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'Time doesn’t even have meaning anymore': International students adopt irregular sleep schedules to study remotely

Students face physical separation from Brown, temporal displacement from their families

11 p.m. in Seoul, South Korea. As his family goes to bed, Joon Nam ’23 awakes and opens his laptop to prepare for his Zoom class. As he studies, the sun rises — and by the time he’s ready to end his day, the rest of the country has only just started theirs.

Nam isn’t the only one who’s adopted this nocturnal lifestyle — since September, international students across the globe have grappled with difficult time differences, and many did so in the spring as well. For some, like Nam, this means adopting an entirely inverted schedule. For others, like Sally Zhang ’23, this means having no schedule at all.

“Time doesn’t even have meaning anymore,” Zhang said. Residing in New Zealand, Zhang is living 18 hours ahead of Providence, which has forced her to “give up on trying to keep a normal schedule.” Zhang rarely sleeps eight hours a night anymore — instead, her days are made up of all-nighters and incremental one-hour naps.

For these students, navigating classes across time differences and compromising their sleep schedules has taken a toll not only on their physical health, but also on their mental wellbeing. Physically separated from Providence and temporally separated from home, some international students have felt entirely displaced.

“I feel isolated both ways,” Zhang said. “I haven’t had dinner together with my family since forever because they eat when I’m asleep.”

Thin Su San ’23, who studies from Myanmar, added that an inverted schedule has had further implications for her study habits. “It doesn’t feel motivating to study at 3 a.m. when you know everyone is asleep,” she said.

While such remote studying can be lonely and stressful, Zoe Coleman ’23 said it has helped foster a “spirit of understanding and kindness” among the student community. She added that “people are more concerned about mental health and checking in,” a practice that she hopes will last beyond the pandemic.

Students have mixed opinions regarding the University’s efforts to make accommodations for those studying in other time zones, with many admitting the measures the University can take are limited to begin with. Ultimately, students said it was largely up to individual professors to make necessary accommodations for their students.

“I think a majority of professors have had patience and been understanding of our situations, and they’ve been kindly accommodating in response — though there are certainly some horror stories,” Nam said.

Anvita Bhagavathula ’23, studying from Singapore, cited lecture recordings and office hours spanning across time zones as helpful resources professors have offered. But she added that “keeping track of classes is still overwhelming” due to a heavy and challenging workload.

Besides academic resources, students have found that other University services such as Counseling and Psychological Services and Health Services have become less accessible — which in some ways is inevitable because “they’re not physically around,” Coleman said.

Zhang added that physical removal from campus has lowered her motivation to actively engage with University resources. Though the international office and some professors send check-in emails, it feels “futile” in current circumstances, Zhang said.

 With the fall semester nearing a close, students are beginning to plan for the coming spring. For international students who reside in countries that responded to the pandemic quickly and vigilantly, the decision between leaving a safe home to enter a high-risk country and taking another remote semester is one that induces a lot of anxiety. Cases currently stand at record highs in the United States.

“‘Safety’ is a complicated situation,” Coleman said, weighing her life in South Africa against returning to campus. “COVID-wise, I’m safer at home, where we have handled the virus quite well,” but being isolated from college can have far-reaching psychological effects, she explained. 

Similarly, Nam said he feels “hesitant to go back to the U.S.,” but “having to deal with online learning for another semester is non-negotiable.”

Ultimately, international students who choose to return to campus next spring will have to place their faith in the University. Clara Vaduva ’23, who hails from Romania but is currently studying on campus, praised the University’s social-distancing and testing policies, adding that they have been “important for keeping things under control.”

Remote students similarly observed that the University seems to have managed the pandemic better than most places in the United States. “I’m anxious about Providence,” Bhagavathula said, “but I think I could be safe in the campus bubble.”



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