All Aboard the Roller Coaster of Online Learning and COVID-19

Second year PA student, Samantha Tambunan, shares about her experience with online learning.

On our first day of classes back in August 2019, my classmates and I handed over our tickets to ride the roller coaster that is PA school. We buckled our seatbelts, held on tight, and zoomed right off into the distance. Along we went, up then down, swerving left then right. Block 4 came along, and the roller coaster suddenly came to a screeching halt. A switch in wires. A malfunction. COVID-19.

COVID-19 brought a wave of uncertainty for me and my classmates. How will we learn? How will we practice our clinical skills? Is online PA school even possible? We wanted the answers to these questions, but nobody had them. The situation was new to us all, both faculty and students. With time, our questions would be answered one by one.

Right away, our program made transitioning to virtual curriculum its top priority. They worked endlessly to provide us with high quality education and a seamless online experience. Live classes continued to be held virtually without missing a beat. Our faculty even made it possible to have a SIM lab virtually and our OSCEs became virtual telehealth visits. How fitting given the direction that healthcare is heading!

The opportunity to learn in your PJs might sound like a positive perk of online learning. While there is some truth to that (well, maybe a lot of truth), there are two sides to the coin. To PA students, COVID-19 presented a new and different challenge. Time management, productivity, and independent learning came to the forefront of our learning experience. It became more important than ever to build a study schedule and stick to it. There was no room to fall behind and it was up to us to hold ourselves accountable for our learning.

I knew this was going to be a different kind of challenge—one that would require way more stamina than any challenge I had faced before. As a chronic preparer, I prepped myself to mentally delete any kind of at-home distraction, or at least try to. The temptation to watch my favorite Netflix show, get lost reading New York Times articles, or have hour-long phone conversations with friends was all there waiting for me. As much as I mentally prepared myself to dodge these distractions, never did I expect that they would ultimately play an integral role in my virtual learning success.

The minute our virtual curriculum began, I hit the ground running. My days were dedicated to my studies and I did not want to waste a single minute. However, I quickly learned that virtual learning was a marathon, not a sprint. A few weeks into online learning, I began to feel tired and could not catch my breath. I started to lose my fire and did not understand why. It was then when I realized that I would not make it to the finish line without pacing myself and better balancing my time. Cue the so-called “distractions”!

The hobbies that I had so promptly pushed away ultimately became the crux of my survival throughout online PA school, and—quarantine, for that matter. I began to lean on my hobbies outside of school so that I could pace my learning. I even discovered new interests along the way. Whether it was jogging through the neighborhood or completing a 1,000-piece puzzle, I strategically planted these small activities into my study schedule. I began to truly cherish those small moments where I could let my brain “just be.” These moments made going back to my studies much easier and even more productive!

As the roller coaster begins to pick up speed and our class moves on to our clinical year—and as we continue to battle COVID-19—I hope to continue integrating these moments of self-care into each day. It is now more important than ever for us to take care of ourselves both physically and mentally. Each day is a gift, so continue to do the things you love while accomplishing your dreams!

Samantha Tambunan, PA-S2