Student Perspective: Starting School in the “New Normal”

Khawaja Taha Abbas, is an MBA student who started at UIC Business during the pandemic and is adjusting to the one-of-a-kind virtual experience from his home country. MBA students in particular are used to receiving a great deal of hands-on experience like networking and social events, in-class discussions, case study meetings and some great peer learning opportunities. While Khawaja would have loved to start his educational experience by interacting directly with his peers and professors, he says “Everyone at UIC Business is working towards making the virtual experience as comfortable as possible. And so far it has been almost like the 'old normal.' "

Welcome to UIC (virtually!). How has your semester been so far? Are you taking any classes that meet in person this semester?
Thank you for this virtually warm welcome! As with all new beginnings, the start of my first semester has had its ups and downs. As a UIC Global MBA student, I was worried about adjusting to an entirely new classroom environment. Fortunately, I’ve been able to acclimate smoothly with the help and support of various departments at UIC, including the faculty. The lack of physical presence has been the biggest barrier to connect with anyone. However, everyone at UIC is working towards making the virtual experience as comfortable as possible. 

Can you give us a brief snapshot of your life in the past 6 months?
For the past two and a half years, I have been working as an Assistant Brand Manager at the fifth largest bank - Bank Alfalah - in Pakistan. Six months ago, I was trying to make a life-altering decision. I took about a month to make the final decision and it was all worth it. Since then, I have been working on the onboarding and orientation process of academic life, while bidding farewell to my full-time job.

Even though you don’t meet with your classmates and faculty in person, tell us about being connected virtually. What is the “new normal” student experience for you in class and what are the advantages or disadvantages of this new experience?
Classes over Zoom took some time to get used to, but it really is the “new normal” now and I am trying my best to adapt. The faculty has been really accommodating and helpful in this regard. The teachers make sure everyone on Zoom participates in the lectures and are able to understand everything despite any technical difficulties. Even the administration and counselors have been super helpful in making the online experience feel seamless. Making friends was already a tad bit difficult due to the cultural and language barriers, but the physical barrier has made this problem even worse, especially for students who are introverted. However, breakout rooms on Zoom during lectures help overcome this barrier to some extent, since students get to interact, which helps break down the physical, cultural and language barriers to a certain degree. Furthermore, the virtual experience allows students to study from the comfort of their homes, or wherever it is convenient for them. As someone studying virtually from another country, an added advantage is saving up on commuting and accommodation costs, among other savings.

What has been that one unexpected gain for you in this “new normal” virtual world and how has it helped you, personally?
Due to the sudden nature of this global pandemic and the unanticipated changes that it brought in its wake, one thing I learned was to expect the unexpected. This taught me to be ready for unforeseen circumstances and how to deal with them without anxiety getting the best of me. The unpredictability of this pandemic has trained me to be on my toes and to not panic when faced with such scenarios. I am now more prepared than ever to step out of my comfort zone and find a “new normal” in almost any situation.

What advice do you want to share with the students who are planning to begin classes in 2021?  How should they prepare to face the changing nature of the pandemic and their academics?
This global pandemic has made us realize the importance of online communication and remote learning, since it might remain a reality for many of us in the near future. Students who are not tech savvy should step up their game and really spend time to learn how to handle online situations in order to stay in line with changing educational modes. For students planning to begin classes in 2021, my advice would be to stay resolute with their goals and familiarize themselves as best as possible to this unfamiliar order of things.

What are the measures you have taken to help stay connected to all the campus initiatives, despite not being on campus physically? 
One of the many great things at UIC includes the student organizations, which allow international students to participate and feel at home with other students. I actively partake in student activities and organizations. I am an Executive Committee Member on the Graduate Student Council and I am also a part of the “Trade Winds” program by the Office of International Services.

Also, I have been actively seeking opportunities for a remote part-time job or internship so that I can gain experience before I apply for an on-campus job next semester. Through this, I have learned that reaching out to people is almost always worth the risk, since it helps you build connections. So, for me, networking has been the essential measure to stay connected and take part in campus initiatives.

Lastly, do you think going virtual has helped you learn a few skills which are now inevitably going to survive in the “new normal”?
Effective communication and presentation is one major skill I have learned and improved on. The ability to effectively communicate virtually is going to be more valued than ever in the new “normal world”.

Another skill I have learned is time management. Going virtual caused an imbalance between the time I spent working/studying, and the time I devoted to my personal/social life. With our homes becoming the new classrooms and offices, we forget to log off from the virtual world to take a break. However, I learned to manage my time effectively and prioritize my mental and physical health. I hope whoever reads this realizes that time management is a skill that can help you both personally and professionally in this “new normal”.

Thank you Khawaja for choosing UIC Business and we hope to see you on campus soon! We wish you all the very best on your new journey and may you achieve your dreams to the fullest. To connect with Khawaja, you can send him an email at kabbas3@uic.edu or connect on LinkedIn.