Author: Shalen Lawson
How off-campus students are learning to navigate UAB’s off-campus resources
Devin Franklin, a junior majoring in musical theatre, records video for their online audition class using a rather unique setup — an old Amazon package and mattress box stacked atop one another. Franklin props up an iPad against this makeshift stand to ensure their work is eye level. From here, the musical theatre major performs monologues for the class over Zoom. Even performance art has been modified to accommodate the virus.
During the fall 2020 semester, Franklin was lucky if they were able to make the 5-15 minute trek from their downtown Birmingham residence to campus maybe once a week. One of their two hybrid classes was a musical theatre course taught out of the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center. The other only met in person every other week.
Now, the 20-year-old hikes the brief commute nearly every weekday — either for their two classes which aren’t being taught via the internet, or for COVID-19 sentinel testing.
Franklin said this entire experience has been rather bleak.
“I got severely depressed last semester because I only had one performance class. I was only showing up in person one to two times a week, and everything else was online. So I was just stuck in my house,” they said.
This is the reality for many students tackling school in the midst of the pandemic. And while the adjustment to online classes is a phenomenon affecting learners from preschool and beyond, university students have the added misfortune of missing out on that much-publicized “college experience.”
What is a multi-thousand dollar university tuition, really, without the community and on-campus engagement?
It’s especially difficult for students who may have to commute. According to the Office of Off-Campus Student and Family Engagement, the overwhelming majority of UAB undergraduates, 77.8% to be exact, were considered off-campus students in 2019. For those who have to travel a bit further to get to the Green than those in dorms, stepping foot on campus may not even be an option for class — much less for events and extracurriculars. This long, isolating year has left students and administrators alike scrambling to adjust to virtual socializing.
Before the pandemic, Franklin was fairly active on campus. They’d meet friends at WOW Café & Wingery to eat between classes. They’d perform in shows with the UAB Theatre Department. They’d attend Blazer Theatre Organization’s Coffee Talk on Fridays for a check-in with their peers.
But everything is virtual now.
“Personally, I don’t like it,” Franklin said. “It’s difficult for me to connect with people through a screen. Especially with us being artists, we’re very passionate people, and some of that gets lost over Zoom.”
With nearly all club meetings and events being moved to digital platforms, or even flat-out canceled, Kirsten Holland, a sophomore majoring in biology, said she’s not quite sure how to be more engaged at this point. She makes the 20-minute commute from Pleasant Grove to campus 2-3 days a week.
“I do like being able to go to class and come home, but also I would like to be more involved on campus. But there’s some things I’m just not sure how to go about or (whether) it will fit into my schedule,” Holland said.
Meredith Kahl, the director of UAB’s Office of Off-Campus Student and Family Engagement, said she understands hesitancy towards attending potentially awkward virtual events. But, she said, there are resources available through Off-Campus Student Services if people are willing to give it a chance. The office, located in the Hill Student Center, offers everything from roommate mixers to donut socials.
And, according to Kahl, being engaged on campus is a huge part of students’ happiness and academic well-being. While off-campus students are less likely to be involved on campus than their peers, those who are more engaged are more likely to have better GPAs and feel more connected to their institution.
Kahl said Off-Campus Student Engagement staff is working hard to build a sense of community with the 10,000 or so students the office serves through various programs targeted towards off-campus and transfer students. They also partner with different groups and organizations, like the Collat School of Business, to host events about financial literacy and other valuable topics.
While the majority of events are still being hosted virtually, Kahl is hopeful there will be more opportunities for in-person engagement as UAB administrators begin to lift COVID restrictions (in a safe and healthy manner, of course).
But for now, the student lounge is still a viable option.
“I want (students) to know that the space is here for them. There is an entire section of the Hill Student Center designated and set aside just for off-campus students,” Kahl said. “We have been open for the entirety of the academic year, we are still open, and we will continue to be open during the summer.”
The space can be used for studying of course, but it’s also a hangout spot for watching TV, chatting, and even napping. Until in-person events are an option again, commuters can take refuge in the spaces available to them — virtual or otherwise.
Franklin has done just that by participating in a number of online events, including a special talk with “Pose” star Dominique Jackson through Blazer Spirit Council. Despite the difficult times, they are glad to have had the opportunity.
“I’m thankful that the university has adapted pretty well and created virtual space because those types of things really make the UAB experience,” Franklin said.