A Week Terrestrial: The AJO In-Person Summer Program

David Ben Moshe
The Write Place
Published in
5 min readSep 9, 2022
Pexels.com

Tiffany turned and asked me: “Are you OK? It looked like that call was tough?”

I froze. Nothing was O.K. I would never see him again. I had walked out of a learning session to take a call from Eran. It was strange that Eran, the CEO of an organization where my friend was Chairman, was trying to reach me.

So strange that when I saw the email from him with the subject line: “Pls call me asap,” I sent Samuel a WhatsApp message to confirm it was legitimate and they hadn’t been hacked. Samuel didn’t answer, and it was from the correct email address, so being curious I called. I didn’t get through, but when Eran called me back, it instantly became clear:

“We said goodbye to Samuel. He woke up, had a heart attack, and died.”

I don’t remember how I acted. I remember talking to Eran. I remember calling my wife. I remember sending Samuel’s wife a message because it was too late to call. The sun was still up for me in New York, but in Israel, it was the middle of the night. I felt like I was acting normal while I did all this, and no one could see the hole I felt inside.

But something in my actions tipped her off. Speaking with a tender voice and looking me in the eyes, she asked if I was O.K. I wanted to say everything was fine, but the truth slipped out. “No, I just learned a dear friend died.”

The table fell quiet, slowly people gave condolences, and I said a few words. The space helped lift some of the heaviness from my heart. Naturally, the conversation shifted back to discussing what we were learning at our conference — the first in-person event of our fully online master’s degree program at NYU.

I had just learned the answer to Adam’s question. Adam Penenberg, the program director, had given introductory remarks the previous day. Among those remarks was a question — he told us this question was his response to anyone skeptical of an online master’s degree program: “What can you do in a classroom you can’t do online?”

“What can you do in a classroom you can’t do online?”

That moment I just lived through couldn’t be done online. If I had muted myself and walked off the screen, no one could have turned their head and seen my pain. With the click of the button, I could have transported myself thousands of miles away, safe from prying eyes. When the meeting is online, breaks don’t involve sitting around a table with no specific agenda, chit-chatting, and checking-in. Online a break means everyone disappears to separate rooms scattered across the globe.

But the moment also couldn’t have happened without the online space. Not just because I couldn’t study at NYU while living in Israel if the degree wasn’t online. Friendships that start online rapidly blossom when you share the same physical space. The idea you can create a relationship digitally and grow it physically should be no surprise, considering that we have reached the point where the most common place for heterosexual couples to meet is online.

I disagree with Adam, who said, “the friendships you make online can be just as fulfilling, important, and inspiring as in person.” But online friendships can certainly be fulfilling, important, and inspiring. And they can lay a foundation that allows a physical connection to grow exceptionally fast.

This phenomenon was highlighted when my professor for Reporting the News, Liza Hogan, interviewed Danielle Kwateng, the Executive Editor of Teen Vogue. Watching an interview, taking notes, and asking questions aren’t significantly better in person than they can be online.

But seeing Liza on stage and noticing how she carried herself, and watching her body language felt like deepening a relationship with a friend. All the hours watching her face on Zoom, sending slack messages back and forth, and going through her edits on my work ingrained a sense of her that deepened as she spoke.

Overall the scheduled “events” were the perfect example that all things academic can be done online. My notes from those events look identical to my notes from online classes. I learned just as much. I can receive all the technical information required for a rigorous academic program through a screen.

Of course, not all online programs make an effort to reach this level of quality. A Zoom meeting with a hundred other people or a series of prerecorded lectures is not the same as a three-hour live class with a professor and six other students meeting weekly for a semester. In a setting like that, there is nothing academically that you can’t do online just as well as in person.

A Zoom meeting with a hundred other people or a series of prerecorded lectures is not the same as a three-hour live class with a professor and six other students meeting weekly for a semester.

But online, you miss out on the unplanned events of real life. You never end up with your classmates at 2 am in a small room filled with music, a tray of shots (which magically keep refilling), and a screen displaying lyrics helping you sing together.

And without that experience, you might never have realized that even though pop lyrics often read like meaningless gibberish, the fact that millions of people have the words memorized, and gather to chant them together, gives every word a deep meaning. Anything that provides people from all over the world instant connection the first time they meet is something of significant value.

Anything that provides people from all over the world instant connection the first time they meet is something of significant value.

After a week of building new relationships and enhancing digital ones, we had to say goodbye. There were no official closing remarks in the quartered shipping container converted to a patio on East 4th street, where we had our goodbye brunch. Above us were plastic green vines intertwined with orange Christmas lights dulled by the sun’s light.

Natalie hugged Alma and told her, “I’m going to miss you; I am actually going to miss you.” Julia asked Adam if we could do this again next year, and he enthusiastically replied, “Of course.” But after a wonderful week in-person, learning, and physically connecting with each other, Alma made a statement that we all agreed with: “I don’t regret doing it online.”

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