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As Virtual Learning Continues, Some Families Struggle With Sharing Tech


The coronavirus has forced about one-third of all colleges to teach remotely. So that means in a lot of cases, classrooms are being replaced by childhood bedrooms or kitchen tables. NPR's Elissa Nadworny is on a road trip, and she sent us this profile of a student who's doing college from home.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The beginning of the semester isn't starting as Zia Huballah had hoped. She's a junior at Emory University. The school announced about a month ago they'd be mostly online.

ZIA HUBALLAH: There are times where I feel, like, uninspired. Like, especially like last semester. I was like, this sucks; I hate this.

NADWORNY: Zia is quiet and has a very dry sense of humor. And her course of study is intense.

HUBALLAH: I'm studying neuroscience and behavioral biology. And I'm double majoring in French. And I'm pre-med. I said that where it sounded like a lot, but it is a lot.

NADWORNY: She's interested in being an OB-GYN or working in women's health.

HUBALLAH: When I go to the doctor and seeing, like, Black women in medicine makes me more comfortable when I can relate to my doctor.

NADWORNY: Zia and her family live on a cul-de-sac outside Atlanta. Her younger brother is in high school. Her dad works in IT. She, like many college students, had a taste of online college last spring. For her, there was an extra challenge. Several members of the family needed to use the same laptop.

HUBALLAH: And my brother and my dad and I, we all kind of shared one laptop. He's working on it right now. That's why it has the stickers on the back 'cause it was (laughter) - 'cause that's the one that I had taken to school with me.

NADWORNY: On the day she had a chemistry lab, if she couldn't finish her homework by the time her dad's evening shift started, she'd complete it on her phone. There is a laptop loaner program at Emory, but Zia didn't apply.

HUBALLAH: I didn't 'cause I was like, there are people who need the resources more than I do.

NADWORNY: Many nights, she's hunkered down at the dining room table next to her dad. They both do their work from there, often at the same time.


HUBALLAH: (Speaking French).

NADWORNY: One day she was giving a presentation in French.

IBRAHIM: I never know she spoke French.

NADWORNY: Her dad Ibrahim (ph) was so delighted, he started recording a video.


HUBALLAH: (Speaking French).

NADWORNY: Zia got flustered.

HUBALLAH: 'Cause you distracted me from what I was trying to say - so then I couldn't think of the words anymore (laughter).

NADWORNY: The plus side of being home for school means her family is growing much closer. They now have movie nights together, and she's spending a lot of time with her dad.

IBRAHIM: Oh, she's very expensive (laughter). It's a pleasure to have her. She's always pleasant. She does not bother you for anything.

HUBALLAH: Are you serious?



NADWORNY: She does miss her friends, though. Now her social life is mostly group chats. She's in a lot of them.

HUBALLAH: It's like six or seven group chats 'cause I have Twitter group chats, and then I have Instagram group chats. So I don't really feel lonely. It's just, like, I get bored just being in my room all the time.

NADWORNY: We head up to her childhood bedroom. The door is covered in hand-painted signs, Zia spelled out in big block letters from when she was young. She's just added a fresh coat of paint...

HUBALLAH: ...Kind of like a light rose pink, very pale pink.

NADWORNY: ...And a desk and a chair she found secondhand - finally, a quiet place to study and work.

HUBALLAH: So this was, like, my way of moving in, just like making it feel more like me.

NADWORNY: On top of that desk, a recent arrival - a new laptop. She used a housing refund from financial aid for a personal computer. She picks it up to test it out. She's never opened it before.

HUBALLAH: Oh, yeah. It does work. I don't know the password (laughter).

NADWORNY: Based on the classes she's taking, figuring out that password will be one of the easier things she does this semester.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Dacula, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO'S "A COUPLE SWIM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.