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‘While I am sleeping they’re awake, and now, when I wake up, they’re asleep’: For international students at home, remote semester presents unique challenges

Time zone differences complicate distance learning, staying in touch after pandemic disperses students around the world

When Jenny Huang’s ’23 acting class transitioned to remote learning after the University canceled in-person classes and evacuated campus in March, her professor asked students to switch to performing monologues telematically. 

But for Huang, performing via Zoom from her apartment in Beijing, where she’s waiting for the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic to subside with her parents and grandmother, presents some logistical difficulties.

The acting class starts at 10 p.m. Beijing time — or 10 a.m. EDT — and can run until almost midnight. Huang's monologue, an excerpt from “Angels in America” which she called "a little bit crazy," requires her to raise her voice, which she doesn't dare do while her family is sleeping.

"I don't want to yowl or speak in a very loud voice because I don't want to wake them up," she said, adding that keeping her noise level down is a challenge in her classes.

For many international students, returning to their home countries entailed a long process riddled with challenges and uncertainties. But as many have transitioned to remote learning from their homes in different time zones and under varying lockdown conditions, they face a new set of challenges.

Zooming across time zones

When Huang first arrived in China, a government policy required her to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days because she was returning from abroad. She feels lucky that she was able to make it home. Some of her friends waited too long to buy tickets and were unable to return to China once the country suspended international travel.

Huang's family sent food, snacks and books to her hotel, but couldn’t see her in person.

"I felt like online courses went really well in that period because I was in a hotel alone," she said, and didn’t worry about disrupting her family while she virtually attended 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. classes. 

Huang is not alone in taking classes at strange hours. 

Ding Wei ’22 did not initially realize the impact that a time zone shift of six hours would have on his life when he moved back home to Budapest, Hungary. “Right now, my life schedule and daily schedule are completely different from before,” he said. “To be honest, I’m still struggling to get used to that.” 

“My schedule before I left Brown was very structured and well-balanced,” Wei said. As a morning person, Wei finds the awkward breaks between his midday classes difficult to adjust to. “This time period is asking me for a lot more discipline than before,” he added.

Returning home also involves making adjustments for family. “I was concerned about how I would juggle between my classes and family duties,” Wei said. As a result of the public transport restrictions in Hungary, he is responsible for driving his mother to and from her work. 

After leaving campus and returning to his parents’ house in South Korea, Dave Song ’23 has also been forced to acclimate to a new normal: He goes to bed around 5 a.m. and he wakes up at noon.

Song said that he has felt supported by both the University and his professors throughout the transition to remote learning.

Song's architecture studio class originally ran for five hours, but has since been broken into different sections in order to accommodate students across time zones. Now, instead of having to attend class from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. (which would have been 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Providence), Song attends a two-hour section tailored for students who are in East Asia and later joins the whole class for an hour lecture.

Instead of joining his engineering lecture at 3:30 a.m. his time, Song has individual meetings with his professor twice a week and catches up with the lecture recordings on his own time. Despite now effectively having “twice the amount of work,” Song said that he prefers the new arrangement because it gives one-on-one time with his professor. 

“I felt supported and good about their effort to understand everyone’s situations. I understand it’s really hard (for) Brown because it’s a group of diverse students,” said Song.

University resources

Aanya Parikh ’21 agreed with Song that a key part of her transition to remote learning was her professors’ capability to understand and accommodate her having to return to her home country of India. Still, Parikh believes that the University has not done anything “that stood out” to accommodate students.

Parikh expressed frustration with the University’s delayed response to cancel in-person classes, compared to other institutions, as well as not changing the grading policy to a mandatory Satisfactory/No Credit system.

“I found out on Thursday that we had to leave and get out of campus, and I had to book a flight for that Saturday because India was closing its borders,” said Parikh. “I packed in a day and said goodbye to everyone, for who even knows how long.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Associate Dean for International Students Asabe Poloma has been a major point of contact for international students individually to provide support and arrange University financial resources when necessary.

At first, her work focused on helping students who needed to get home, but now she is working with students to adapt to online learning for the rest of the semester, wherever they may be. 

Many international students are facing issues relating to Wi-Fi access, connectivity and affordability, which "look very different when we're talking about it in the U.S. versus abroad," Poloma said. 

"What (Wi-Fi) access looks like to a student in rural Alabama or a Navajo reservation in the U.S. is similar in very interesting, intersectional ways for an international student who finds himself back home in Pakistan and is saying, ‘There is no way I can do a Zoom lecture on a mobile data plan,’" she added.

Taking classes late at night raises connectivity problems, Huang said. The Wi-Fi in her Beijing apartment building is slower late at night, which can make it hard for Huang to complete her coursework.

During a live-time Canvas quiz for her Italian class, the internet crashed and she was unable to complete her work. While the instructor was accommodating, Huang was “freaking out,” she said.

Staying in touch

While living in other countries and time zones poses unique challenges to students’ academic experience, social time has also been greatly impacted.

Now at home under lockdown in Bordeaux, France, Mathilde Barland ’21 is in a strange situation — between boarding school and college, she has been living away from home for eight years, five of which were spent abroad. "It feels weird, and it just doesn't feel like home anymore," she said.

Barland wonders when she'll next be able to return to the U.S. "All my stuff is in the U.S. I only have one suitcase with me" in France, she said. "I have people close to me in the U.S. Being so far and not being able to be close to them and support them is really difficult."

Song and Parikh also expressed concerns and uncertainty about being able to stay in touch with friends.

“While I am sleeping they’re awake, and now, when I wake up they’re asleep,” Song said.  “So we only have this two-hour period in the day where we can text and call, unless one person stays awake till four.”

“I am international, I have friends from every single corner of the world,” said Parikh. This makes it even harder for her and her friends to coordinate a time when they would be able to get some sort of group interaction.

And connection to friends is what makes other difficulties more manageable, Wei said.

Wei believes that staying connected with people helps him normalize his situation. “It is a great reminder that school is still going on and other people are doing work so you should probably get back to your problem set now,” he said. 

Livia Gimenes reported from Maringá, Brazil; Clara Gutman Argemí reported from Barcelona, Spain; and Trisha Thacker reported from Mumbai, India.

— With additional reporting by Kayla Guo in Long Island, New York


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