Navigating distance learning and finding blessings during a global pandemic
November 4, 2020

Overcoming challenges. Resilience. Creative solutions. Immense compassion. Inspiring.

Those are all terms that Emaan Dawood, a junior in the VCU Honors College, associates with the COVID-19 global pandemic that drastically changed our lives in a matter of weeks earlier this year. It’s not through ignoring the hardships brought on by the pandemic that Emaan is able to remain optimistic and find the good in this surreal situation, but through an inner strength that has fueled her desire to grow and forge ahead while still acknowledging the reality of the strange world in which we’re living.

As a biology major with minors in chemistry and Spanish, Emaan has enjoyed being involved in the Honors, VCU, and Richmond communities in a variety of ways since she first came to college. Originally from Bluefield, Virginia but now residing in Illinois, Emaan explains that she initially fell in love with VCU because of its “comfortable environment” and opportunities to prepare for a future career as a physician through the Honors College Guaranteed Admission Program to Medicine.

“I believed GMED would support my career goals by allowing me to devote more time during undergrad to exploring the kind of doctor I want to become for patients and giving me flexibility to pursue other interests that would help me develop into a well-rounded person,” shares Emaan. Additionally, she was drawn in even further by Richmond itself and the great organizations and safety amenities offered at VCU, not to mention the Honors College freshman dorm and a close-knit Honors community of students, faculty, and staff.

Having grown accustomed to living on campus and serving the Richmond community in-person, Emaan admits that the transition from that lifestyle to one in which she is distance learning from Illinois wasn’t the easiest feat. At the start of the pandemic, she opens up, “I wasn’t worrying too much because I thought everything was going to be over in a couple weeks and that we would all return back to campus as normal.” Yet, as she would soon come to find out, the pandemic would ultimately change the course of her college experience more long-term, forcing her to adapt and seek out new strategies for success.

Struggling with the “internal debate” between safety and lack of social connection, Emaan was hit by the sadness and disappointment of no longer being surrounded by her cherished communities or volunteering at Carver Elementary School and St. James’ Children Center. In the end, though, Emaan made the tough decision to remain home for the fall 2020 semester, making safety her top priority. As a result, she expands, “I tried to shift my mindset to focus on the potential positives of a remote semester even though this semester would not be ideal.”

With the threat of “Zoom fatigue” lingering in her mind from long days spent in a virtual world, Emaan has learned to cope and put her creativity to work in creating a new structure and routine to get her through the day. “At the beginning of quarantine when all classes moved online, the sudden removal of a structured routine…left me feeling less productive and less motivated,” she admits. “It was suddenly easier to procrastinate schoolwork, which then interrupted my sleep schedule, and I also found my phone screen time increasing exponentially each week.”

Over the course of the past seven months, Emaan has slowly refound her path. “Figuring out what [my] routine or environment would entail took a lot of brainstorming,” she describes. “At times, it felt like I was just going to remain a mediocre student as long as I stayed home.” So, rather than succumbing to the temptation of her bed, or being dragged down by other distractions, she began studying in the basement of her house, enjoying more sunlight and the sense of compartmentalization that she misses from her time spent in Cabell library.

Furthermore, she continues, “whether my classes are asynchronous or synchronous, I have specific days and times to work on certain classwork, study for MCAT, and take time for myself.” The being said, she adds humbly, “nothing I did was ever perfect at the beginning but with some tweaks and discipline, I feel I have settled into a good pattern at home that I did not expect.”

She has also made a concerted effort to balance her studies with the need for physical and social activities. Whether it’s participating as a student leader for Honors admissions and the Wellbeing program and or joining the HSEB Big/Little program as a Big, Emaan says that the Honors College has “made it easy for students like me to stay connected and involved even if we’re not physically on campus” through its “virtual events and opportunities.”

Moreover, Emaan, along with fellow Honors student Moorin Khan, has adapted an Open-Honors Connect elective course called Wellness, Happiness, & Mindfulness (WHAM) to a virtual format, educating Open High School students on important wellbeing practices. She carries this advice forth to her college peers by encouraging them to “make it a priority to take care of yourself, physically and mentally” by getting adequate sleep, staying physically active even without access to a gym by taking walks or using the stairs, and getting connected with fellow students through Honors virtual events.

For prospective students who are anxious about applying to college during a pandemic, she urges them to “be prepared for challenges but know that you will not face those challenges alone because your peers are also in the same boat…so don’t be afraid to reach out [and] don’t beat yourself up right away for not being perfect” as they adapt to a COVID-19 version of college life. Because, she reminds us, “the ultimate goal is improvement, not perfection.”

In the end, Emaan comes back to the importance of finding the blessings in this trying time, explaining “one of the things that I’ve found to be grateful for is the ability to see my family more often. Coming from Illinois, whenever I was on VCU’s campus, I would only see my family on breaks. Now, I actually look forward to having dinner with my parents every single day.” She even has had the opportunity to visit with her two-month-old nephew, something she wouldn’t have been able to do while on campus.

As she concludes, she reminisces, saying “As a freshman, I never thought that I would push myself this much, but the opportunities and faculty from the Honors College have made me realize that I am more capable than I thought I was, and that is one of the biggest benefits I’ve gotten from being in honors.”

Thank you so much for inspiring us all with your strength and perseverance, Emaan! The Honors College is proud of you.