On the whole, college students are a caffeinated bunch.
They guzzle soda by the gallon, buy energy drinks in bulk and consume calorific coffee shakes on the daily. Caffeine helps students pull all-nighters, then keeps them awake in early morning lectures. And, when it’s finals week, make it a triple shot.
Add in a 16-hour time difference and caffeine becomes an elixir of life.
“I need this,” says Xiaoyu Liu, shaking an empty energy drink at the screen from her room in Shanghai, China, where she’s currently enrolled as a freshman at UC-San Diego studying theater, a 16-hour time difference from the West Coast. For winter quarter, most of Liu’s classes start at 5 or 6 p.m. and end at 1 a.m. That’s at least marginally better than fall, when one class ended at 2 a.m.
When COVID-19 forced most colleges and universities across the world to switch to an online learning mode a year ago, international students bore the brunt of a change no one saw coming. Enrolled in U.S. universities — which operate on American time zones — but stuck abroad, thousands of students are taking classes into the wee hours of the night, desperate to keep up with their classmates.
You think watching a Zoom lecture is boring and sleep-inducing at 3 p.m.? Try it at 3 a.m.
“I feel like a vampire,” says Dorothy Ga0, 18, a freshman studying from Shanghai, where she’s 13 hours ahead of her classes at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “I cannot see the sunlight.”
The challenges seem endless: Many students must quietly study while their families sleep. Bright lights are a no-no if you’re in a shared space. And when students do try to get some shut eye, their families often aren’t quiet in return. Many students miss out on family time, including shared meals.
“I really need to nap during the day, but I don’t have time for that because I have to watch all the recordings, do all the readings and plus my other assignments,” Liu says.
Because of a zombie-like schedule, having a job isn’t really possible. Joining any sort of student club or co-curricular activity — slated for noon California time but 1:30 a.m. India time or 4 a.m. Shanghai China time — is nearly impossible after staring at a screen all night.
And don’t even get them started on Daylight Savings Time.
“Why does California have two different time zones,” asked an exasperated Deepak Singla, a question that has long befuddled many Americans. Singla is a first-year UCLA graduate student in neuroscience currently studying from Punjab, India, a 13.5-hour time difference. After DTS tripped up international students everywhere in the fall, universities and colleges took note.
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“We learned our lesson last time,” says Dulce Dorado, the director of International Students & Programs at UCSD. “We became aware pretty quickly that first-year international students, who have never been to the U.S., don’t know we ‘fall back’ or ‘spring forward’ — and why would they?”
This week, a handful of U.S. Senators reintroduced legislation to make DTS permanent, eliminating the practice of changing clocks twice a year. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oreon) said in a release the Sunshine Protection Act would “provide some much-needed stability for families” — turns out, it would also help students studying abroad at American institutions, many of whom pay full tuition and fees and serve as a boon to U.S. university budgets.
Avani Mehra is a fourth-year cognitive science major at the University of Virginia who spent the fall semester studying from Mumbai, India, where she was staying with family. Just before COVID, Mehra gave up caffeine cold turkey. It was going well, too — until Daylight Savings Time hit and she miscalculated a meeting time.
“It was supposed to be at 6 a.m., but I showed up at 7,” she says, laughing. “I couldn’t believe I stayed up all night just to miss the meeting!” (Her professor was understanding.)
And while Mehra is no stranger to late-night study sessions, a completely reversed schedule while studying from another country is a different ball game.
“There’s no comparison,” she says. “When you’re doing it for one night or even three nights in a row for finals, you can feel that it’s abnormal. Your body is telling you to go to bed but you can rally. But with this, it was just your life, so keep going.”
Elisabeth Koch, a first-year UCLA PhD student in archeology and Egyptology currently studying from Germany was surprised to learn that taking classes from nine hours away was even an option. As someone who considers herself an early bird, the shift has been rough. But there weren’t any other options, she says. Via Facebook, she’s found fellow UCLA students to commiserate with.
Liu and Gao, the students from Shanghia, have been friends since high school and try to keep each other accountable, too, even though they’re at different schools. Gao says if she logs onto class at 4:30 a.m. — after going to sleep just three hours prior, when her other class finished at 1 a.m. — and notices her friends aren’t also logged on, she’ll text them to make sure no one is sleeping through class.
For Singla, most classes end at 3 a.m., which he’s made somewhat manageable. But in the fall he had “the dreadful day:” Every Thursday, he had class continuously from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. He turned his camera on every session, no matter how tired he might look.
Singla typically sleeps in 2 four-hour chunks, from noon to 4 p.m. local time and 4 a.m. to 8 p.m.
UCSD, in preparation for “springing ahead” this weekend, already created an Instagram post warning students about the impending time change (many of them will actually gain an hour of sleep this time around).
Students say most professors have been sympathetic to the weird schedule, letting them take finals at a “regular” hour. Many classes are set up asynchronously, which means the lectures are pre-recorded, and students can watch whenever it’s convenient for them, no matter their geographic location. But in-class discussions are key for many students, and those can’t be skipped or made up.
Some classes don’t lend themselves well to Zoom either.
“There’s lots of courses for my major where participation is really important,” Liu, the theater major, says. I don’t want to learn just how to act from the neck up.”
Dorado’s office is in constant communication with students about specific support they need. More than once, she’s successfully persuaded a student to stay enrolled, assuring them that they’re not the only one struggling with a zany schedule. Many schools, UCSD included, have gotten creative online, creating virtual student unions and hosting internet meet ups so students in the same time zone can find friends.
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“We have a student in Japan who, through these programs, was able to connect with a student in Singapore. They have different majors but similar interests in theater,” Dorado says. “So even though neither of them have ever set foot on our campus, they’ve connected through Instagram and it’s like they’re already friends.”
Of course, it’s not all bad: Mehra, the Virginia student who’s now back in Charlottesville — where she studies from her apartment during normal Eastern Time hours — found a silver lining in days that had flipped completely upside down.
“I got to see the sunrise every morning,” she says wistfully. “That was lovely.”
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