Learning Together: Online Learning and Beyond

By John P. Deever


San José State University graduate student Janeth Canseco and her two apartment roommates decided they better spend a little extra money for the better quality Wifi.

In the Connie L. Lurie College of Education, Canseco takes five classes and performs two internships, one where she counsels 45 high school students from Del Mar High School and the other where she assists in presentations and observes counselors at Hoover Middle School—meeting with them over the Internet. To pay the bills, she’s a teacher assistant at SJSU’s Associated Students Child Development Center (CDC).

Learning, working, and gazing up that career ladder, trying to choose a foothold—has it ever been harder to do than right now, during a pandemic?

For Canseco, ’19 Psychology, graduate school seemed a good path. She was dubious about it at first, she says. “My advisers and mentors saw potential in me and helped me to apply. Once I got in, it was still very surreal. I didn’t believe it was actually happening. I am a first generation student and the first from my family to attend graduate school.”

At her internships—that is, in her apartment, “at” the high school and middle school via Zoom—she sits in on meetings with experienced counselors, helps make PowerPoint presentations, and watches guidance counselors interact with kids and perform their daily tasks. For her caseload of schoolchildren, she’s listening and helping students a few years younger than her. As they struggle to find ways to cope and succeed in life under lockdown, perhaps they will see themselves in her. “I’m experiencing it at the same time as a student,” she says.

At the CDC, however, Canseco works in person—caring for babies, preschoolers and schoolchildren. Her job learning in person about child development is actually a respite from online classwork and guidance counselor duties. “Leaving my apartment and going to work is something great for me,” she explained, “because it gives me that transition to work mode.

Studying, working and interning all at once during a pandemic is a lot, Canseco says. “Even when I’m stressed out, I feel like doing an outdoor run, or lifting weights. Self-care, some type of exercise, helps me feel better and stronger.” She adheres to routines and is mindful when transitioning between different responsibilities. “It helps me remain sane and get through this online learning.”

Lining Up Internships—Remotely

Like many other offices, the Career Center was forced to shift to helping people over the Internet, guiding students remotely. However, several years’ experience designing online tools has them ready to prepare students who must transition from college to whatever’s next for them.

Director of the Career Center Catherine Voss Plaxton says her team was relatively well-positioned to handle the pivot to remote. “We really think about how to build in convenience to our services, so we had already been in this mindset. Three or four years ago we redesigned our focus. We’ve seen success with students who found us and came in to visit, but we recognized that we weren’t reaching every student as effectively as we’d like to. We realigned all the work we do with a singular focus on making sure every student is career ready and prepared for lifelong career success.”

Even before the pandemic, Voss Plaxton says, some students might struggle to make campus appointments, “or have five minutes to learn something in between leaving campus and going to work.” Therefore, the Career Center changed its approach to how it does career education. “That became incredibly important in this period where everything’s virtual,” she says.

The Career Center redesigned its website to be a “learning environment, more than a place where information was catalogued,” she says. “We really thought about how to design it around student needs, make it simpler to navigate, and make it possible for a student—if they logged in at 10 p.m. at night—to find enough of what they needed to be ready for any situation.”

Despite the almost empty campus, Career Center resources are in demand and getting heavy use. Appointments with career counselors were up 20 percent this semester. Over 1,100 students completed career assessments this fall using a planning tool called Focus2. A tool called VMock reviews resumes, comparing them to industry standards and offering instant feedback. “Last year, over 3,000 students used that tool,” she says. Virtual career fairs have happened since 2016. “So this year, when we converted our Leadership and Career Conference, which is focused on helping students build experience in careers of interest, we were ready. We served over 240 students—focused on sophomores and juniors primarily, helping them get ready for internship searches.”

“My advisers and mentors saw potential in me and helped me to apply. I am a first generation student and the first from my family to attend graduate school.”
—Janeth Canseco

It’s no secret that students eagerly seek good internships—but in a pandemic … how? Junior Patricia Martinez, a transfer student in her first semester at SJSU, recently landed a coveted one—an internship at Cisco Systems headquarters. The process was stressful and challenging, she says, but she did her homework and went in extremely prepared.

A business administration major concentrating in marketing, Martinez grew up in South San Francisco, attended community college and then St. Mary’s—but her heart has belonged to San José State “since high school,” she says. Fall 2020 was her first official SJSU experience—but probably not how she pictured it back in high school two years ago.

Going to college entirely online has taken “a little bit of getting used to,” she says. “Not being able to be on campus is really hard.” Previously, Martinez had toured campus. She liked what she saw, and imagined meeting peers and experiencing dorm life. “San José State is near a bunch of cool places. I definitely wanted to be able to experience meeting up with friends after class, hanging out on the lawn—all of that.” Attending community college from home saved her money, and then moving to St. Mary’s had seemed a good fit. However, after starting there last January, she spent only two months in its dorms before pandemic restrictions sent her packing—back home to her parents. “I barely got to experience my freedom and campus life,” she says.

For Martinez, then, the remote learning experience at SJSU meant adjustments. This autumn she threw herself into the Career Center’s virtual offerings. It was a way to feel she was moving forward when other basic facets of college life were closed off to her. Through SJSU’s peer mentoring program, she connected with a mentor every two weeks.

Martinez networked with whomever she could find—at Silicon Valley companies and faraway ones too. “I was able to go to events for companies in New York and all over the place,” she says. She also met with Career Counselor Larissa Bates, through Zoom. “Larissa reviewed my resume and cover letter, and then she also came to my business workshop class to talk about preparing for an interview. I tried to use some of the points she brought up, and it was really useful.”

Martinez has long dreamed of making her entrance into Silicon Valley, she says. “I’ve always been into tech. When I was in high school, I used to tour companies like Google, Twitter, Square. I really liked everything that they had to offer. And I definitely loved the fully stocked kitchen!” Martinez says her father works near Twitter headquarters, which she passed by whenever she visited his office. Martinez also understood that thousands of Bay Area young people share that same dream. For the past two years, she’s been doing informational interviews, interning at startups, and researching companies like Cisco in detail. “That’s how I found that I wanted to do marketing.” That’s also the preparation and dedication Cisco was looking for in its interns. “During the interview, I felt relaxed because I had studied for it,” she says.

Two days later, Martinez heard back from Cisco with an offer. “When I hung up with the recruiter I started celebrating,” she says. Shouts of joy—triumph! And yet … just like the five SJSU classes she’s taking, the moment remained circumscribed within the walls of her home.

The Cisco internship starts this coming summer. Martinez hopes to get to work there in person.

Fear Around the Transition

Canseco—the grad student and guidance counselor in training—decided as an undergrad what she wanted to be: a shepherd, of sorts. “My junior year and senior year I worked with two different programs, mentoring others,” Canseco says. “I was always someone who loved to help people. Where can I put that into a career? Mentoring really opened my eyes.” Canseco enjoyed helping college students navigate their first year at San José State. “I was making sure they knew what resources there were. If they had any issues or wanted to talk, I was there.”

She found assisting others personally rewarding. “As challenging as it was, I really enjoyed hearing students say, ‘Thank you for not giving up on me,’ or ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you.’ Those words made me think: I can see this as a career. Helping students, guiding them, maybe in a K-12 setting or maybe university. Those moments where you make an impact in someone’s life make you feel great.”

Voss Plaxton says, “Across the board we’ve seen a deeper interest in some of the ‘common good’ careers that exist out there. A little more focused on public service, on education pathways.”

Canseco doesn’t minimize how difficult this year has been. “I don’t want people to think it was something easy for me, because it really wasn’t in the beginning. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows to go from in person to online. But throughout the shelter in place, I learned how to adjust in different ways, week by week, month by month. You have to make sure you practice self care and create a routine. I do the normal Zoom calls with my friends. We’ve been trying to take this pandemic seriously, so we just mainly stay over Zoom. We’re all just praying to spend some time next year seeing each other.”

A Fresh Mind, Open to Learn

“University life involves connectedness, that sense of belonging, support and appreciation from one another,” Canseco said in a Lurie College video she made in May to help students feel encouraged. “All these factors contribute so much to an individual’s college journey. Although we acknowledge that this is a tough time, we know that we are not going to get through this alone. We are going to come out more resilient. I couldn’t have been the person that I am and seen the growth in myself without the help of my peers and professors.”

As an apprentice guidance counselor, she’s gaining vital experience working remotely with students who themselves are tapping into reserves of resilience. “It can be something positive in looking for jobs. Maybe that can be something to the schools—something of me they can use.”

And if Voss Plaxton is right, a hiring rebound is out there on the horizon. “Once we start to come out of this recovery,” she says, “you’ll see a number of employers just frantically racing to find talent. Because there have been retirements, a lot of displaced workers for a period of time. But in order to grow and be relevant for the future economy, you need to have future talent. I spend a lot of time looking at trends in future work and the economy. I listen to a lot of predictions about how long it will be before we reach a level of stability with respect to consumer confidence and the pandemic. If we listen to experts, let’s say within the next year and a half we get a vaccine implemented. There will be a time coming out of this period where we can’t grow fast enough.”

Looking ahead to Cisco, Martinez is mainly eager to get to work. “I’m just coming in with a fresh mind, open to learn, ready to make new connections at the company and talk to the professionals there to learn about what they did to get to work at a successful company and the path they took.”


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