The New Student Experience


Cornerstone academic programs look different in the age of COVID-19.


Third-year Beatrice Chao had her SESP practicum all planned out. After all, the practicum was one of the main reasons she decided to come to Northwestern University and study social policy in the first place. Chao planned to go to Washington, D.C., to work in government or at a think tank this summer.

Illustrated image of city monuments inside a laptop screen

Then the pandemic struck, and it seemed unlikely that she could follow her original arrangements. Chao ended up reworking her entire plan and completed her practicum in her home country of Singapore this past Fall Quarter.

When Northwestern’s classes moved online, so did other academic programs, like study abroad, SESP’s practicum and Medill’s Journalism Residency. Three quarters later, remote programming has become an indefinite replacement for these highly anticipated experiences. The SESP curriculum requires its third-years to spend one quarter at an academic internship in San Francisco or Washington, D.C. and enroll in a concurrent seminar for hands- on learning.

When the University went remote, SESP relaxed its requirements. Internship sites were no longer limited to certain cities. Students could choose to reschedule their practicum, complete it remotely or enroll in substitute SESP classes to fulfill the practicum requirement. But Chao said that most of her peers still chose to complete their practicum, even remotely, because they found it to be a good alternative to online classes.

“Though it’s challenging to do in a pandemic, people still look forward to it,” Chao says. “The practicum is a draw of the SESP program.

Chao was able to intern in-person at Singapore’s Ministry of Health. She says she loved working at her site and continued to work there even after her practicum ended. Still, she had hoped to work in a different country than her own.

“It [would have been] really cool to be able to look at social policy from the lens of a different government, a different country,” Chao says. “So I was kind of bummed that it didn’t end up happening.”

Studying in another country was an experience Weinberg third-year Sarah Kim knew she wanted even before coming to Northwestern. It’s one of the reasons she chose Global Health as her adjunct major.

One requirement to earn a Global Health major is to participate in an international public health experience. But when the pandemic began, all study abroad programs were put on hold. Kim was set to study public health in Denmark in Fall Quarter of 2020. Then, the program was postponed to the fall of 2021, and now Kim says she’s unsure if it will still happen.

Though study abroad is no longer a requirement for Global Health, Kim says she’s holding out hope that it will return before she graduates. Kim says that while she enjoys the Global Health classes she’s taking, she still feels like she’s missing a component of her major.

“Without the study abroad aspect, it loses some of its global- ness. I am learning a lot about the different histories and health systems around the world, but I think seeing for myself, hearing from people who are from other countries explaining what their global health systems look like would be very helpful,” Kim says.

On the other hand, Wilson Chapman, a Medill fourth-year, completed his Journalism Residency (JR) remotely during Fall Quarter of 2020 because he realized it was unlikely that internships would be in-person again before he graduated.



Chapman credits the JR program as one of the reasons why he transferred into Medill during his first year at Northwestern. Similar to SESP’s practicum, Medill’s JR program is a required quarter- long academic internship at one of its media partners. Chapman says he liked that the program ensured professional experience and provided an opportunity to network and get professional clips.

Like many programs at Northwestern, Medill’s JR program hit a patch of uncertainty during March and was canceled for Spring Quarter of 2020. When it resumed Fall Quarter, JR was no longer a graduation requirement and was offered mostly remotely. Chapman ended up interning remotely at Discover Magazine.

“Even though it was a good experience, I do think being remote does make the experience a little less meaningful. It makes it a little harder to connect with the people you’re working with,” Chapman says. “A lot of the time, we had maybe one 20-minute Zoom meeting a day, and then I would spend the rest of the day working on my computer in my room, on my own.”

Chapman says having his residency online amplified the feeling of disconnection from Northwestern that he experienced when classes first went remote.

“When I just wasn’t doing any classes and was just doing Zoom internship, it felt like I wasn’t a student. It felt like I had already graduated,” Chapman says.

Chao’s status as an international student added another layer to her disconnection. She says that when she lived in Evanston, she was able to totally immerse herself in the country and culture. Being forced online, however, completely disrupted that immersion.

“It’s disappointing for sure, but it’s hard to say that I feel cheated out of an experience because of the pandemic,” Chao says. “It’s hard to say it’s unfair because I couldn’t offer a fairer alternative, and I think people are trying really hard to make the best of the situation.”

Like many students at Northwestern, Chao feels that her college experience since the pandemic has been a compromise.

“You walk out with less college. That doesn’t mean that you don’t walk out with rich experiences,” Chao says, remembering how much she enjoyed her practicum. “But I feel like less of a college student.”