Working the graveyard shift: How overseas students are handling online classes

Even with USC requirements to record lectures, international students have struggled with adjusting to the new format, often choosing between missing the class live or attending during problematic hours. (Tiffany Kao | Daily Trojan)

Angelos Gaviotis begins his day after the sun is past its peak, around 3 p.m., joining his family for breakfast when they are eating lunch. By the time Gaviotis prepares for his classes, the Dubai skyline outside his window is dark — Gaviotis peers at his bright laptop screen starting at 8 p.m., his classes often lasting until 5 a.m.

“My daily schedule is completely flipped,” said Gaviotis, who returned to Dubai during spring break. “I work at night, I go to classes at night and I sleep during the day.” 

Colleges across the nation have swapped in-person lectures with online classes in an effort to curb face-to-face interactions due to the coronavirus. Following USC’s decision to transition all classes to online mid-March, many international students immediately dispersed to their home countries. 

Though the University has required all online lectures to be recorded, students across the globe are united in their struggle in maintaining the momentum from the first half of the semester amid the change in their environments.

When asked for a comment on specific accommodations USC has made for international students, USC redirected the Daily Trojan to the University’s online guide for students. 

USC created the Student Basic Need Fund to assist students who have encountered unexpected financial burdens due to the coronavirus, which is open to the entire student body.

“If I don’t go to class live so I can ask questions and see the teacher talk, it’ll be tougher for me to stay up to date on my classwork,” said Gaviotis, a sophomore majoring in economics and mathematics. “I feel like if I actually go to the class on time, I’m more enticed to do it.”

Using Gulf Standard Time, Dubai is 11 hours ahead of California, a nearly perfect reversal of mornings and evenings.

The University recommended all students who must travel overseas to contact the Office of International Services to address potential visa complications amid ongoing travel restrictions across the world.

Many students from countries outside of the United States find the loss of an on-campus, in-person college experience has undercut their original expectations for their spring semester in Los Angeles.

“It’s discouraging, especially as international students,” said Zuzanna Iwanejko, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and law who is taking her classes from Poland. “We went to USC to physically be there and get to know our professors and use the resources USC provides for us.”

With daily schedules entirely altered, students are finding difficulties in adjusting to unfamiliar routines. 

“I really am a morning person,” said Iwanejko, whose classes run until midnight. “Just having everything in the evening influenced my participation a little bit because I’m more tired in the evening, perhaps less engaged.”

For Katherine Yang, a sophomore majoring in media arts and practice, returning to Hong Kong created an array of problems for her core classes. In a studio class for her major heavily based on discussion and collaboration with other cohort members, the transition to online meetings has offered clear shortcomings.

“If you’re working in breakout sessions in a classroom, you can still overhear certain things or say something to the entire group or walk over and look at somebody else’s work,” Yang said. “Those things can’t be built organically into something like Zoom.”

Centered on group projects, Yang’s studio class required students to create an experimental game exploring speculative design methods.

To adapt to the new online format, Yang’s professor adjusted the class to utilize more breakout sessions — none of which Yang can attend as they run from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. in her local zone. 

Yang contributes to her group project in her own time, removed from the active discussion and moments of creative bursts among her classmates during the sessions.

“Having to just watch the recordings and trying to work with my group members at other times, it’s a big loss for me,” she said.

Yang’s experience is shared with many students overseas who were forced to make drastic changes to their daily schedules. 

“It just doesn’t seem real right now,” said Audrey Yang, a freshman majoring in neuroscience and economics, who is attending classes from Taiwan. “I don’t have a routine anymore, which is really messing up everything because I feel like I’m slacking on assignments at the same time.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep across the globe, students are scrambling to balance their focus between the outbreak and their academics.

“With everything going on, it’s just so depressing that you feel like this isn’t that important anymore,” Audrey Yang said.

Internet strengths often highly vary from country to country, leaving students with poorer connections finding themselves unable to consistently attend Zoom classes.

“I have four routers in my house … and I still get kicked out,” Iwanejko said. “There are some classes that are definitely harder, especially big lectures, because I have so many people, the server is overcrowded [and] I tend to get kicked out of the system.”

Poland’s unsteady internet connection prevents Iwanejko from being able to join meetings with her video on, making her the only student in her Chinese language class without it.

Though reluctant to replace live lectures with recordings, Iwanejko said she may need to in the future because of a shift in her mental health from an increased sense of urgency throughout her day.

“After a week of attending classes [in my timezone] and waking up late, I felt a difference in my personal well-being,” Iwanejko said. “It’s harder for me to manage my time more effectively because I have less time between when I wake up and my classes.”

Some overseas students have faced an additional obstacle during their reentry: government-mandated quarantines. 

Singapore, South Korea and Poland are a few of the countries that require all individuals who have entered the country to use a government tracking app during their self-quarantine. Poland’s app necessitates users to send periodic selfies to prove their location, notifying the police if there’s no response within 20 minutes.

On top of transitioning to a new time zone, Iwanejko also didn’t have a Polish SIM card, prompting police officers to physically check up on her nearly every day of her two-week period of self-quarantine. On every visit, police confirmed Iwanejko was in quarantine and Iwanejko would explain her phone situation.

“I think out of 14 days, they came 10 times, one of which was twice in the same day,” Iwanejko said. 

When Emily Lu, a senior majoring in media arts and practice and visual and performing arts studies, returned to Hong Kong, she and her sister who attends Princeton University had to quarantine themselves in a hotel room for two weeks to prevent possibly spreading the coronavirus to their family. 

As a member of USC’s hip-hop dance team Chaotic 3, Lu used her passion for hip-hop to help cope with her situation as she danced in her hotel room to pass time. Lu and other members of Chaotic 3 began sending videos of themselves to each other dancing from their respective locations, continuing the group’s engagement despite being separated.

“I’ll stay connected with my other friends who are also going through this … just being a support system for each other since these are nearly unprecedented circumstances,” Lu said.

With more than 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, Hong Kong began implementing electronic wristbands that track the location of its user on March 19.

With the complications that arise from international flights, travel restrictions and ever-changing border policies, USC’s swift decision to permanently move this semester’s classes online because of the coronavirus forced international students to rapidly plan changes for the semester.

The United Arab Emirates temporarily blocked visa holders from entering the country on March 19, less than a week after the University declared classes would be moved online.

“I’m very happy with how quickly USC made the decision to close classes and go into Zoom,” Gaviotis said. “If they hadn’t told us before spring break, I would’ve been stuck outside of Dubai and wouldn’t have been able to come back to my family.”

Despite the inevitable timezone conflict, students said they’d rather be in the safety of their own homes.

“Ultimately, would you rather be stuck in the U.S. or stuck in your home country?” Katherine Yang said. “I think a lot of people would prefer the latter.”