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My Turn: College students learn about keeping 'grandpa' alive

"OK, our goal is to keep Grandpa alive — and I’m Grandpa," I tell my two Zoom classes before we are finally going to meet on campus.

They give an eyeroll smirk from their little screen tiles. At 73, I’m the actual grandpa of two college-age granddaughters and the approximate age of many of my students’ grandparents. This, I tell them, is much better than being close to their parents’ age because grandparents are the ones who occasionally, unpredictably, give gifts — unlike parents, who more often express disappointment. I’ve got their backs.

I have been a psychology adjunct professor for 32 years at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue. The last time I was in a classroom was first week of March when, like colleges across the country, we moved online.

I teach because of the engagement, energy, humor and optimism that happens in a class of 20-somethings. And there are not many places that a group of 20-year-olds would listen to a 73-year-old. So, I wasn’t sure last March if Zooming was going to be much fun. But maybe, I thought, since we had face-to-face classes in January, February and early March, our connection was strong enough to make online classes productive.

All of my students would sign on to my 9:30 a.m. Monday and Wednesday class from their bedrooms — in fact, many of them were still in bed. One fellow signed on while brushing his teeth. Even my 11 a.m. class still found many in bed. This was early in the pandemic months, and my students were in trouble. They were anxious, and more serious and introspective than usual.

Our twice weekly meetings during lockdown were something I looked forward to, a welcome routine and helpful connection. One student wrote in her final essay, "I’m really going to be sad if come September, St. Joe’s and other colleges are still operating under these conditions." I also ended the spring semester hopeful that the fall would be different.

But come September, most classes at St. Joseph’s were on Zoom; some, like mine, were hybrid (a combination of online and on campus), and a few were totally on campus. One of my classes contained all freshman, and the other was a group dynamics class with 18 students, six of whom I had in class last spring.

I saw a noticeable shift in the attitude of my students: They were less anxious and more annoyed than students in the spring. The pandemic had been going on long enough for them to establish their own routines according to personal risk assessment.

The class before we met on campus was a Zoom lecture discussion on body language with my freshman class. I found out most were from families of huggers, so I told them that when we went on campus, "I know I’m a cute old guy, but resist the urge to hug me."

I divided my classes approximately in half, the largest being 13 students, the same number of open desks in the room. The campus holds so many positive memories that from the moment I stepped out of the car for the first class, my overwhelming emotion was an almost giddy anticipation. It was delightful to meet the students in person. Teaching college in my 70s is sweet even on Zoom, but it does not compare to the teaching and learning experience that happens in a classroom.

Nobody hugged, and one student, being protective of us all, said to his buddy sitting next to him, "Pull up your mask," when it slipped down under his nose.

Gerard Seifert,


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