International students say time differences hurt learning during online instruction

Media Credit: File Photo by Alexander Welling

International students, forced to go home by the pandemic, said they had trouble adjusting to new schedules, where lectures often fell in the dead of the night local time.

Out of fear the U.S. border would close, rising sophomore Ishita Gupta made a last-minute decision to fly home after officials announced classes would move online for two weeks.

Gupta said she wanted to participate in her classes this semester, but she struggled to concentrate with a nine-hour time difference between Mumbai and D.C., making her classes fall at about 2:30 a.m. She said the disruptions to her academics resulted in her “unplanned” decision to transfer to New York University in the fall, where she has a cousin she could live with if the University’s fall semester moved online.

“I think it was just very stressful dealing with the housing and stuff at GW considering I’m an international student and I don’t really have another place to go, I would have to keep coming,” Gupta said. “Considering scientists have been saying that this could go on for 2021, that’s a major part of my university life. So I just want to make sure that I have a place to stay even if I was asked to leave the housing.”

In interviews, 10 international students said the transition to online classes hindered their ability to engage and keep up with courses. Students said their new environments required them to adapt to new schedules and communicate closely with their professors to accommodate for missed courses occurring late at night for students in different time zones.

Gupta said missing the in-person experience of being on campus prevented her from participating as she used to in her classes. She said attending classes at night prevented her from staying engaged with the lectures she was watching.

“I think I was able to manage my coursework online just fine,” Gupta said. “But I would have preferred, as I said before, to participate in the voluntary discussions because I did feel like the readings were kind of useless when I wasn’t discussing them.”

The International Services Office is currently hosting virtual academic counseling meetings with students needing advice in their courses, according to its website. The ISO is also monitoring travel restrictions the federal government has placed amid health concerns on its website.

Katie Jackson, a rising senior majoring in biology and anatomy, said adjusting from life at GW to the United Kingdom, one of the countries in Europe most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, was stressful to handle during the semester and made academics less of a priority over taking care of her mental health. She said all but one of her professors kept their classes synchronous and weren’t accommodating to the five-hour time difference that forced her to attend classes until about 2:30 a.m.

“I understand it is difficult for everyone, but being on a different continent with a significant time difference made academics seem so alien and detached from my current life in the UK,” she said. “Although the content of my courses did not change, the fact that it was online made it feel trivial and not as serious as it normally does when in person.”

Jackson said a University-wide requirement for professors to record lectures and upload them to Blackboard would have better supported students during the instructional continuity period because they could watch recorded lectures at any time.

“The amount that each professor accommodated me seemed to be based on their personal choice to do so,” she said.

Rising sophomore Emir Hancioğlu, an international student from Turkey majoring in international affairs, said the shift online prompted him to communicate more often with his professors not only to ask for coursework accommodations but to discuss topics he found interesting and relevant to his situation, like Turkey’s national lockdown during the pandemic.

He said his International Relations of South Asia class would take place at 2 a.m. in Turkey, which required him to adapt to the changes in his schedule.

“Sometimes I stayed up, but sometimes I missed it, and my professor didn’t make any issue of it,” Hancioğlu said. “She was very comfortable with it, and she later posted the videos, so it didn’t cause any issues to me.”

Joseph Izumi, a rising sophomore majoring in international affairs from Japan, said the 13-hour time difference between Japan and D.C. flipped his daily routine so he completed his coursework in the mornings before attending lectures at night. He said accommodating to his new schedule was challenging but did not affect his academic performance.

“That for me was very challenging because your body just doesn’t really doesn’t want to stay awake,” Izumi said.

Five students said the week before spring break proved to be the most stressful because of their difficulties making plans to move back to their respective countries. Storage services currently employed by GW do not ship packages internationally so students said they needed to pack all their belongings prior to leaving campus.

Izumi said the most stressful part for him this semester was the week before he flew home because he was unable to focus on academics while trying to organize his return home and research travel laws meant to slow the pandemic’s spread. He said he was most concerned about moving out of his residence hall because he knew he would not be able to come back if he forgot a belonging.

“I had to really make sure I had no mistake on that regard in terms of my stuff in the room because there’s no ‘Oh, I can always come up and get that’ situation,” Izumi said. “I had to make sure if I left, I had everything in check. So I spent a lot of time thinking about what’s the right process about storage.”

Selin Guzin, a rising sophomore majoring in business administration, said the seven-hour time difference from D.C. to her home in Turkey made it challenging to keep track of her coursework and communicate with her classes’ teaching assistants. But she said her professors were able to accommodate her during finals by granting more time to submit tests.

“Some of my classes were live but they always recorded it because they knew it could be challenging for some students to attend live sessions,” Guzin said in an email. “Most of the time they were really helpful, giving us 24 hours to complete our quiz, etc.”

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