and a select few exceptions). Spring semester remains uncertain. Only the two thousand on-campus students will be granted access to main campus buildings. All breaks between August and December have been canceled, and campus will close entirely after Thanksgiving.

Taking in the announcement email, I felt a sense of loss. My senior year plans to live off-campus in DC, lead in-person GMA events, and reunite with my gym evaporated.

But as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens (or in my grandma's version: cuando se cierra una puerta, se abre una ventana).

Like last semester, this upcoming semester (and likely, year) will be virtual. But unlike last semester, I have two months to plan and prepare. The virtual academic term doesn't have to be an inferior, temporary replacement for a traditional semester. There's no need to pause my life for the next 4-9 months. Many people successfully study and work remotely for years.

I started by writing down my current challenges with telecommuting:

  1. Loneliness. Virtual socializing requires effort. There are no longer serendipitous conversations with students walking in the same direction or the barista making my black-iced-tea-with-almond-milk. I must actively schedule time to reach out to old friends and connect with new ones, and I don’t always have the energy for another video call in the evening. Zoom fatigue exists.

  2. Inactivity. I used to be the queen of power walking. If Google Maps predicted a 10 minute walk, I could get to my destination in 7. Every block in my schedule existed in a different location, so I had plenty of walking sprints throughout my day. I'd break a sweat with every transition. In comparison, my current weekdays are almost completely sedentary (minus one walk and short at-home workout per day).

  3. No variety. Same room, same work, same people.

Next, I turned to Google and professionals with long-term remote experience for advice.

Common solutions to address my concerns include:

  • Attending conferences

  • Physically meeting with local industry professionals

  • Working at WeWork or other co-working space

  • Changing locations throughout the day

  • Joining hobby-based groups

  • Traveling

However, the current pandemic stands in the way of most of the above suggestions.

But the biggest benefit of virtual work remains its flexibility, which can be redeemed in a limitless number of ways. Many people enjoy co-working spaces to address common WFH issues. But "remote" isn't synonymous with "at home" or "at WeWork." Those are just common associations.

I have two months to collect alternative solutions to my challenges and optimize next semester for growth and fun. I have no idea what I'll do yet. But by sharing my brainstorming phase in real-time, I hope to prompt similar creative thinking (and help) from others in a similar position.

Some ideas:

  • Add a part-time professional experience. Potentially relocate if in-person

  • Join an outdoor group sport

  • Participate in a virtual community's recurring event (MeetUp, Forward Link, a book club, etc)

  • Visit one friend per month at their university or location of residence

  • Walk around the block in between classes

  • Invite new classmates to virtual “lunch” to get to know each other (to recreate chatting before/after class)

  • Add a second non-negotiable 20-minute exercise block—perhaps yoga/stretch focused

  • Switch outfits and rooms at the end of the academic day

  • Walk somewhere every weekend (as I'd usually do in DC). Even if there's no action or destination. Drop a pin on the map and take a walking roundtrip.

  • Take a 15-minute morning walk before class as if commuting. Power walking required.

  • Set up a secondary desk in front of a window (I seriously think the lack of sunlight in my basement has been negatively affecting my health). Switch every two hours. Bonus points if it's in my attic, three flights of stairs away.

  • Teach a weekly live online fitness class

  • Pack my lunch and eat it outside, weather permitting (too extreme? perhaps)

The goal is to combine and add strategies ahead of time to avoid relying on creativity/willpower on a daily basis. I love spontaneity, but it doesn't live online. Scheduling recurring social events seems odd. So does laying out an outfit the night before. Both prevent decision fatigue and inaction ("I'll reach out tomorrow" or "I'll just wear my default comfy clothes").

Some of these ideas may seem insignificantly small, but if they’re scheduled and prioritized, they have the potential to increase the quality of my virtual semester. At least that's the hypothesis.

Nothing has been decided, so let’s make this collaborative. As you think about your next 6 months, what will be some of your strategies?

Have any ideas? Want to co-author my fall 2020? Send any thoughts my way, please!

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