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  • Linh T. Phung

Restricted and Expanded: Life During COVID-19

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

November 2020

As my students were asked to write a reflection on their experience studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, I sat down and wrote with them. And this is what I have.

Life-changing news came in droves in the week of March 9, 2020. Restrictions on gatherings were announced at the university earlier in the week. The IELTS workshop that I had spent so much time arranging was effectively cancelled. The much anticipated TESOL Convention, where thousands of English teachers would meet to share ideas and get inspired, was called off. On Thursday, after I finished teaching, I gathered my books and work computer to bring home, considering the high chance of not being able to return to work the following week. Then it all became clear on Friday, March 13. We were in “lockdown.” Every “non-essential” worker, not only at Chatham, but in many parts of the state, was ordered to stay at home. The daycare was closed, and my 18-month-old baby was also ordered to “shelter in place.” My husband and I congregated at home with laptops, monitors, and phones on the dining table, trying to work while the baby did everything but allow us to work. What just happened?

New COVID-related vocabularies broadcast on the air and though social media became everyday lingo: positive cases, contact tracing, social distancing, self-isolation, lockdown, and so on. Life had no choice but to go on, but in a much smaller and restricted manner in the physical space of home. In my English Language Program (ELP), some international students were recalled home while others were understandably disappointed with the move to virtual learning and physical confinement. “This is not the study-abroad experience that we signed up for” was the sentiment that many stated. The program carried on with 20 hours of English instruction on Zoom, offered conversation hours and games on Zoom, and gathered for the End-of-Term Celebration on Zoom. There were undoubtedly frustrations, challenges, and Zoom fatigue, but there were also highlights of what was inspiring and heart-warming as we came to terms with the new reality. One such highlight was what students wrote in their submissions to the ELP Writing Contest: words of hope, unity, care, and living life in the moment as well as the humor of “staring straight in the eyes” of the virus with a stern warning that “you can’t divide us.” All of these gave me the positive energy, going into another semester of virtual classes with the determination of making instruction better for students. There is no choice but to persist, is there?


With students taking classes from four countries in vastly different time zones in the summer, the summer classes were challenging time-wise, yet diverse and exciting. Overall, I had a stellar group of students, and in the end, I think the semester was a success with students appreciating what they learned from the Reading course and the “Science of Wellbeing” course on Coursera that we were all enrolled in. To me, the “Happiness” course as we called it was a highlight of the summer as we learned about what really matters for our subjective happiness, the fallacies of our mind, and simple-to-understand-but-difficult-to-implement strategies to boost our happiness. Connecting with others, being kind to others, expressing gratitude, and focusing on the here-and-now are not only strategies supported by a large body of happiness research, but also, I think, ones that bring us together as social beings and help us look deeper into ourselves as individual beings. I’m still far from turning those strategies into sustainable habits, but I have some hope that by making these small changes, I’m living a more meaningful life and finding some peace in my restless mind.

Now being well into the fall semester without any hope of Covid-19 going away anytime soon, I’ve also come to appreciate the silver linings of a world less restricted by physical barriers. Apart from teaching my usual lessons to college students, I have conducted countless virtual conversation hours for students of all ages. I’ve presented on Facebook live to nearly a thousand viewers. I’ve attended far more conference presentations than in any normal year. I talk with colleagues from all over the world on a weekly basis. I’m collaborating on research with friends and colleagues. I’ve found my professional life expanded. If happiness means having a pleasant life, an engaged life, and/or a meaningful life, I’m certainly having a more engaged work life and feeling good about it.


The world is now hoping for a vaccine that can be efficiently distributed so that we can soon get back to our normal life: A life with concerts, gatherings, hugs, and kisses that no technologies can simulate. A life when we can go out to lunch with colleagues, mingle at a holiday party, and exchange small talks in hallways and on campus walks. However, I start to wonder about the lasting impacts of the new ways of teaching, working, communicating, and conferencing during Covid on the future of our work and professional life. Some questions come to mind.


· To what extent will teachers and administrators work in the office and work from home?

· What are the benefits and challenges of both options? What will encourage more productivity and engagement?

· What will professional development look like? Will there continue to be virtual conferences with lower costs to attendees?

· Will colleagues from near and far still gather to share ideas across borders or will we retreat back to our local networks?

· What elements of virtual teaching, assessment, and student services will likely stick around?

- What meaningful collaborative projects will be facilitated?


Dare to make predictions? Please leave your comments!


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