Finals period brings desperation, and hope, to Howard University computer lab


The iLab at Howard University has an IT problem solving team and includes a spacious room filled with computers for student use. (Bonnie Jo Mount//The Washington Post)
December 13, 2012

Keep calm, Ma’li Alkoukbi told herself. Her eyes were beginning to tear. She stood up and sat down and buried her head in her knees, then stood up again to calm her pacing heart. It was a familiar choreography in this place, at this time of year.

The tables around her were littered with ripped-out pages from spiral notebooks and dog-eared textbooks belonging to more than 200 fellow Howard University students in the school’s “iLab.”

It was only the third night of finals period, and all of her banging on the keyboard did not seem to alter the fact that she was 40-plus pages into a term paper and her computer had just suddenly frozen.

“I’ve been here since 7 a.m.,’’ Alkoukbi exclaimed, a little after 7 p.m.

For many college students, the end of the academic term is their first foray into pressure-filled deadlines. Few places reveal how students respond to the challenge as much as a night at the computer lab, a windowless incubator for campus stress.

Finals week is when Newton’s laws meet Murphy’s Law. Students crumble over the stress. Computers break down. So do their owners.

Even with today’s tech-savvy generation, the labs are as stressful as ever, staff members at Howard say. Students sometimes get embarrassed by what they don’t know.

“They have to learn it’s not like when they are trying to use a printer at home,” said Santos Ramos, a help desk support staff member at Howard. “They are now a part of a big, complex system.”

Ramos has tended to problems great and small in the iLab for two years. He is seated in the center of this quiet madness in an elevated station resembling a rocket ship. At iLab command, he has been yelled at for paper jams and ignored when telling students they can’t eat chips in here. Loaning his stapler can yield the highest praise. The little things.

Sometimes, students throw tantrums. When a student pulled out an iPhone to call her boo for encouragement, another snapped at her for being too loud. One couldn’t figure out how to put page numbers on her essay.

“I don’t want someone to show me how to do it,’’ she declared. “I just want it done.”

Alkoukbi is a doctoral student in education administration, familiar with the routines of academia. Ramos’s help-desk staff members told her to relax and wait five minutes — and then, the computer unfroze.

“I just get so worried,’’ she said. “What a relief.”

One floor below the computer lab, two other staff members sat in a graveyard of computer parts and Post-it notes. Their mission: Cure the campus’s most nefarious computer viruses, including one that replaces the desktop screen with an FBI logo and triggers on the Web cam, making the student feel under surveillance.

More people seek help at the start of the year, at registration. But then, there’s hope. During finals week, there’s desperation.

They ask: Do you know what’s wrong? Can you fix it now? Is there nothing more you can do? What did I do in life to have this happen? Why did I download the video? Why did I wait until the last minute?

“We’re doing our best,’’ staff member Kenny Epps usually responds.

A freshman in a green beanie and blue hoodie walked into the station. His laptop hasn’t started for days.

“This is the biggest problem in my life right now,’’ said Ian Mahon, a freshman journalism major. Without a working computer, his assignments were piling up. In three days, he had to rewrite an essay for his English class for which he originally received a zero.

“It was about the language of our generation,’’ he said. The professor “thought the writing was good, but I went a little off topic.”

Staff members told Mahon all his computer data would probably have to be erased to revive the computer. He would need to go to Best Buy for devices to restore his work.

“Oh jeez, that’s crazy,’’ he said, thanking them. “There’s nothing more you can do?”

Until then, Mahon could work upstairs, where Alkoukbi and other students typed in the iLab. It’s full of students in sweatpants, with bags under their eyes, sipping almost-finished cans of Red Bull. For some, it was the final outpost of questionable decisions.

Jessica Nwoka, a sophomore, didn’t want to be there. Her computer broke down near Thanksgiving. She lost term papers on Shakespeare and Socrates, class notes and a digital copy of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The following week, she had begun rewriting the works at another computer lab on campus.

One night, someone kicked her power plug by accident. When the computer restarted, she had lost most of the work. Again.

“I cried,’’ said Nwoka, who has recently been spending about 12 hours a day in the lab with a checklist to keep her on task. “You know I sat there and cried. Now I do everything. I’m saving my work, I have all these USBs” to store files and documents. I’m ready for anything. I’ve learned my lesson.”

She has also learned the rhythm of the iLab.

Her summary: At 2 p.m., students are more into talking than working. By 10 p.m., the place buzzes as people work on group projects. Midnight can be tricky — the day before, she saw a student shaking by her computer, crying.

But the best time is around 3 a.m, when “everyone’s stressed, but working.”

Back at the central station, Alkoukbi greeted Ramos again. She begged him to help start a scanner.

After the lesson, she clasped her hands in gratitude and thanked Ramos six times. Then she scurried back to her desk to type another chapter. It was nearly 11 p.m. Her night had just begun.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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