In the Spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the lives of college students around the world with classes moving online, internships rescinded, and graduation ceremonies cancelled. These developments have affected the career plans and aspirations of a generation of college students. CCWT launched an oral history project to document and amplify student voices and experiences during the pandemic.
Akshat Raika is a Computer Science and Applied Mathematics major at UW-Madison. Akshat discusses his experiences transitioning to online classes and an online work environment. He notes the difficulties companies and job seekers face during this time and addresses the many activities and events that have been canceled due to the pandemic. He ends the interview discussing his own take on the protests and experiences of racism and offers insight into what he believes would be the best course of action and the ways America may begin to live with the virus. This interview with Akshat was conducted by Thaddeus Gue and the transcript was edited and condensed by Alexandra Pasqualone.
Why did you go into this field?
I was always interested in computer science because my family members were working in the industry. My uncle was working at Microsoft since before I was born. I used to come to Seattle to visit him. He would take me to the office. In general, technology is a booming industry and it kind of fascinated me. I started coding when I was in fifth grade, and I liked it so I kept it up. The same with math. I was always decent at math. It is interesting to me, so that is why I am focused on data science.
Were there any specific people or experiences or events that lead you to pursue this major?
When you are exposed to a particular industry early on, it does change your thinking. In our generation, technology has changed so much that it has grown at an exponential rate. Technology itself is inevitable. In everything we do, technology is involved somehow, whether it be using our mobile devices or buying anything. Even in retail stores there is technology that backs it up and that is how the whole world works now.
When you first learned about COVID-19 affecting your courses and programs at UW-Madison what was your reaction?
I think I saw it coming. Before UW-Madison declared it would shift to online instruction, many universities like UC Berkeley already announced they were going online. I think it was the logical decision to make because apart from preventing the spread of the virus, the university would face legal issues related to making the pandemic worse. With that would come lawsuits from students and their parents claiming they were the ones exposing people. I think that online classes were not too bad as a computer science major. I also took an educational psychology class, and they were talking about how homeschooling is going to become more popular in the coming years. If you think about it, we have been following the same educational system that we have used since the 1900s. The teacher delivers the lecture and then you have the testing model, but not everyone is good at taking a test. I think education has moved on from this industrial model of education and maybe through this pandemic people will start moving to a new more personalized education system. While there are downsides to this, I think there are also upsides in terms of advancement in the education system.
Can you describe some of the ways the pandemic has impacted your life as a student?
Yes, I think for the most part it has to do with mobility. When you are in quarantine you must be inside with the same people for a long period of time. That limits the amount of interaction you have with other people over the phone, but an in-person interaction is better than what you have virtually. As a student, I think one of the main cons was that you do not have many people to go to. Everyone is there but they are virtually there. You must set up times with everyone. You cannot just go to office hours. A lot of benefits come from in-person education. Prior to COVID, if I was working on a project, I could go to the computer science lab and there would be other people working on the same project. It is a different environment now. Now, there is a level of hesitation (maybe just for me) to ask for help in certain cases.
Prior to COVID, if I was working on a project, I could go to the computer science lab and there would be other people working on the same project. It is a different environment now.
Some of the tests were so easy when they moved to online quizzes that it just did not seem fair to get an A in the class. In other classes it was much more difficult. You would have to write everything on paper and scan that sheet and send it back to the professor. I think scanning took a lot of time. Sometimes it did not take more than two minutes, other times the lighting was not right etc. You do not want to be in the situation where the person viewing your test cannot read your test and that is where you lose points. I think it could have changed. There should have been a new testing model instead of just giving the exam online, writing it on paper, and submitting it online. There are different ways to test but I think the practical way to do it would be just typing out short answers to start with instead of just having these huge exams around eight pages that you need to scan and then send back. It is not practical when you have other factors involved in the whole test-taking process. It is new for everyone.
Did the pandemic affect your graduation timeline?
No, but for many people it did. One of my friends had to take an extra semester because they did not like the online lectures.
The in-person classes are very different. In engineering they have something called flipped classrooms in which you do exercises in groups of six people and that is how you learn, but now that you do not have that group of six people it is a very different environment to work in and the whole model of flipped classrooms has failed in this situation. I understand the university’s position on this because time was very limited.
Aside from remote learning, have there been any changes to your university-related activities that you or the university have had to change in response to the pandemic?
I think a huge part was going to events. Many were canceled due to the pandemic. Additionally, every event has logistical challenges. I was in an organization last year, the Indian Student Association (ISA), and all of our events had to be canceled because they were all in-person events. We did try to switch to online, but it is not the same level of comfort and there is not much to do when you are at an online event itself. I think that was a huge change. I think it is very important to interact with people because, even now, the pandemic has been going on for four months. You do talk to people every once and a while but the level of interaction changes, even when you are talking and have nothing to talk about, but you are stuck inside. There is not anything happening.
I think a huge part was events. Being in college involves meeting new people and going to events many were canceled due to the pandemic.
Are any of these changes from COVID-19 especially difficult to manage?
I guess the urge of going out for me at least. Also, working out, because you do not have the same equipment when you are at home. Personally, I think I gained a lot of weight when I was quarantining, but now that I am going back to the gym again, I am getting back in shape. You feel lazier because when you are not working out your body is not producing the proper hormones. You always feel sleepy. I think it affects mental health and physical health as well.
What are your future career plans and how has COVID-19 affected those plans going forward?
I want to be working in the industry and an as employee for a couple of years and then I want to start my own company in 10 years or so. I want to know what happens in these big companies and how they got to that level. In technical terms you also need to know how the entire chain of command works. COVID-19 did not change much for me. Well at least I hope it did not. I was able to acquire an internship before the corona virus happened and my internship did not get canceled. So, I was lucky enough to be safe from this, but a lot of my peers lost their internships because they were canceled. AirBnB canceled their internships. It is a huge company, and they canceled their internships. There are various reasons. Hiring itself has slowed down, that is why unemployment is so high right now.
What do you think students need from their university to help them get a job in the middle of this crisis?
There are two things I can think of. I think that the people who are working for the university should be reimbursed by the university if their jobs get canceled. For example, if they are working in the dining hall and their job gets canceled, they should make the same amount of money as if they were working there. The government did release a huge amount of money for emergency funds, but I have no idea where it went. I am sure everyone can access that information. Universities can also help people obtain jobs. There are so many companies where hiring has spiked as I have mentioned, but not every individual knows which companies are hiring more people or less. If career advising at UW Madison could provide a guideline or tips to everyone regarding jobs they should apply to, people may have a better chance. I think that would really help, but the university has never done that. I think there are things that need immediate attention because of the pandemic.
The next set of questions is on protest and race relations. In recent weeks we have seen mass protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Have these events influenced or otherwise affected you in any way?
These events have affected me, but as a person of color I always talk about race. In day-to-day life you face some type of discrimination here and there. You also feel a little out of place in certain places due to the identity you belong to. I think recent events bring back all those feelings, initiating a lot of thoughts in your brain making you want to do something. At some point enough is enough and that is why the protests are going on and I think it was high time to take some action on this. Last semester I took two ethnic studies classes, and I took one more last semester and discussed systemic racism, color blindness, and other topics that need to be taught to everyone. I think that the recent protests initiated a lot of thought and rage related to a lot of things that have been happening in this country. I think there are a lot of political changes that should happen in the country. The President sometimes says things in a way that does not come out right and that enrages a lot of people. There are a lot of things that happen. You just do not feel good about it. You do not want to go out and protest, but I think for me this has been going on for a very long time. If you had a stack of dominos, George Floyd, is just one of them that has been building up for many years. I feel like this just happened at the wrong time because of the pandemic. On one hand I really admire everyone who is going out raising their voices against this systemic racism and all the injustices that have been happening, but on the other hand I also think they are risking their own lives because of COVID-19.
Have you personally encountered racism during your time as a college student? If so and only if you are comfortable doing so could you describe that situation?
Yes. There are so many small incidents. I have not had a particular incident that is super memorable, but these are all micro incidents that just make you feel different. I was shopping in Florida once dressed very casually, in shorts and a t-shirt. I went to this store, it was rather expensive, and I went to buy a purse for my mom and the attendant there did not even acknowledge me. It was rude. I do not know if she thought that it was because of my race or the way I was dressed, but that was one incident that was not right. I was there to buy and not window shop. These companies have policies where you always treat the customer well. This salesperson did not adhere to that.
Thaddeus Gue is a fourth-year Posse Scholar majoring in Interior Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His professional interests are focused on design strategy and user-oriented environments. He is specifically interested in using design thinking and evidence-based research to improve healthcare and commercial environments through quantitative and qualitative means.
Alexandra Pasqualone is a second-year student in a Joint PhD in Educational Policy Studies (EPS) and History. She has spent several years teaching in various capacities, including positions as a high school teacher in NJ, an English teacher at Akdeniz University in Turkey, and a Career Access and College Readiness Coordinator in Philadelphia. She is broadly interested in the historical role of youths as major activists who spurred changes within their communities. As part of her MA thesis at the University of Cincinnati, Alexandra conducted an oral history project attending to the protests of high school students in Philadelphia during the late 1960s and 1970s. Her current research centers around the implications of schools on Arab-American identity formation during the mid-twentieth century.