COVID-19 has meant that remote learning dominates discussions surrounding education at all levels, particularly higher education. There’s a widespread sentiment that the on-campus experience that students around the world have cherished for centuries is not only dramatically different during the pandemic, but could be permanently altered.
On a personal level, I don’t seem to fit the profile of a student who’d seamlessly transition to a remote learning environment. I grew up in a haredi community, with no computer and sparse access to technology in general. Yet today, while living in the haredi hub of Lakewood, I’m enrolled in an academic institution located nearly 6,000 miles away. How did this happen?
As a computer science student in the Jerusalem College of Technology’s (JCT) International Program in English, I spent my first two years of college studying at the school’s campus in Israel, but then returned home to Lakewood due to the pandemic. My current experience as a third-year student surely puts the “distance” in distance learning, but JCT has ensured a smooth transition to the so-called new normal.
My lectures are recorded, allowing me to review material that felt complex during the online lecture in real time. Remote learning also enables me to spend more time with my family, something I missed when I was studying in Israel.
In fact, JCT swiftly and proactively adapted to the unprecedented conditions that were brought on by the pandemic. Online learning officially commenced at the college on March 15, 2020, following the Israeli government’s closure of all college and university campuses. Most of JCT’s virtual courses that include live lectures were moved to Zoom. In addition, JCT instructors started using the versatile Moodle interface (JCT’s online academic platform) to upload and disseminate videos, PowerPoint presentations, assignments and other materials.
This isn’t to say that the transition to remote learning has been perfect, particularly given the time difference between Lakewood and Jerusalem. Exams administered in the morning in Israel occur for me in the middle of the night, and I have limited hours to work on group projects with Israel-based students. JCT has been highly accommodating on both counts, routinely giving me the opportunity to take exams at later dates and granting extensions on projects when necessary.
Admittedly, pausing the on-campus experience has left a void. During my first two years of college in Jerusalem, it was extremely helpful to interact with so many students. During the lunch break, we’d sit together and discuss difficult concepts from our studies. We bonded over Shabbat. From social life to the dorm accommodations to the dining options to the overall support system, I’m longing for the campus experience, but getting by without it.
What brought me to JCT in the first place? When I arrived in Israel, I spent three months studying at Aish HaTorah and finished the year at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. Then I moved to an apartment in the Nachlaot neighborhood and became an assistant chef in an Israeli yeshiva, Be’er Yehuda. It was then that I came to realize I wanted to expand my purpose in life. I sensed that I was hitting a plateau and sought a more career-oriented future. Having graduated high school as the valedictorian in my class, I was motivated to reach higher. At the start of my third year in Israel, I joined JCT.
I considered fields such as psychology and business, but felt a rush of excitement when my rabbi suggested computer science. Looking around Israel and its thriving high-tech industry, I knew that if I could excel in computer science, I’d be set up for professional success. JCT’s International Program is more affordable ($3,800 per year) than comparable higher education options in the U.S. and other international programs in Israel, while the level of education is superior to its competitors. Since I wanted to avoid student-loan debt, the opportunity to obtain a prestigious computer science degree at an attainable cost was too good to pass up.
Still, how was someone who didn’t grow up with a computer going to pursue a career in computer science? Indeed, it was a whole new world.
I remember my first day at JCT like it was yesterday. I was lost while my computer science professor lectured uninterrupted for several hours at a fast pace. Yet I was determined to give computer science my best effort, and with the support of nurturing professors and fellow students, my hard work was validated with high scores on exams. My prior experience in yeshiva helped tremendously, instilling within me skills like critical thinking, attentiveness and detailed note-taking that translate to successfully navigating college academics.
Today, I’m unsure of my plans to return to Israel. But with a high-quality remote learning experience and a respected computer science degree upon graduation, I’m confident about a promising future.
Nati Yudkowsky, a native of Melbourne, Australia, who currently lives in Lakewood, is a third-year computer science student in the Jerusalem College of Technology’s International Program in English.