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As most adapt to online instruction, some students take spring off

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This article is the first installment in a series examining how students are spending spring quarter.

Lily Liu ’21 had been looking forward to spending spring quarter studying abroad in Paris, fulfilling an abroad requirement for her international relations major and taking classes in art and architecture.

“I really was hoping to use Paris as a way to get away … to slow down and really explore my artistic interest, and let my soul breathe for a little bit,” she said. 

But, when Stanford canceled all overseas programs and Liu’s planned classes were wiped from her schedule, she chose to file for a leave of absence instead of enrolling in new ones. She attributes her decision to three reasons: losing her initial plans for spring quarter, missing out on the on-campus experience of an ordinary quarter, and saving money on tuition as the pandemic creates uncertainty for her family business. 

Liu isn’t alone. Stanford has held firm on charging full tuition for spring 2020 despite student pushback, and with the pandemic leaving students with new responsibilities across a variety of living situations, some are choosing to take leaves of absence or finish their degrees early rather than take classes from afar.  

Stanford extended the deadline to file for a leave of absence from the first day of classes to Monday of Week 2 to allow students more time to try online classes and adjust to changes in their living situations before making the decision. Students can still withdraw up until May 14 and receive a prorated tuition refund. 

The University declined to specify how many students had filed for a leave of absence by the April 13 deadline, nor how many students filed for leaves in any of the previous three quarters. Spokesperson E.J. Miranda declined to provide a reason for why he could not share this information. 

As classes moved online, many lab courses for spring were canceled entirely, while other classes have been overhauled to adapt to the online format. CHEM 33 and CHEM 131, key courses for pre-med students and natural science majors, were canceled, along with art classes that require specialized equipment. Dance classes are being formatted to be more instructional rather than activity-based, and some lab instructors are demonstrating techniques and procedures to students on Zoom.

Megan Hyatt ’22, an electrical engineering major taking a leave of absence, had planned to take multiple lab courses in spring. 

“We would be building circuits — you can’t get that experience online,” she said. 

But lost opportunities go beyond classes that have been disrupted or canceled due to the online format, students told The Daily. 

“I find a lot of value in being on campus with people in person and having those connections,” Hyatt said. “I felt like I didn’t want to ‘waste,’ in quotations, a quarter of my Stanford being at home.”

Hyatt also felt it would be more difficult to complete coursework at home, a concern shared by Chris Tan ’21. 

“I would be taking online classes which would entail all the difficult parts of Stanford without having the same support system in place,” Tan said. 

Similar to Liu, Tan had planned to spend spring abroad. He had just finished a 22-unit quarter, and had hoped to take a break from computer science, his major, and focus on environmental justice issues while studying in Cape Town. Now, he said, he’s decided to prioritize resting and healing, along with self-studying computer science material he’s struggled with to better prepare him for when classes return to an in-person format.

Other students simply don’t feel like an online quarter will be worth the cost.

“My first concern was that I felt like it wasn’t worth it to pay so much money for classes that I was pretty convinced quality would be a lot worse,” said Kasey Luo ’21, who’s taking the quarter off. 

Provost Persis Drell told faculty and graduate students on March 16 that Stanford would not discount tuition, and if students felt that “a spring quarter with online instruction will not meet their expectations,” they have the option to take a leave of absence. A presumed drop in enrollment for spring has financial ramifications for the University, which is already suffering the fiscal damage of lost room and board fees among other losses. Stanford’s spring quarter FAQ page now states that the University believes “the value of a Stanford education and degree, whether in-person or remote, continues to greatly exceed tuition,” and notes that faculty services, along with their salaries, are continuing, on top of additional charges incurred by shifting education online.

But not all students have the ability to take a leave of absence, Liu points out. 

“I can afford to stay a little bit longer in school, that’s a big privilege to have and I definitely recognize not many people have that,” she said. “For students who can’t, even if they think that the tuition arrangement sucks, they are kind of stuck with that; there is no realistically better option for them than to do these [online] classes.”

For seniors, the pressure to finish on time is even higher. Some, by intentional planning in anticipation of an early graduation or “Camp Stanford” quarter, had finished their degrees at the end of winter, while others are fortunate to have done so without originally intending to take their last quarter off.

Sam Kwong ’20 M.S. ’21, who majored and is co-terming in computer science, took a 22-unit winter quarter to finish his degree early and move on to taking some classes for his coterm while doing an internship in the Bay Area. When spring quarter went online, he decided to pause progress toward his master’s degree and instead focus on his now-remote internship full-time.

Akshaya Dinesh ’22 is also using her leave of absence to complete a remote internship. She had planned the leave in fall, but had intended to stay in the Bay Area for an in-person internship in Palo Alto. Now, she’s working remotely from her home in New Jersey. 

“It turned out to be kind of perfect timing,” she said, though she added that the remote format of her internship is a downside.

For those that aren’t doing internships, students are getting creative with new projects. Luo is working with the Stanford COVID-19 Response Innovation Lab to launch “Ray,” a free tele-counseling program aimed at serving individuals struggling with mental health amid the pandemic. Liu is starting research for her senior thesis and working for the Society for International Affairs at Stanford, of which she is president. On the side, she’s mapping out some personal projects, such as a “virtual reflection booth,” to collect stories from different people. 

To connect with other students taking the quarter off, Dinesh created a #leave-of-absence Slack channel in the newly-formed Stanford Online workspace. She hopes that it will help create community around students taking the quarter off in the absence of other shared experiences.

“For people who take classes, you form study groups, and there’s messenger chats, and people connect over doing p-sets together and studying and doing projects,” she said. “But I’m kind of missing out on the opportunity to socialize and get to know people through classes. I thought this might be one way to just meet other people who aren’t doing any classes.”

Contact Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Julia Ingram ’21 was The Daily's Volume 256 editor-in-chief. She is a New York City native majoring in English literature and working toward a career in news reporting. Contact her at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.