‘Quaranteens’ across the world star in podcast launched by Rice students

Martel College junior Julia Huang loved podcasts before they even existed. Growing up, she relished car rides with her father, radio turned up, the two of them listening to episodes of “Car Talk” and “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” on their local NPR affiliate.

A new podcast from Rice students, "Zoom University," features interviews with other undergraduates tackling college during the coronavirus.

A new podcast from Rice students, “Zoom University,” features interviews with other undergraduates tackling college during the coronavirus.

“I’ve always loved the idea of storytelling without visuals,” Huang said. “There’s something about the beauty of the human voice.”

Now, she’s teamed up with Duncan College junior Elhadji “L” Diop to create a podcast of her own. “Zoom University” broadcast its first episode March 25, featuring an interview with Rice’s outgoing Student Association President Grace Wickerson. Subsequent episodes feature students from across the world, from the University of California, Berkeley to the University of Western Ontario in Canada and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

All of the students on “Zoom University” are finishing their semesters online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hence the name of the podcast. Colleges across the nation have, of course, responded very differently to the crisis — and listening to students’ unfiltered opinions on their institutions’ reactions is one alluring aspect of the podcast.

“And then another part of what makes it fun is just hearing about people’s individual experiences,” Huang said. “We interviewed this one guy from Carnegie Mellon and he was telling us about this Ski and Snowboard Club, and I was like, ‘Wow, nothing like that exists at Rice.’ I might not have had the opportunity to engage with a story like that, otherwise.”

A kinesiology major, Huang said she never thought she’d create a podcast, “because it seemed so tangential to my work and career plans.” She met Diop through friends at Rice, and although they’d only hung out once before COVID-19 forced classes to transition online, they kept in touch. Both remained in Houston, but off-campus in apartments.

Martel College junior Julia Huang

Martel College junior Julia Huang

One day, Diop told her he’d been thinking of starting a podcast about the pandemic’s effect on students across America. Huang shared her own interest in podcasts, but figured it was just a passing comment — until Diop contacted her to say that he’d done the research, procured the equipment, found a platform for the podcast and was ready for the duo to get started.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m down but I didn’t realize you were actually serious; you were 120% serious about starting a podcast the moment you said it,’” Huang said. Soon, she was hard at work, editing audio for each of the episodes and managing all the logistics, planning and thought behind the podcast.

Diop said that Wickerson, as a student body president who’d been present for Rice’s crisis management team meetings, was a natural choice for their first episode. A natural host, Diop guides each interview in a way that is conversational but never rambling, always focused.

“I always wanted to do a podcast because I enjoy talking to people who I think are really cool, and I think that medium allows for deeper conversations or more thematic conversations,” said Diop, a triple major in sport management, managerial studies and kinesiology. “In a podcast, you’re able to ask someone specific things about certain topics, get their perspective and kind of learn from that — grow from that.”

Like many college students, Diop and Huang were members of a popular Facebook group called “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens” for “socially isolated college youth stuck doing online courses in closed universities,” which now counts over 636,000 members. When Diop interviewed Lucas Moiseyev, one of the group’s moderators, for the second episode, the podcast took off.

Duncan College junior Elhadji “L” Diop

Duncan College junior Elhadji “L” Diop

With six episodes now under their belt, and a new one airing on Anchor.fm every week, Diop and Huang plan to keep the podcast going even as the semester wraps up. Diop, who also runs the popular “Students of Rice” account on Instagram, is recruiting other Rice students to create art and music for the podcast in an effort to make “Zoom University” an even more communal experience.

“I want to create a community around this,” Diop said. “I’m the kind of person who likes to make relationships out of projects, whether it’s photography and doing a photo shoot together or working on dance projects. And I want to hear the stories of different people — their stories contribute to the project.”

Diop and Huang are both happy the podcast has allowed them to work on something productive and creative when they aren’t focused on exams. And they’re especially grateful for the relationship that’s formed throughout the process of producing something from scratch.

“Being able to use that to create a friendship over a distance has allowed us to keep each other accountable,” Diop said.”And being in contact, talking to each other all the time, has really made quarantine less lonely.”

Listen to “Zoom University” at anchor.fm/zoomuniversity or on your favorite podcasting platform.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.