“Just push ahead and all will be fine.” The university experience during a pandemic


    On the 1st of October, Bulgarian universities marked the beginning of the new academic year, which, as always, has been an occasion for excitement among teachers and students alike, especially among those who set foot in a higher education establishment for the first time. In 2020, however, the situation has changed completely. Bulgarian university students, both in the country and outside of it, are left with an abundance of unknown variables due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. The sCOOL Media reporters Dara Sapundzhieva and Katherina Vassileva have talked to some Bulgarian students, future applicants to higher education institutions, and teachers at local and international universities in order to learn more about the awaiting challenges, their hopes, and the current priorities. You can learn more about how higher education has changed in these pandemic times from their material, translated in English by Krassimira Kamenova. 


    “I certainly could not have predicted that a pandemic would compromise my first year at university,” shares Dimitar Tsenov, a 19-year-old from Kardzhali who is about to begin his first year as a student of automotive electronics at the Technical University in Sofia.


    This is a sentiment that accompanies thousands of youths on their path to their first year at university. Many still are not quite sure how this year is going to progress, seeing as the COVID-19 pandemic has placed educational systems across the world in an unprecedented situation. It has become imperative that the academic process adapt to the digital sphere, which has raised questions about the quality of education as a whole and has altered the atmosphere of schools and universities.


    At the start of a new academic year, amid so much uncertainty, thousands of current and future university students still await clarification as to how they are going to study, regardless of where they are going to do it. Are they going to have in-person classes after all, or is learning going to take place online?


    “I have no idea if I’m even going to meet my fellow college mate in person,” or the experience of being a first-year student in Bulgaria


    For more than half a year now, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of uncertainty and confusion for many incoming freshmen. One of them is Dimitar Tsenov, who is still not sure how his first year at university is going to start. It is yet to be decided whether he and his fellows are going to attend their lectures and practical activities in person, or whether teaching is going to be provided online.


    “To be honest, I have heard all sorts of different things, so I can’t trust any information until the school year begins. We can only guess right now,” shares the young man.


    The student is concerned to a lesser extent about potential measures to restrict the spread of COVID-19. He has faith in his own self-discipline and in the responsibility of his university to provide the proper equipment, including dispensers of disinfectant and soap.


    Dimitar is more worried about his education: “I had expected to have the same experience that people from upper-year courses have told me about. Now, I have no idea if I am even going to meet my fellow colleagues in person,” he remarks. Even if a hybrid schedule that incorporates in-person and online lectures is implemented, he thinks it would be difficult to keep up with thе knowledge and the skills that freshmen will need to acquire over the year.


    “The first year at university is always the most difficult one, and I think that spending it in front of our home computers is going to make it all the more difficult,” he adds. “I want to have a solid base of understanding, so that I can continue with upper-year courses with expertise that has been acquired at university, not at home.” 


    According to Dimitar, the pandemic is going to be detrimental to the overall experience of students from the moment they step into their new schools. With the current situation, they would be unable to truly experience the excitement of moving to a new city and starting a life on their own. They are also going to face challenges in getting to know their peers, finding friends, and being properly integrated into their new communities.


    Teodora Taskova from Blagoevgrad shares similar concerns. As a new architecture student at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland, she will join around 1200 Bulgarian youths who are going to begin their education at British universities this fall. This number has decreased by 10% compared to last year, a decrease that can be attributed not only to political affairs like Brexit, but also to the COVID-19 pandemic.


    Teodora’s education is going to follow a hybrid schedule, as most of her lectures are going to take place online. Despite that, the future freshman will spend her first year of university on location in Scotland; she left a few weeks ago and is already getting acquainted with life abroad.


    Much like Dimitar, Teodora is worried about the quality of the education she is going to receive. “I am mostly concerned about the process of learning itself, rather than the hygienic conditions. I am certain that people here are conscientious, and from what I’ve seen so far, they all try to comply with the safety measures,” she shares. Of greater concern to her are the unclear yet distribution of courses and the confusion as to how lectures and in-class activities are going to be carried out.


    In addition, students who take courses in Architecture need a working studio at the university that they can use for their practical tasks. This is one of the main reasons why Teodora hopes there would be more opportunities for in-person classes, so that she could complete her assignments more efficiently.


    The student is sure that her experience at university would differ greatly from those of people before her. “On the one hand, studying in my dormitory might be less rushed, but on the other, I would not be able to converse with my lecturers and my peers in a natural setting, which would restrict our communication. The language barrier between us is enough,” she adds.


    Even more peculiar is the situation of Sofia Encheva from Ruse, who has been a student in Cognitive Sciences at the New York University for a few weeks now. Her education is going to take place online throughout the entire first semester, while for the second one, the current plans are for students to be present on the university’s campus in the U.S.A.


    Sofia’s initial experience of the academic world, however, will be through her computer screen.


    “I had certainly not expected my journey in university to begin in my own room,” she shares. “For a few days now, I have been attending lectures on ZOOM, and the time that I spend in front of my screen leaves me with minimal energy for recreation and exercise.”


    For Sofia, distance learning brings a great deal of change into her lifestyle, which requires adaptation and experience. “In some ways, it facilitates the process through which I learn, but it also leads to unforeseen inconveniences and requires a lot of effort,” she adds.


    Despite that, she is satisfied with the quality of her online education so far, and she is not afraid of future challenges, since she has known for a while what to expect of higher education. “In a sense, that was exactly what I aimed for – to find an environment which would constantly challenge me and stimulate me to adapt to changing circumstances.”


    During the pandemic, the student has realized how lucky she is, being a part of an institution that has made a serious effort to “go digital” and to offer its undergraduates a great array of resources and services, as well as to recreate traditionally in-person events such as the “Welcome Week” in an online format, in order to remind people of the importance of remaining а close-knit community despite the physical distance.


    “Of course, this situation is out of the ordinary, but circumstances have pushed us to socialize with our peers in alternate ways. This has brought a lot of color and joy into my daily life,” she shares. “I have a lot of support by my peers, and I don’t have to feel guilty about potentially missing school work because of online learning. We’re all in this together. We’re all moving forward.”


    More work for both teachers and students


    The opinion of teachers themselves becomes crucial in gauging the success of the new academic year. The team of sCOOL Media approached Christopher Karadjov, a professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at the California State University, with questions about his opinion of the situation.


    The university in which Karadjov works will provide solely online education, with some small exceptions for the programs that require a certain amount of in-person practical activities. Current plans are for online learning to continue until spring of 2021, at the very least, since it has been decided that in such a large university system with hundreds of thousands of students and teachers, this option would be the safest.


    Online education is nothing new in Karadjov’s career: he has always taught at least one of his classes digitally. “I’ve always found online classes to be much more intensive than in-person ones, since every student has to participate. I need to communicate with everybody,” the professor remarks. “When done properly, with enough communication between students and teachers, an online class requires a lot more effort.”


    According to Karadjov, not only does a teacher have to expend more effort in preparing digital lectures, but so do the students. In order to maximize the efficiency of their education, young people need to participate in discussions, which they might not do during in-person classes.


    If they want to learn effectively, students must be active, seek answers to any questions they might have, and ask the teacher for a lot of clarifications and explanations, he says.


    In programs related to journalism, it is important that the two types of education (in-person and online) are combined, so that all of their benefits can be enjoyed. An advantage of online learning is the flexibility it allows, since students can participate from all parts of the world.


    “Last year, I was staying in Bulgaria, and I had to lead an online class from my hotel room. It hardly mattered to my students whether I was in Sofia, in Los Angeles, or in Australia,” remembers Karadjov.


    However, online classes do have some disadvantages, which is why the professor doesn’t think a permanent online schedule would be an effective solution. “You lose the live communication with students, the energy that the environment leaves you with, and, overall, the human aspect of day-to-day interaction. I think this is detrimental to the educational process,” Karadjov argues. “But right now, we find ourselves in a unique situation, and we should make the decision to work in one mode, regardless of how circumstances develop.”


    Karadjov says that the most important thing for students in this difficult situation, regardless of their location, is to not despair or give up. “We live in interesting times, but these conditions are only temporary. Try to attempt new things and to keep learning. Education is crucial to your future career, to the development of your personality, and to everything that you are going to do throughout your life. So just keep going.”


    A problem with many unknowns for applicants


    The coronavirus crisis does not pose a danger only for the plans of university students and professors. Another affected group are the young people who started their last year at high school on the 15th of September.


    Yana Peeva is a senior at the American College of Sofia, and this year, just like the rest of her peers, she is to submit her applications to a number universities in Bulgaria and abroad.


    Despite the uncertainty of the current situation, she has elected to continue with her plans to apply to universities in the USA. She explains that so far, she hasn’t met any obstacles in her applications, since universities do as much as possible to facilitate the process.


    “But it is not clear how many students will be accepted this year, what changes are yet to be made to conditions for financial aid, and what mode of education will be chosen for next year. All of these factors make choosing a university a really difficult task,” shares Yana.


    Because of that, she is going to apply in more countries, to more universities than she intended initially, which means she would have to expend more effort and time.


    Yana’s greatest concern relates to the resources that she will need for both her applications and her education. Until now, her plans have always included additional applications for scholarships and financial aid. “Unfortunately, there is a lack of clarity as to what resources universities will be able to provide for students of my graduating class, and this really worries me,” tells the senior.


    This is one of the main reasons applicants have developed back-up plans. Yana doesn’t exclude the possibility of applying in other countries, Bulgaria included. Over the past few months, she has even started to seriously consider taking a gap year.


    “I remain optimistic that the hardships this situation has brought on us will teach us a lot of valuable skills and will give us strength to keep going – both through higher education and after it. We must make the best of these new opportunities that we gain, and I am certain we will achieve more than we ever thought possible,” believes Yana.


    Her message to her peers is this: “Keep going, and everything will work out!”


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