Zoom university: the unique struggles of international students

Illustration of a tired international student awake late at night while notifications about school come in on their computer
Aarthi Muthukumar/Staff

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The coronavirus pandemic has indefinitely changed the college experience for all students. Under the Californian sun, students’ lives switched dramatically from a vibrant campus to months of lockdown and social isolation. Remote learning has left us UC Berkeley students with things to miss: studying at Moffitt Library, meeting new friends at Crossroads and pulling all-nighters for finals with classmates. While the pandemic presents unprecedented difficulties to all students, international students, many of whom returned to their home countries, have seriously compromised their rights and wellness due to a lack of accommodation. 

 In our ASUC office’s work to represent the international community at UC Berkeley, we’ve heard numerous stories of suffering. Alice is a freshman from China, studying 16 hours away from Pacific Standard Time. Two of her classes require synchronous participation, whereby failure to attend sections are penalized. But only a handful of slots were offered — none at a reasonable time for Alice’s time zone. A few times a week, she stays up until 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. “The syllabus says ‘active participation’ is required, but how am I supposed to be ‘active’ in the middle of the night?” 

Alice has friends studying at other American universities, a number of which have provided “Go Local” programs for international students. Seeing her peers from Cornell, NYU and Duke having the opportunity to study at local partnered institutions, Alice is not only jealous but also disappointed. “I take a lot of pride in Berkeley, but is this what the No.1 public university offers its students?”

The situation isn’t any better for continuing international students. William, a junior studying legal studies, expressed that he is feeling severely disadvantaged by some of the course policies. One class only offers a single time slot for exams, which required him to take the exam at midnight, putting him at a disadvantage in terms of performance. Also, mandatory attendance for discussion sections is more prevalent in upper-division courses, which tend to be smaller. Faculty may be less willing to accommodate if there are fewer international students in the course: When requested to accommodate international students via email, professors commonly ask if the student knows any other international student who is also taking the course. Refusing to accommodate means an increasingly limited range of choices for international students, especially upperclassmen eager to complete their degree requirements. 

Moreover, students such as William feel that the value of the tuition they pay — at least twice as much as Californian students — is depreciating. It has become extremely difficult for him to make appointments with the Career Center and the Student Learning Center due to the limited range of time slots available. “I don’t think my tuition dollars are worth the college experience,” William said. 

In March, our office conducted a survey to ask open-ended questions about international students’ experience with their classes’ accommodations. The most common comment we got was that having to adjust sleep schedules for nonadaptive course policies takes a toll on students’ mental health and increases their stress levels. According to our respondents, there are many ways to mitigate such stress, including recording lectures, arranging alternative exam times or offering more diverse section time slots. Faculty across departments are simply not doing enough — all respondents to our survey identified at least one instance in which they felt left out or disadvantaged by the lack of accommodation in course policies. 

UC Berkeley’s treatment of its international students during such challenging times reveals the true colors of its core values as an institution. Is this how one of the best universities in the world defines its mission of education? As international students, we are proud of attending UC Berkeley, not because of its asphyxiating, competitive environment nor the constant stress students endure for the sake of their GPA but because it cultivates students as whole persons, who go on to make differences in their communities. The ability to care for and advocate for others — to stand in others’ shoes and understand their situations — is fundamental to the creation of future leaders and should be what UC Berkeley strives to nurture. 

It’s a year of pain for many, if not all, international students. While we transition back to in-person instruction in Fall 2021, our campus communities will face new challenges securing the rights of international students. Complications of international travel regulations mean that some may not be able to return to campus — how will our faculty adapt to that? The university must take action to make sure its mission of diversity and inclusion is no empty word. 

Rex Zhang is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley and a current ASUC senator representing the international community. Yaqian Tang and Yuning Xue are first-year undergraduate students at UC Berkeley and legislative aides in Zhang’s office.