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Samantha Fries often works from her car on order to avoid distractions and conduct advising appointments in a private setting. Photo courtesy of Samantha Fries.

Many students left with suboptimal work environments after campus closure

When University of Maryland, Baltimore County students moved out of their dorms on March 14 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them left behind more than just their housing: They also left behind the spaces on campus where they were used to doing their coursework and being productive. Even commuter students, barred from accessing study spaces on campus, like the Albin O. Kuhn Library, are now forced to acclimatize to spaces that are not necessarily suited to studying. 

It is a shift that has been difficult even for those students who did not have to make massive transitions. Hannah Bashar, a senior biology and art history double major, was already commuting from the off-campus apartment she shares with her mother this year. But she was used to staying on campus until 10 p.m. or later due to extracurricular activities, filling in the gaps in her day by studying and doing homework in various spaces around campus.

Bashar has a separate room in her house that she can use for studying; though it is hardly furnished, it does contain a desk, a chair, a printer and a window that looks out into her neighborhood. The room was designed to be a bedroom and contains a closet where she stores some clothes and other items, so, prior to UMBC’s campus being closed, it was mostly used as what she called “an overflow room.”

Despite how fortunate she feels to have a dedicated space in which to work, it is a far cry from her favorite UMBC study spots, such as the cubicles on the ground floor of the Math/Psychology Building, the cozy seating in the Women’s Center and the bright, airy atrium of the Performing Arts and Humanities Building. One of the biggest factors that made these spaces conducive to her productivity was her proximity to other people who were also working.

“My friends, sometimes, will get on a FaceTime call or a group video chat … to just simulate the sense of company and presence,” she explained. “That’s what I’ve been relying on to help keep me motivated a lot of the time.”

It has also been challenging for her to create a psychological divide between where she works and relaxes. “[The study room] is just the next room over from my bedroom. It’s hilarious how I started this year out as a commuter and now my commute is just incredibly short,” she said, explaining that she struggles to “get into a mindset of work” in a room so close to where she sleeps and spends her downtime.

A similar sentiment was echoed by sophomore Sofia Encarnación, an economics and mathematics double major, whose “commute” is even shorter than Bashar’s. After moving out of her dorm in Harbor Hall, she had to move in with her brother and his two roommates, sleeping on his couch and doing classwork on a table just a few feet away. She finds it hard to muster up motivation in that environment and has even begun to eat dinner on the couch rather than at the table to create a distinction between where she works and where she eats.

The inverse is true as well; she sometimes has trouble winding down at the end of the day. She remembered a particular day when she struggled to stop studying despite being ahead in her classes and not having anything due for days. “I don’t feel like I needed to do anything, but I needed to do something,” she explained. “I’m listening to music, I’m washing the dishes and trying to do something that’ll get my mind off of it, and I still felt like I had homework due or something.”

Still, despite how challenging it has been to sleep on a couch mere feet from where she works, staying with her brother is preferable to the other option she had. At her father’s apartment, she explained, “there wouldn’t have been any space to do any work … There’s really no place for a desk there or anything. There’s hardly a place to eat dinner.”

She is grateful to be able to spend time with her brother, as well, and appreciates that his roommates give her privacy, mostly staying in their rooms when she is working.

On the other hand, Samantha Fries, a graduate assistant and second-year master’s student studying applied sociology, has found that privacy is one of the greatest issues she has faced working from home. Fries did not live on campus prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but did do all of her work in a shared, on-campus office. 

“The transition to working from home has been chaotic at best,” she said. “My new workspace is in the living room of my apartment, which I share with my family, so there’s constant distraction, constant noise.” It has been hard for her to successfully complete her schoolwork in this setting. The advanced courses she is taking require much more focus than she is able to give them while surrounded by the clamor of pots and pans being used in the kitchen, her fiancé taking teleconferences in the bedroom and neighbors playing too-loud music that easily permeates the building’s thin walls.

Because she is an undergraduate advisor, the lack of privacy Fries has in her apartment is an even bigger issue than it would be if she were just a student; advising appointments are confidential, and while on campus, she conducts these meetings from a separate, private office distinct from her shared office. Since being home, she has been forced to find places where she is certain her meetings will not be overheard. Sometimes, she ends up conducting advising appointments on her balcony. At other times, she conducts them from her car, which she noted is the only place she does work that is completely devoid of distractions. Other students, still, have opted to be advised via email rather than by video call because they are not comfortable with virtual meetings.

This is made even more challenging by the fact that her workload as an advisor has increased as of late. “Lots of students are coming to their advisors, as they’re supposed to, to try to get in contact with resources and to talk about their class struggles and try to figure out what they can do to succeed,” she said.

As UMBC prepares to enter a now fully online summer semester, it is uncertain when students, staff and faculty will next be able to study in their favorite spots on campus, surrounded by their peers. But when they do, most will be grateful to return to the places in which they feel most motivated.