Suzy Jane Gabelmann

Author Suzy Jane Gabelmann and her two children all attend separate virtual classes together in their kitchen.

Most mornings, my kids and I sit tucked away at our kitchen table, in a makeshift classroom. Pictures of sight words and classroom art projects hang on the wall, among microbiology flow charts and post-it notes of chemistry normal values. A white board with the day’s schedule sits forgotten against the back door, my final attempt to bring some normalcy to my kids’ lives. I log into my virtual classroom, and while I wait for the lecture to begin, I make breakfast. Zoom meetings for my kids’ classes start shortly after my lectures, and I summon them over, hoping that they at least brushed their hair. Then we sit, the three of us, listening and learning.

I started the Medical Laboratory Technician Program at Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) a year ago, and never could I have imagined this is how my academic journey would pan out. As a mom of a seven- and five-year-old, going to school full time and working two jobs, finding balance has always been tricky. Add a global pandemic to the mix, and life only became crazier. Distance learning has brought both challenge and reward to my life and taught me a great deal about myself.

A New Way of Learning

It is the new normal, and to say distance learning is an adjustment would be an understatement. I feel this is especially true for those of us pursuing a career in the medical field. As developing laboratory professionals, it is imperative that we get as much training in the student lab as possible. When shutdowns began last March, my classmates and I had to adapt to an entirely new way of learning. We were halfway through the semester, went on spring break, and never went back to campus. Within two weeks we were participating in full time distance learning for lectures and labs. It was surreal.

I remember the first live lecture I logged into, watching the names of every single one of my classmates pop up. We all made it. I was relieved and comforted in that little bit of familiarity. Week after week, we showed up, cheering each other on. No one gave up. Last semester, we learned how to interpret a TSI slant and when to perform a catalase test. We learned about blood components, their preparation, and what happens during a massive transfusion protocol. We watched a microscopic examination of urine, and we will never forget that ammonium biurate crystals look like horned apples. Through interactive lectures we were able to stay connected, ask questions, and learn the material we needed to master. Anyone can read a book or Google information. But it is not the same as having a network of professors and fellow students who are all available to help and support each other.

“Each day gets a little easier, as we learn to navigate. Virtual instruction has brought my classmates and me closer, and we continue to motivate and check in on each other.”

Of course, worry and doubt set in. For many weeks, it was unknown whether we would be able to attend our clinical rotation over the summer. Would we be returning to on-campus labs in the fall? How could I possibly make it through another rigorous semester, doing solely distance learning? How would I juggle everything in my life, with a looming global crisis? Despite the doubts I had about myself, I never once felt I was not receiving the education I intended to get. The faculty and staff of the MLT program have worked miracles. Our professors had to learn how to teach us in a completely different way, all within two weeks. I can only imagine the sheer amount of effort and planning it took to present material to my classmates and me in a concise yet thorough manner. It is clear that teaching the future medical laboratory technicians is not just a job, it is a passion. I am so grateful for all that our professors do, now more than ever. I feel this passion not only from my professors, but from my fellow students as well. Without it, distance learning would never have been successful.

Survival Mode and a Whole Lot of Drive

It has not been easy. In fact, distance learning has been the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my college years. Frankly, my home environment is not the most conducive learning space. I have two little people who constantly need me, and who simply do not understand why I am physically home, but not in a present state of mind. That has been the most difficult obstacle for me to overcome both as a parent and a student. On-campus lectures and labs were my designated time to be “just a student.” I could focus solely on school. Remote learning has required me to be a parent, student, and homeschool instructor all at the same time. Somehow, I can juggle it all. I think it takes a little bit of survival mode, and a whole lot of drive.

I have had to listen to lectures on my drive to and from school or work, my only moments of solitude. If I put the volume on my phone down extremely low, I can listen to lesson recordings while I put my kids to bed, and the noise will not wake them. I have had to leave live meetings to make sure my son is writing the number four correctly, and to help my daughter sound out a word. But life has a funny way of working out. Each day gets a little easier, as we learn to navigate. Virtual instruction has brought my classmates and me closer, and we continue to motivate and check in on each other. After some uncertainty about attending clinical rotations due to restrictions, we were all able to go. I had the most amazing time those four weeks. Our student labs are back on campus, allowing us ample time to learn techniques and assays. Balance is slowly forming.

A few weeks ago, I rushed home from a student lab, to be on time for my microbiology lecture. I was stressed, tired, and still had not printed the PowerPoints needed for that lesson. As I listened to the material being presented in our virtual classroom, I noticed my daughter rummaging through the playroom. Another mess, I assumed. The lecture wrapped up and my daughter approached me, clutching something across her chest. It was her toy microscope that she had received for Christmas. “Mama, I want to do science just like you. Can we look at slides together?” I had not realized that she was listening to the lectures for the past few months. I am aware now of the positive impact distance learning has had. That afternoon I paused for the first time in a long time, and we looked at slides under her scope.

The educational experience is vastly different for all of us now. For me, it means trying to comprehend the coagulation cascade, while my son and 20 other kindergarteners belt out the ABCs two feet away. Chaos, yes. But this is my journey, and I would not have it any other way.

Suzy Jane Gabelmann is a student in the MLT Program at the Community College of Rhode Island.