‘Always feel behind’: UC Berkeley international community calls for academic accommodations

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Sunny Shen/File
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to virtual semesters, international UC Berkeley students have been struggling with various academic obstacles. This includes differences in time zones, isolation and mental fatigue.

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For many international students pursuing their studies at UC Berkeley across vastly different time zones, the pandemic has been a time marked by isolation, exhaustion and mental fatigue.

Although some professors have adopted accommodations, there remains to be change on a campuswide scale, resulting in calls from students and organizations representing the international community for greater flexibility in instruction.

Following the death of Kaijie Zhang, an international freshman who attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, earlier this year, the ASUC has raised further concerns regarding synchronous online instruction. Zhang was taking courses synchronously from his family home in China and died after bouts of irregular sleep, according to a statement made by ASUC Senators Rex Zhang, Samuel Peng and Will Liu, who each represent the international student community.

Their statement has since been co-signed by 18 ASUC senators, the transfer representative and four executive officers, as of press time. More than 3,000 students reacted to the news, according to Zhang.

“I think that his passing is a blatant manifestation of the harm the lack of accommodations is already doing to every international student in every institution without universal accommodations for students who are currently abroad,” Peng said in an email.

Zhang noted that students he works with and friends of his are struggling with online classes and time zone differences. Some students have further expressed to him that their health is “on the edge.”

Colleagues and friends alike have also opened up to Zhang about their erratic sleep schedules. He added that it is not uncommon for them to go to sleep at 7 or 8 a.m. and wake up in the afternoon, some even having to adjust their routines to wake up later in the morning, twice a week, for club activities.

Ergün Açıköz, who has been in his native country of Turkey since the start of his freshman year at UC Berkeley in fall 2020, reflected on the exhaustion he has felt and the elements of community belonging that are lost as an international student.

“I recall days where I slept around 5-7 a.m. here,” Açıköz, professional committee officer at International Students Association at Berkeley, or ISAB, said in an email. “It is like the butterfly effect. If you sleep late, you won’t be able to wake up early, wasting the most productive time of your day and pushing yourself to study in the middle of the night.”

Faculty form responses to calls for greater flexibility, UC Berkeley’s academic policy 

To help students across different countries, some campus faculty have adopted accommodations such as optional attendance in lectures and sections, recording lectures and hosting office hours at later times of the day, according to Zhang.

Campus lecturer Becky Hsu’s lectures have an asynchronous option because of the challenges this past year has presented for everyone.

She added that she hopes students approach their instructors to ask for help and find a reasonable solution for the struggles they are facing.

“I’d rather my international students get sleep at their regular times so that they’re in their best form to complete their work, both for me and for their other courses,” Hsu said in an email. “No degree is worth sacrificing one’s health and sanity.”

Similar to Hsu, campus professor in American studies Sarah Gold McBride also provides an asynchronous option for all her courses and exams through bCourses.

All exams that Gold McBride administers are take-home, and students can complete the test throughout the course of a week, she added.

“I decided to offer my classes largely asynchronously because the pandemic has made so many students’ lives more complicated; some of my students are caring for their parents or siblings, working multiple jobs, or dealing with health crises,” Gold McBride said in an email.

Faculty have been encouraged to be accommodating with their students, according to Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. She added that many faculty members created a large volume of courses last summer and fall that are offered asynchronously, and GSIs have volunteered to host sections at night to ease international students’ stress.

However, faculty are not required to adopt these accommodations, as it is at their discretion to deliver course material in the way they believe is best, Johnson-Hanks noted.

“If the class was listed as asynchronous, it must be offered asynchronously, but if students knew at sign-up that the course would be synchronous only, faculty are not required to now go back and change the delivery mode,” Johnson-Hanks said in an email.

Minsook Kim, campus professor of the Korean language program in the department of East Asian languages and cultures, provides both asynchronous and synchronous instruction. However, lectures that are presented synchronously are not recorded and attendance is required, according to Kim.

International students in her classes have reached out for greater accommodations, but synchronous attendance is an integral part of learning a language, Kim noted.

For the fall semester, Kim hopes UC Berkeley can institute hybrid courses — providing both asynchronous and synchronous lectures — which she has been unable to offer in the past due to course policies.

Amid irregular sleep schedules, international students seek further accommodations 

While some faculty members are helping students, many believe there is still more that can be done. According to Peng, faculty should require 24-hour testing periods for exams and quizzes and provide more office hour opportunities to address equity disparities between students.

In addition, Peng said in an email that it would be helpful for instructors to drop synchronous attendance requirements for all lectures, discussions and lab sections. Zhang further suggested holding additional discussion sections and office hours after 5 p.m. and allowing students to earn participation grades through Piazza and discussion boards.

“Most students that had to stay in their home countries have mentioned that even though they are technically in a time-zone ahead of Berkeley time, they always feel behind which is frustrating,” said Defne Karabatur, vice president of operations at ISAB, in an email.

Karabatur, who works at the Daily Californian, added that expanding the window of time to complete assignments would be beneficial for international students.

While providing more mental health resources will help students, the most meaningful action would be to stop requiring students to sleep late and wake up early for classes, according to Peng.

“Many international students have chosen to continue their studies virtually, being away from Berkeley and from other students has made it very hard to focus on school work and stay motivated throughout the semester,” said Queenie Fan, social media project co-lead at ISAB, in an email.

Students struggle to find a community, ASUC works to address likely unwavering policy

Beyond online classes, international students have also noted that some clubs and other organizations on campus are not flexible with the timings of their events, according to Aakarsh Kankaria, professional committee member at ISAB.

Kankaria, who spent the fall semester of his freshman year at home in India, said in an email that he could not go to events such as Calapalooza and found it hard to attend sessions for Golden Bear Orientation because they were held synchronously, as he to stay awake until 4 a.m.

While his professors have been compassionate and accommodating, Acikoz expressed that it can be frustrating being unable to attend campus events when his friends in different time zones are all able to. He recalled that even UC Berkeley sometimes forgets about its students in different countries when planning events.

“While some classes and instructions are really understanding and helpful towards international students, some important pieces of elements that make the school a community are missed by international students,” Açıköz said in the email.

Freshman international students are especially vulnerable because they may not be able to participate in student organizations due to time zone differences, leaving them without a community, according to Zhang.

As faculty members are given full responsibility in how they choose to present their course material, changing academic policy for online instruction is unlikely to change, according to Johnson-Hanks.

The ASUC has brought concerns from the international student community to the Academic Senate, and they are working together to try and address the challenges faced by students, Johnson-Hanks added.

Zhang, Peng and the ASUC Office of Academic Affairs are collaboratively planning to launch a campaign to give international students more equitable access to classes because they cannot continue to be left in the dark, according to Zhang.

“Administration has to do more,” Zhang said in an email. “I do think the academic senate hasn’t pushed enough for such accommodations for students. Health–both physical and mental–are crucial issues, and the administration must take on these things seriously to ensure equitable access to education for the entire Berkeley community.”

Shylie Ati is an academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shylieati.