University students miss out on gaining vital cultural skills in pandemic

Tala Jarjour

The coronavirus pandemic has not yet left the headlines, but it is no longer all doom and gloom. Infection numbers are falling, steadily in some countries, and restrictions on life and work have been reduced or lifted altogether in many parts of the world. The travel sector is gearing up for a busy season and holidaymakers have resurfaced across regional borders, for now on school spring vacations. Politicians, particularly those eying upcoming elections, seem to be rehearsing grand announcements about the COVID-19 story coming to a happy end of some sort. We are all to believe that life continues, if still inconvenienced by the virus and its variants.

As the latest winter wave, caused primarily by the omicron variant, peaks or makes its inevitable downward turn, springtime brings promising sunshine to the Northern Hemisphere. Coronavirus travel protocols are constantly reviewed, in many cases becoming simpler and more straightforward. This is all welcome news to students, especially those in the Middle East or traveling between the region and traditionally desirable destinations.

Summer beckons, inviting new plans for holiday travels and family reunions. These are good signs for people with longings they have been unable to fulfill in a while. For college students studying abroad, the reassuring prospect of going home is more real this year than it has been for, in the case of most, much of their time at university.

Universities and their students have had some public attention over the past two years, especially early on in the pandemic, when disruption to academic life and work was most severe. As colleges and universities around the world found and implemented new protocols to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on their primary clients — the students — caution ruled the day. In many locales, universities were the first institutions to require vaccinations, then they were among the first to expect and in some cases offer booster shots to students wishing to return to campus after holidays. That was the case even in the US, where vaccine and mask mandates have triggered constitutional debates. Some universities established closure provisions, protocols by which teaching moved entirely or partly online, seemingly at the press of a button.

Safety arrangements have helped to minimize infection risks and protected the health and education of students around the globe. But by the time omicron came about, the coronavirus pandemic was no longer the main concern health professionals in the higher education sector were flagging up. It was isolation.

Isolation for university students has been a worrying reality on many levels. Here I have space to consider one: Personal cultural development.

Going to college is a stressful time in the life of any young person, but it is also a unique time in terms of the types of interaction and social exposure on offer during these important years. College is also a time when friendships and personal relationships are formed, and to many graduates those opportunities are never repeated, whether they move on to professional lives that involve social interaction or not. College friendships, especially in the digital age, are seen as the most rewarding, often lifelong friendships by graduates of all generations. The coronavirus college generation has been less likely to get these life-enhancing experiences.

To most university students, the loss of potential friendships has been compounded by social and intellectual isolation. Students who have spent months receiving education via computer screens feel that they have been robbed of the essence of what going to college is all about. In college, interacting with professors, rubbing elbows with like-minded peers and engaging in discussions and debates with classmates from diverse backgrounds are crucial elements of the learning process. Engaging and living with multiple kinds of conversation partners is, in fact, the most important part of the learning process. This is particularly the case at excellent universities, where personal growth is enhanced by the richness of the intellectual environment.

The loss of potential friendships has been compounded by social and intellectual isolation.

People who have been fortunate enough to go to university, and to a university where they have met peers and professors from parts of the world about which they knew very little, can identify with the uniqueness of these learning opportunities, many of which happened outside the classroom.

We are living in a world in which cultural literacy is becoming increasingly valued by all sectors of business and government. In order for future graduates to be equipped with this vital skill, closer attention could be paid to the intercultural overtones of their safe academic environments.

The writer is the author of ‘Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo’