I'm not the most conventional college student you'll ever meet. I often show up for lecture in my pajamas. My campus is a plush, corner chair in my bedroom. And I never see my professor or classmates. I also control my own schedule, so I drop in and out of class as I please. All it takes is the click of a button.
The secret to such academic freedom? I attend college online. This week, I'm heading back to school for the fall semester, but with no bags to pack and no dormitory to settle into. For me, back to school prep work involves powering up my laptop, replenishing my supply of ballpoint pens, and stacking my textbooks and syllabi neatly on the shelf. On the first day of class, I log into Blackboard (my university's online learning platform) and post an introductory greeting in the forum, then click the "Week One" folder and review upcoming assignments. The whole process takes less than ten minutes. Just like that, I'm back in study mode, ready to dive into new coursework in a fast-paced learning environment.
As an online learner, I begin each semester with many of the same doubts that plague on-campus students: What will my professors be like? Will I succeed in this class? Can I handle the course load? On the other hand, while studying online frees me from on-campus anxieties about peer pressure and difficult roommates, the online classroom has challenges of its own. Every semester, I find myself studying on the bed, at the kitchen table, in front of the desk - alone. My classmates are scattered across the nation and my professors lecture via PowerPoint presentations and the occasional audio recording. For the most part, they're all faceless, voiceless, distant. My bedroom is the classroom, and I'm the only student who ever shows up. It's just me and the laptop. And the laptop can't talk.
The loneliness of distance learning confronts me anew every semester, like a cold, familiar wall to be scaled. But with hard work and focus, the loneliness is surmountable and I quickly fall back into the groove of quiet mornings and productive afternoons spent alone, typing and reading, in my bedroom chair. I've come to enjoy solace and the uncluttered mental processes it spawns. Once I scale the wall, the aloneness that was once a frustration feels almost like a gift, one that is surely hard to come by in a busy dormitory or crowded classroom.
Despite the challenges, being an online student does provide much to look forward to at the beginning of each semester. For every unique challenge, I discover a unique benefit. I enter this fall semester with anticipation and a special gratitude, knowing that because of the flexibility that online learning affords, I may stay more fully engaged with the lives of the people I care about. I can worship in church every Sunday with my parents and siblings. I can cheer my younger brother, Josiah, on from the sidelines at his first flag football game of the season. I can share meals with family, visit with friends, and sleep in my own comfy bed every night in the room I share with my younger sisters. I'm nurturing old relationships and making new ones. I'm enjoying life and learning things that have absolutely nothing to do with academic lectures, essays, or questions on a mid-term exam.
I'll be continuing my education this fall, for sure, but not just in the college classroom. I'll be gaining wisdom in the much larger, infinitely more important classroom called "Life," where parents are seasoned teachers and interactions with nine siblings provide fresh character challenges and experiences that no textbook can give.
Every student, online or on-campus, has a desk in the Life Classroom. There, every season ushers in new lessons to learn. So learn them. Embrace them. Work at them. Excel at the assignments that really matter, and success in academics will follow.
"But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." (Matthew 6:33)
Caroline Leal is an online student at Regent University studying English with a professional writing emphasis.
Editor's note: This column is part of a series of essays on a back to school theme. Click here for a list of other essays in this series.