International students face added challenges to online learning

International students taking classes from their home countries are managing conflicting time zones, lack of sleep and isolation while navigating a new learning environment.

Katelyn Vue

Every Tuesday and Wednesday, University of Minnesota student Mia Tran wakes up around 1 a.m. to attend her 1:25 p.m. Zoom discussion class. While taking classes from Vietnam, Tran struggles to balance a 12-hour time difference with her school work and personal life.

Like Tran, many international students have had to decide whether to stay in the U.S. or travel back home at the start of the pandemic. In addition to navigating online learning, international students taking classes from their home countries have the added challenge of managing conflicting time zones with classes, routines and building connections.

The new normal for international students

First-year student Clarisse Wihono is taking online classes from Indonesia. During the week, Wihono rarely has time to spend with family and friends. In an email, she said her eating times have become completely flipped.

To stay on track of her school work, she splits her sleeping schedule into two sessions and drinks coffee. Most of her classes occur between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.

“Because of the time difference, some of my exams are at 1 AM my time, and I’m not a night owl by nature, so it’s hard to even stay awake at that hour,” Wihono said in the email.

Sleep deprivation is common for many international students who are living in different time zones. Prolonged screen time during odd hours to meet deadlines has students staying up late or waking up early.

“My sleep is not as good as it was before …” Tran said. “The exposure to computer screens and having my brain be so active before I go to bed, it’s actually difficult to fall asleep … so sleep deprivation has been a major issue for me.”

Typically, Tran said she would talk to her professors in between classes and walk with friends to class. But the loss of interacting with friends and peers has affected her sense of belonging at the University, she said.

“Back in my freshman year, I was such a big hugger,” Tran said. “I would hug my friends every time I met them, and it was the most comforting thing of my days during my freshman year.”

Creating community among other international students

Since the start of the school year, the Minnesota International Student Association has had low attendance of international students at their virtual events and meetings, according to Daniel Garamvolgyi, MISA’s finance director. MISA is a student group that represents international students at the University and bridges the gap between international and local students.

“It was so devastating to see that actually no one showed up … it’s usually about 20 to 25 people during the day who visit our office,” Garamvolgyi said. “It was just so sad to walk into the room and have no one.”

MISA is still active online and planning more virtual events for international students who want to be involved.

Some international students also deal with expenses, like housing, even though they are living in a different country. Despite no longer needing an apartment near campus, some University students were unable to end their housing leases with their landlords.

“[Rent] was one of the reasons I actually moved back [to the U.S.]. So if I pay for my rent, I actually live here too,” said Garamvolgyi, who is from Budapest, Hungary.

The Vietnamese International Student Association held an online event in mid-September but because of the time zone difference in Vietnam, there were not many international students who could attend. VISA is a student group that aims to create a community for Vietnamese international students on campus.

Anh Vo, VISA’s secretary, said attendance was low, but students were still able to have fun and bond. Vo is on campus and has some family, but she has not seen her parents in Vietnam for more than a year. She said she often feels homesick.

Though international students are finding ways for professors to accommodate the challenges of online learning, many still want more resources to support them.

“I think that’s important for people to just be aware of the problems that international students might face during this time, especially the time zone difference issue that most of us have to deal with,” Tran said. “Like other students, we do share some of the unsettling feeling about the pandemic.”