How the pandemic changed student work, class preferences

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Kelly Ye prepares a solution for a chemistry lab class at City College’s Ocean Campus. Photo by Xian Ke

City College opened in 1935 during the longest and most severe economic downturn in modern history. Since March 2020, the school and its students have adapted to a pandemic by moving classes and services online. Even as economic conditions change, the remote learning and work habits students developed may last well into the future.

As San Francisco’s only public community college, the school offers courses in more than 100 occupational disciplines. Among the school’s services are Career Counseling and Career Services. The former consists of career counselors who help many students at the start of their college journeys. The latter is a team of Employment and Training Specialists who help students bridge the gap between their program of study and their next step in work and career.

A visit to the school’s Ocean Campus on May 9 highlighted how things have been changing. Before the pandemic, a visit to the Rosenberg Library would’ve seen at least a dozen students while classes were in session. Instead, the library had just recently reopened its in-person Collaboratory space. Even as a sign broadcasted that library services were available, there weren’t any studious students to be seen amidst a sea of computer-equipped workspaces.

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Rosenberg Library’s Collaboratory space has reopened. Photo by Xian Ke

The Career Development Center on the first floor of the Multi-Use Building had more buzz than the library. Two students were preparing to register for classes, and two staff members were available.

Guillermo Sosa has been working as a strength and conditioning coach and physical therapist at Fitness SF in SoMa. He’s looking to enroll in classes in Fall 2022, and expressed preference for in-person classes. While it’s possible to learn remotely, Sosa believes that it’s more effective for him to do so in person.

“It’s easier to ask questions, and also to communicate with fellow students,” Sosa said.

Amy Coffey, Assistant Director of Student Activities, was working from her on-campus office in the Student Union. She reflected on how successfully students have adapted to the pandemic, and also on the school’s plans moving forward to provide more in-person classes.

“We’ve heard clearly that some students feel very strongly about being back on campus, and some students feel very strongly about not commuting and being remote,” said Coffey. “It’s not going to be business as usual.”

Coffey is excited about the potential for hybrid experiences to successfully meet student needs.

An informal survey of 20 students, 10 on campus and 10 online, confirmed Coffey’s observation about the diversity of preferences. Perhaps as to be expected, those who were surveyed on campus tended to prefer being in person, and those who were surveyed through an online class tended to prefer meeting online. Altogether, the preferences were almost exactly evenly split between in-person and remote options.

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Ten on-campus responses include high school students visiting campus for athletics. 10 online responses were from students of Alex Mullaney’s Data and Multimedia Journalism class. Survey by Xian Ke

Thanh Hoang, a Clerk at the Administrative Services Department, has been working on campus two days a week as of 2022, and also serves students on Zoom during those days. Hoang is anticipating more in-person work.

“I will go in five days a week if required,” Hoang said.

On this same afternoon, the biggest groups of students on campus were on Rush Stadium, and in the Science Hall. City College’s championship football team held practice, along with a rotating cast of Track & Field athletes (including from nearby high schools and the Academy of Art). Meanwhile, students in the Science Hall were completing their chemistry lab exercises.

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City College football team back at practice after a perfect 13-0 season from Sept. to Dec. 2021. Photo by Xian Ke

While the football players are used to being in-person, the chemistry students have lectures online – and also had online labs earlier during the pandemic. Though Kelly Ye sometimes prefers remote work, she believes that in-person labs are more educational than virtual labs.

“You learn a lot solely from labs,” Ye said. “I thought the online lab experience for most of COVID was awful.” 

Chemistry Lab Manager Doug Love offered some further insight.

“Colleges can’t be accredited and have labs online,” Love said. “Jobs in natural sciences basically require being in person.”

As the pandemic has illustrated, many job roles can be productive while working remotely.

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The students of Alex Mullaney’s Data and Multimedia Journalism class in January 2022. Screenshot by Xian Ke

The San Francisco Standard released the results of a 1,000-person survey of registered voters in May 2022 with demographics representative of the SF population. This survey showed that while working in-person was the norm for most employees in 2019, these days most employees prefer a remote component to their work.

 

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Based on survey data from The San Francisco Standard Voter Poll of 1,000 employed respondents. Visual by Xian Ke

Zach Lam is the Assistant Director of City College’s Strong Workforce Program, and also works with his Career Services team of six. His team assists students in discovering job roles that fit their interests and personality traits, and can be reached at careerservices@ccsf.edu. In May 2022, Nhi Tran of the Healthcare Sector organized a virtual career fair with employer presentations, and Margaret Potts of the Business, Management & Entrepreneurship sector helped organize an online Startup Pitch Competition.

“With remote work, people can balance their lives a little more easily, but they also miss out on connection with their colleagues,” observed Lam on a Zoom call. “Not everybody has the same comfort level with remote or in-person work.” For Lam, this question is just one of many job factors that students will have to consider and ask about during the interview process – and preferences might change over time as people’s lives evolve.

As a colorful anecdote, Lam shared an example of a healthcare student who discovers that they faint at the sight of blood. The Career Services team might then guide the student toward radiology, a healthcare role that doesn’t require interacting with blood.

What will the future of work entail for City College students? “I don’t think we’re going back to 2019,” Lam predicted. “I think we’ll end up with a variety.”

This article was produced for JOUR 35: Data and Multimedia Journalism Spring 2022 semester with guidance from instructor Alex Mullaney and editing from The Guardsman staff.

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