Beset by unique challenges, international students begin second fully-remote semester

Jess Kaplan, Print Managing Co-Editor

As the University enters its third semester of pandemic learning, international students studying both remotely and on-campus face a unique set of scheduling, technological and logistical challenges. With administrative support and an efficient work ethic, however, international students have demonstrated admirable resilience and adaptability in the shift to remote learning.

For many international students, the decision to study remotely was determined by travel restrictions, potential health risks, financial constraints and uncertainty on the spread of the virus. “If the pandemic has added significant stress and uncertainty to all of our lives,”Director of International Student Services (ISS) Jennifer Figueroa said, “it is safe to say that it has done so to an even greater extent for international students.”

Figueroa recognizes that the abrupt shift to online learning in March was a significant source of stress to international students. Although ISS was able to accommodate students who wished to remain on campus to complete their coursework, Figueroa acknowledged that these students were consequently extremely socially isolated. The challenges were even greater for those who wanted to return home – many were required to complete multiple periods of isolation upon arriving in their home countries, while others’ flights were cancelled entirely due to the rapidly changing restrictions. “This was perhaps the hardest situation of all: some students tried to get home and ultimately failed; flights home were either completely nonexistent or costing $10,000 and up,” Figueroa said. For many, such as Teresa Tian ’22, a biology and psychology major from China, traveling home is even more difficult. “I need to have both my nucleic acid test and antibody test ready within 48 hours before the flight. After I go back to China, I need to be quarantined in a hotel managed by the government for 14 days and then stayed home for another seven days,” Tian said.

International students were by far the largest demographic affected by the shift to hybrid courses in the fall. 48% of international students were remote during the fall semester, and 34% have remained remote for the spring. Likewise, 82% of the University’s international first year class were unable to attend school in-person due to flight unavailability and the lack of student visa interviews offered at U.S. embassies. Additionally, international students were overrepresented in the number of students who took a leave of absence: 17 international students took a leave of absence in the fall, compared to the usual number range of three to six students.

Joelle Kim ’23, a neuroscience major from South Korea, chose to take the fall semester off upon realizing that the physical distance and time difference would hinder her learning. “I get the most out of classes when I am able to get hands-on experience (like being in the lab) or to ask questions and have conversations with professors during office hours,” Kim said. “And I knew even coming back on campus would not provide the same experience I cherished.”

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of international students somewhat depended on ISS’s regular email blasts and newsletters. “If it had not been for them and their attempts to keep me in the loop and make as many accommodations as they possibly could or even their attempts to motivate me when I was going through my low periods, I don’t think I would have made it through last semester as well as I did or even come back here,” Sherab Dorji ’22, an international relations and economics from Bhutan, said.

In addition to these numerous logistical burdens, international students agreed that time differences were the most cumbersome aspect of learning remotely. Many remote international students are appreciative of faculty efforts who have extended deadlines and made it possible for them to access class materials asynchronously. “Thankfully, all of my professors posted videos rather than gave lectures live on Zoom, so I did not have to be awake at 3 a.m. to join classes,” Kim said.

Nevertheless, for Dorji to stay up to date with course work and extracurriculars, she had to adjust her sleep schedule. “I was essentially nocturnal: I slept until the late afternoon and after meals, I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning. It was admittedly not the healthiest way to live,” Dorji said.

In contrast, Sultan AlKaabi ’21, a mechanical engineering major from the United Arab Emirates, said that though the time difference was inconvenient, it made him more efficient. “My work ethic and sleep schedule was better than when I was at Bucknell, surprisingly. I procrastinate less as I cannot stay up all night working on something.” However, AlKaabi added that the time difference put him at a disadvantage in hybrid classes, where students on campus attended class in person while he remained at home. “The professors would mostly focus on the in-person students and don’t give as much attention to the remote students, and it is hard to interact as a remote student,” AlKaabi said. AlKaabi noted that this made lab classes particularly challenging, as he could not physically participate. “I would just be staring at my labmates doing the lab without understanding what they were doing. I’d just get the data at the end of the lab and try to make sense of it,” AlKaabi said.

Otis Skitch ’22, a mathematical economics major from England, agreed that time difference was an obstacle when organizing group projects and attending office hours/study groups as these meetings were scheduled in the evening. Skitch resorted to the Internet as “one of my only resources for help outside of class/office hours.”

While Kareen George ’22, an english literature and political science major from Dominica, did not experience significant difficulties with timing, she did have trouble obtaining the materials needed to finish her thesis. “Most of the material I wanted wasn’t available in my country. There are a lot of copyright laws that blocked me from accessing them,” George said. In fact, having unlimited access to the University’s academic resources was the largest factor in her decision to return to campus.

Other students struggled to secure stable internet connection during class periods. “I live in an isolated neighborhood up in the mountains on the outskirts of my city, so my internet connection was not the greatest. More often than not, my connection got disrupted during class time and at times, it wouldn’t come back until after class was over,” Dorji said.

George added that during the hurricane season, “it is pretty common for electricity to just go for the day with no warning.”

According to the Institute of International Education, the number of international students choosing to study abroad in the United States has been steadily declining since 2015. Nationalistic rhetoric, punishing immigration policy, and fears of safety, along with increasing international competition have drawn students away from U.S. universities; many fear that the pandemic will also deter international students from pursuing higher education in the United States. Specifically, the increased racial violence against Asian Americans provoked by the pandemic is a point of anxiety for many students coming from Asian countries. “From what I experienced myself, many international students are more self-conscious about how people would look at us due to the heightened level of racism,” Kim said.

Dorji also hopes that future international students will “gravitate from American educational institutions and towards universities in more ‘foreigner-friendly’ places or maybe even perhaps, stay home and study in their local colleges and universities.”

Nevertheless, the unparalleled scope and size of the American higher education system will continue to draw students abroad. “Most of us don’t have a choice. There are no universities in my country. So if I wanted to pursue higher education I would have to leave home,” George said.

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