UC Berkeley from abroad: The international student experience during a pandemic

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Vanessa Lim/Staff

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11:53 p.m. I get ready for my global studies discussion section in my brother’s bedroom because the Wi-Fi is better here. He’s away in the United Kingdom, in his second year as an engineering student; I’m a freshman trying to figure college life out from Singapore, a city-state 8,454 miles away from Berkeley.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone. Unemployment has peaked in many countries. In the Oakland-Hayward-Berkeley metropolitan division, the unemployment rate — which had been steadily declining since the global financial crisis — shot from 4% in March to 14.2% in April. Families have been separated by travel bans and the fear of infecting the elderly. Many are grappling with the mental health effects of quarantining and isolation.

International students are among those in the campus community struggling in these times. In particular, time zones often impede their ability to glean as much from their college experiences as possible. Having to be awake in the middle of the night for class is a common problem. “There was a point where I wasn’t able to see sunlight, so that was really draining for me,” said freshman Diya Sinha in an interview held over Zoom. She is currently in India, 12.5 hours ahead of Pacific Daylight Time.

Sinha also brought up the inaccessibility of various tutoring services on campus. “Usually those kinds of services are provided only at 4:30 or 5 a.m. my time. So it’s very difficult for me to get those extra resources.” She pointed out that, despite this, she is expected to perform as well as students in time zones that permit them to use these additional support systems. This places a disproportionate amount of pressure on international students, many of whom need these resources the most as they are already straining to make the transition to the American education system.

The constant uncertainty relating to visa applications and travel restrictions has also been deeply troubling. “I would like to come to campus next semester,” said Toshani Khanna, a freshman currently in the Seychelles and 11 hours ahead of Berkeley. “I don’t know if it’s going to be possible or if it’s the most safe option, I guess, and also since I’m going to be on a student visa I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to come since probably none of my classes will be in person.” Khanna’s arrival on campus also depends on her receiving a housing offer.

The constant uncertainty relating to visa applications and travel restrictions has also been deeply troubling.

On Oct. 5, the Berkeley International Office, or BIO, issued a notice strongly discouraging any international students from planning to enter the United States for the spring semester. With enrollment for the spring semester less than two weeks away, international students not currently in the United States are under pressure to make decisions for next semester without complete information. “I have no idea what I’m going to do for spring,” Khanna admitted.

Sinha is a U.S. citizen and will be traveling to campus in the spring. Nevertheless, she told me about her “constant fear” that other international students will not be able to return to campus for some time to come. “The fact that we’re paying so much money for our education and not being able to have a full experience is definitely disheartening,” she said.

Across both semesters this academic year, BIO estimated that fees and tuition for undergraduate international students will stack up to $47,602. This does not include the costs of textbooks, internet access, meals or accommodation. Many are understandably anxious about their continued inability to return to campus.

Even if Sinha is able to return to campus, she worries about leaving her family and support system behind. “I’ll be all alone,” she said.

Graduate students living abroad have also struggled due to the pandemic situation and as a result of the policies rolled out in response to it. In particular, they are unable to work as GSIs from outside the United States.

“This rule came down from somewhere up on high that I actually could not hire international GSIs who are not actually in the U.S. right now,” said campus professor Alex Filippenko, who teaches Astronomy C10. “So I had to rescind my offer to a GSI of mine, a UGSI who is in Hong Kong, one of my research students, and another one who’s in China, and there was another one in Europe.”

Many are understandably anxious about their continued inability to return to campus.

However, it has not been all doom and gloom; many international students have been able to find community at UC Berkeley. Sinha, for instance, has joined a dance team and a pre-med club, and she said these extracurricular activities have not only added structure and discipline to her life but have also given her a solid peer group to rely on.

She also described making friends through various group chats and meeting students from several countries, as well as peers from the United States and the Bay Area specifically.

In addition, the support of professors and GSIs has been absolutely crucial to international students making it through the semester. Many professors provide recorded lectures that can be viewed asynchronously, and many instructors have gone out of their way to make accommodations for students in different time zones and keep classes engaging for all despite the unusual times we live in.

This includes having discussion sections and office hours at various times of the day in order to accommodate students in different time zones. For example, Astronomy C10 offers a whopping total of 32 discussion sections held at different times from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PDT, and examinations are conducted over two to three strategically chosen timeslots so that students can take them at a reasonable hour, wherever they may be. Computer Science 10 office hours range from as early as 7 a.m. to as late as 10 p.m. in order to be accessible to as many students as possible, and instructors leave examinations open for 24 hours so that students in any time zone can complete them at a time optimal for them.

Instructors such as Math 1B UGSI Christine Chow have also gone the extra mile to optimize the international student experience by ensuring that communication remains smooth and prompt. “For people in a different time zone they might have to wait a little bit longer, so I try to respond to an email pretty much as soon as I see it,” Chow said.

“We wanted to make sure international students had the same accessibility level that everyone else does,” said CS 10 tutor and campus senior Gowri Somayajula.

“Just because we’ve had so many positive interactions with international students and they make up such a large component of our course, you can’t just disclude them from interactions because they’re on a different time zone than you,” Somayajula added.

Students currently in the United States attending discussion sections early in the morning or late in the evening have also displayed empathy and inclusivity.

“They haven’t complained,” Khanna said of her classmates in a discussion section held at 7 a.m. PDT. “They’re super understanding that we have a completely different set of challenges aside from remote learning itself, so they’re just doing whatever they can to accommodate.”

Some professors, such as Filippenko, use lecture periods to provide additional question-and-answer sessions for students to maximize engagement in these isolating times. “Students have, in a sense, more time with me than before because it’s like an extended office hour, and then I have my normal office hours anyway where students can go into greater depth,” Filippenko said. “But the class meetings are recorded as well so that those can be viewed asynchronously by students throughout the world.”

Professors, unable to address their students in person, have also had to find ways to make asynchronous sessions interesting and exciting. For instance, they have had to find ways to make up for missed in-person experiences. Professor Filippenko told me about the Chabot Space and Science Center’s virtual stargazing parties, which he encourages students to attend. “He’s actually making me like physics for the first time in a couple years,” said Khanna about Filippenko. “He’s super enthusiastic, he’s trying to make it as stress-free as possible.”

Furthermore, instructors have served as vital sources of psychological and emotional support for students. CS 10 GSIs hold check-in sessions for students every week to make sure that they are faring fine outside of their performance in class. “Going forward as a school, I think everyone should adopt that, where we’re checking in on how students are doing. Not how they’re performing, not how their grades are looking,” Somayajula said.

“I do check-in meetings after every single exam for anybody that does want to talk to me about how they’re doing in the course,” Chow told me. “It’s an open door.”

Many members of UC Berkeley’s faculty and staff have taken it upon themselves to ensure the quality of all students’ college experiences despite the current circumstances. As Somayajula put it, “Taking care of the international student community is staff responsibility. That’s all it boils down to.”

As spring approaches and international students such as myself steel themselves for another semester of remote learning, there is still much to be improved. A large number of my peers studying at UC Berkeley from abroad continue to have to attend discussion sections at 4 a.m. in their time zones and struggle to stay motivated as they feel distanced and isolated from the campus community.

Many members of UC Berkeley’s faculty and staff have taken it upon themselves to ensure the quality of all students’ college experiences despite the current circumstances.

Nevertheless, while the situation may remain bleak, professors and teaching staff encourage students to spot the silver linings.

“A certain amount of international understanding and appreciation and empathy has built up among most people as a result of this situation,” Filippenko said. Indeed, these strange circumstances have offered international students an opportunity to speak up about the particular challenges they face in ways that they might not have done before. If it is properly seized, it might help to create greater understanding between domestic and international students in the long run that could benefit campus culture for many years to come.

“Your teachers are always listening,” Somayajula said when I asked her if there was anything she wanted to convey to international students. “You are heard and we are listening, always.” She encouraged international students to speak about the difficulties they face in learning remotely and ask for accommodations and assistance whenever they might need it: “Hold us to the standards we deserve to be held at.”

When I asked Professor Filippenko the same question, he offered me a kind smile. “Hang in there,” he said. “We’ll get through this eventually.”

Contact Lee Xuan at [email protected].