Campus Life

Students keep learning communities alive virtually

A screenshot of the Monday afternoon Zoom Coffee Break for graduate students. Pictured: (top row left to right) Mikael Hiestand, Mark Simpson, Peter Backhaus, (bottom row left to right) Connor Chapman, Megan Baumann and Sara Cavallo. Photo: Mark Simpson. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The halls and classrooms of Walker Building are empty and silent but undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Geography are finding ways to connect and support each other during remote learning. The students are holding virtual meetings to provide both academic and social support.

The GIS coalition held a virtual meeting on Friday, March 27, using Zoom, and the graduate students have organized several virtual spaces: Monday afternoon Zoom Coffee Break, Zoom Wednesday Club and the Bad Latitudes Chat Channel on Microsoft Teams.

"Virtual spaces have made it possible for the undergraduate community of geography to come together and support each other's learning,” said GIS coalition secretary Harman Singh. “I have noticed that more students are reaching out to each other in general regarding class material, internship openings, etc.”

Singh said the purpose of the GIS coalition meeting was to keep the community bond strong. Undergraduate adviser Jodi Vender also participated in the meeting so she could answer any questions students had about course scheduling for the fall 2020 semester.

“I felt that by discussing our daily routines it relieved some feelings of stress and everyone was able to share ideas on how to stay focused at home,” Singh said. “We ended the meeting by discussing how GIS software is vital during this pandemic. Most of us have been following different websites such as ESRI or The New York Times to track new statistics and maps that are being produced. This crisis is a great example of how applicable our major is. Maps not only tell stories but also save lives.”

For graduate students also taking classes, teaching or conducting research remotely, the department graduate student representatives, or “grad reps,” have organized several virtual spaces each week to stay in touch. 

“Participation has been robust, mirroring turnout in person for the same or similar events. For example, we had six online for Wednesday Club, which is pretty typical for our usual gatherings downtown,” said Ruchi Patel, who is serving as a graduate student representative this year. “The idea for virtual spaces came from a couple of folks, namely Mark Simpson, Sara Cavallo and me. As a grad rep, I took lead on organizing with the help of Mark and Sara to set up the various channels.”

“The real catalyst was sitting at home on Wednesday and realizing it had been a couple weeks since I communicated with someone outside my lab group,” Simpson said. “It occurred to me that as graduate students we trade a lot of knowledge in informal ways, and a lot of that had been taken away due to the current situation. So, I pitched the idea to the grad reps and I created a Microsoft Teams for grads to go along with the Zoom activities.”

Graduate students interested in joining the virtual communities can contact the grad reps for more information. Patel said the grad reps continue to serve as a conduit to department leadership for students’ questions or concerns.

'We Are' stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment — and we want to hear your “We Are” stories. 

Visit to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. We are! 

Last Updated April 23, 2020