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International students struggle to learn across time zones as COVID-19 keeps them out of New York City

Spectator analyzed the

distribution of undergraduate

courses Columbia University offered

in spring 2020, fall 2020, and

spring 2021—the three semesters

impacted by the ongoing

coronavirus pandemic.

scroll

Local Time (GMT +8)

8 a.m.

137 classes ending

between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

9 a.m.

136 classes

10 a.m.

48 classes

11 a.m.

26 classes

12 p.m.

3 classes

1 p.m.

Out of the 3,030 undergraduate

classes offered during the fall 2020

semester, only 7 percent ended between

9 a.m. and 5 p.m. for for Greenwich

Mean Time +8, the timezone which

includes students in China,

Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong,

Malaysia, and the Philippines.

1 class

2 p.m.

1 class

3 p.m.

1 class

4 p.m.

1 class

5 p.m.

1 class

6 p.m.

“Right after I woke up, I’d have to go eat dinner with my family.”

1 class

7 p.m.

1 class

8 p.m.

0 classes

9 p.m.

9 classes

10 p.m.

Columbia’s semesterly career

fair began at 10 p.m. and ended

at 3 a.m. for GMT+8. The

Beyond Barnard Opportunities

Fair went from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m.

114 classes

11 p.m.

98 classes

12 a.m.

337 classes

1 a.m.

477 classes

2 a.m.

The busiest hour occurred between

1 a.m. and 2 a.m., during which 477

classes concluded.

86 classes

3 a.m.

376 classes

4 a.m.

“It was very dark, and the house would get very, very quiet. I would start to stand on my balcony outside. Hear the occasional car drive by.”

311 classes

5 a.m.

315 classes

6 a.m.

232 classes

7 a.m.

318 classes

8 a.m.

318 classes conclude as the sun

rises between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Spectator analyzed the distribution of

undergraduate courses Columbia University

offered in spring 2020, fall 2020, and spring

2021—the three semesters impacted by the

ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

scroll

Local Time (GMT +8)

8 a.m.

137 classes ending

between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

9 a.m.

136 classes

10 a.m.

48 classes

11 a.m.

26 classes

12 p.m.

3 classes

1 p.m.

Out of the 3,030 undergraduate

classes offered during the fall 2020

semester, only 7 percent ended between

9 a.m. and 5 p.m. for for Greenwich

Mean Time +8, the timezone which

includes students in China,

Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong,

Malaysia, and the Philippines.

1 class

2 p.m.

1 class

3 p.m.

1 class

4 p.m.

1 class

5 p.m.

“Right after I woke up, I’d have to go eat dinner with my family.”

1 class

6 p.m.

1 class

7 p.m.

“I used to not get sick a lot. But now I’m getting

sick all the time [due to my reversed sleep schedule].”

1 class

8 p.m.

0 classes

9 p.m.

Columbia’s semesterly career

fair began at 10 p.m. and ended

at 3 a.m. for GMT+8. The

Beyond Barnard Opportunities

Fair went from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m.

9 classes

10 p.m.

114 classes

11 p.m.

98 classes

12 a.m.

The busiest hour occurred between

1 a.m. and 2 a.m., during which 477

classes conclude

337 classes

1 a.m.

477 classes

2 a.m.

Participation is difficult when “you're just trying to stay awake and take some notes.”

86 classes

3 a.m.

376 classes

4 a.m.

311 classes

5 a.m.

“It was very dark, and the house would get very, very quiet. I would start to stand on my balcony outside. Hear the occasional car drive by.”

315 classes

6 a.m.

7 a.m.

232 classes

318 classes

8 a.m.

318 classes conclude as the sun

rises between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Spectator analyzed the distribution of

undergraduate courses Columbia University

offered in spring 2020, fall 2020, and spring

2021—the three semesters impacted by the

ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

scroll

Local Time (GMT +8)

8 a.m.

137 classes ending

between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m

9 a.m.

136 classes

10 a.m.

48 classes

11 a.m.

Out of the 3,030 undergraduate

classes offered during the fall 2020

semester, only 7 percent ended between

9 a.m. and 5 p.m. for for Greenwich

Mean Time +8, the timezone which

includes students in China,

Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong,

Malaysia, and the Philippines.

26 classes

12 p.m.

3 classes

1 p.m.

1 class

2 p.m.

1 class

3 p.m.

1 class

4 p.m.

1 class

5 p.m.

“Right after I woke up, I’d have to go eat dinner with my family.”

1 class

6 p.m.

1 class

7 p.m.

1 class

8 p.m.

“I used to not get sick a lot. But now I’m getting sick all the time [due to my reversed sleep schedule].”

0 classes

9 p.m.

Columbia’s semesterly career fair began at

10 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m. for GMT+8.

The Beyond Barnard Opportunities Fair

went from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m.

9 classes

10 p.m.

114 classes

11 p.m.

“I was absolutely fried, my brain was not working. Like, I had video off, mute.”

98 classes

12 a.m.

The busiest hour occurred between

1 a.m. and 2 a.m., during which 477

classes concluded

337 classes

1 a.m.

477 classes

2 a.m.

86 classes

3 a.m.

Participation is difficult when “you're just trying to stay awake and take some notes.”

376 classes

4 a.m.

311 classes

5 a.m.

“It was very dark, and the house would get very, very quiet. I would start to stand on my balcony outside. Hear the occasional car drive by.”

315 classes

6 a.m.

232 classes

7 a.m.

318 classes

8 a.m.

318 classes conclude as the sun

rises between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

International students struggle to learn across time zones as COVID-19 keeps them out of New York City

March 8, 2021

Editor’s note: Some of the names mentioned in this article are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of those students.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, universities across the nation raced to draw up plans for a largely remote semester. For Columbia, this was no easy feat, especially considering that international students—many of whom returned to their home countries at the onset of the pandemic—make up 18 percent of the undergraduate population. With students scattered across more than 115 countries and a wide variation of time zones, it is difficult to cater to students in China (GMT+8) as well as those in France (GMT+2).

The distribution of undergraduate classes in spring 2021 varies drastically across different timezones

Local Time

12 AM

4 AM

8 AM

12 PM

4 PM

8 PM

12 AM

Bar heights represent the number of classes ending within that hour

Los Angeles

Number of classes peak at noon in New York time

New York City

London

Baghdad

This peak occurs at midnight for those in Bangkok

Bangkok

Sydney

The distribution of undergraduate classes in spring 2021 varies drastically across different timezones

Local Time

4 PM

12 AM

8 AM

12 AM

Bar heights represent the number of classes ending within that hour

Los Angeles

Number of classes peak at noon in New York time

New York City

London

Baghdad

This peak occurs at midnight for those in Bangkok

Bangkok

Sydney

The distribution of undergraduate classes in spring 2021 varies drastically across different timezones

Local Time

12 AM

4 PM

12 AM

8 AM

Los Angeles

Number of classes peak at noon

New York City

London

Baghdad

This peak shifts to midnight

Bangkok

Sydney

Bar heights represent the number of classes ending within that hour

International students are not evenly distributed across all 24 time zones. According to data from Columbia’s International Students and Scholars Office, 44 percent of international students are from China, South Korea, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. For these students, taking classes from their home countries during the pandemic means that less than 20 percent of the undergraduate courses offered during the fall 2020 semester would occur between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. for them.

There were 1578 undergraduate students in fall 2019 with international passports

(1 square = 1 person)

Only 16.2 percent of international

students were from time zones

where more than 80 percent of

undergraduate classes offered in

the fall 2020 semester occurred

between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. local

time

47.6 percent of international students were from

time zones where less than 20 percent of undergraduate

classes in the fall 2020 semester occurred between

9 a.m. and 9 p.m. local time

Most represented passports: China, South Korea, India, Singapore,

Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam Philippines, Taiwan

Most represented passports:

Canada, Brazil, Mexico

Source: Columbia University International Students and Scholars Office; Barnard College not reported

There were 1578 undergraduate students in fall 2019 with

international passports

(1 square = 1 person)

47.6 percent of

international students

were from time zones

where less than 20

percent of undergraduate

classes offered in the

fall 2020 semester

occurred between 9 a.m.

and 9 p.m. local time

Most represented

passports: China,

South Korea, India,

Singapore, Hong Kong,

Thailand, Japan,

Vietnam, Philippines,

Taiwan

Only 16.2 percent of international

students were from time zones

where more than 80 percent of

undergraduate classes offered in

the fall 2020 semester occurred

between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. local

time

Most represented passports:

Canada, Brazil, Mexico

Source: Columbia University International Students and Scholars Office;

Barnard College not reported

There were 1578 undergraduate

students in fall 2019 with

international passports

(1 square = 1 person)

47.6 percent of international

students were from time zones

where less than 20 percent of

undergraduate classes offered

in the fall 2020 semester occurred

between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. local time

Most represented

passports: China,

South Korea, India,

Singapore, Hong Kong,

Thailand, Japan,

Vietnam, Philippines,

Taiwan

Most represented

passports: Canada,

Brazil, Mexico

Only 16.2 percent of international

students were from time zones

where more than 80 percent of

undergraduate classes offered in

the fall 2020 semester occurred

between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. local

time

Source: Columbia University International Students and Scholars

Office; Barnard College not reported

Returning to campus for the fall 2020 semester was not an option for many of these students. On July 6, 2020, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program under the Trump administration banned international students from entering or remaining in the United States if they had a “fully online course load.” Although SEVP revoked these exemptions eight days later following external pressure initially generated by a lawsuit submitted by Harvard and MIT, international students continued to face barriers preventing them from entering the United States.

While continuing students with fully online course loads were able to remain in the United States, nonimmigrant students in “new” or “initial” status were still restricted from entering the country with a fully online course schedule for fall 2020.

The suspension of non-immigrant visa services in many embassies and consulates during the pandemic also meant that new international students and continuing students who needed visa renewals were unable to proceed with their applications. Some embassies have slowly resumed non-immigrant services; however, only those in Korea and the Philippines did so before Columbia’s fall semester began. Services in China remain suspended as of publication, and the Department of State is still unable to provide a specific date as to when each embassy will resume all services.

There is an additional challenge for those who possess functioning student visas in China, Iran, the European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Brazil, and South Africa: Presidential proclamations have suspended entry into the United States for noncitizens who have been to these locations within the 14 days prior to their attempted entry. As such, these international students must stop by a third country for at least 14 days before they are allowed into the United States.

Besides the myriad of travel restrictions international students face, these students must also continue to cope with disrupted circadian rhythms. With these changes come a host of potential health issues. Studies have shown that alterations in daily routine, such as modifying one’s sleep schedule in order to accommodate a time difference, can harm one’s physical and mental health. A broken sleep pattern can result in poor study efficiency as well as negative mood changes and fatigue.

As the pandemic continued, Barnard’s Registrar’s Office and Columbia’s Core Office made efforts to help international students attend their classes. At the end of the fall 2020 semester, Barnard surveyed its students on which classes they intended to take in the upcoming spring semester and how important those classes were to them. The School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of General Studies have not distributed surveys nor offered petition options.

Because Barnard’s survey was released with the aim of providing feedback to the college when planning for the spring 2021 semester, many international students expected the college to accommodate students living in different time zones. However, for Katya Reichert, a Barnard first-year who spent the fall semester studying from the Philippines, the scheduled times of the top two courses that she indicated—Introduction to Art History II and Data Structures in Java—remained the same. “I don’t know if [the survey] was performative, or if not enough people chose the classes that I chose,” Reichert said.

Meanwhile, international students taking mandatory Core classes also saw little success in the Core office’s effort to accommodate their time zones. In August, the Center for the Core Curriculum gave all students who were enrolled in Contemporary Civilization, Art Humanities, and Music Humanities the opportunity to petition for a new section if their current section met between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. in their local time zone. However, when Kevin Sun Park, who was enrolled in Columbia College as a sophomore in fall 2020, requested to switch out of his Contemporary Civilization section that was scheduled for 4 a.m. in Seoul, his petition was rejected by the Core Office.

“I never doubted that I wouldn’t be able to switch to another section,” Park explained. “In what kind of world would a university force me to do classes at that time?”

scrollytelling

For Park, who resides in GMT+9, the distribution of mandatory Columbia College underclassman seminars—Literature Humanities, Frontiers of Science, University Writing, and Contemporary Civilization—over the day saw little change from the pre-COVID-19 spring 2020 semester to post-COVID-19 semesters.

While classes that end around 12 p.m. EST and 12 a.m. GMT+9 accommodates both American and many international students, the college has provided few classes in that time period.

Compared to the pre-COVID spring semester, Columbia College added only five Core seminar sections that ended between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. GMT+9 time to the spring 2021 semester.

The distribution of major requirement courses is even more unaccommodating to the majority of international students than that of mandatory Core seminars, with more classes ending between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. GMT+9 than in any other time frame

The distribution of all courses mirrors the distribution of major requirement classes.

Professors have taken their own initiatives to ease the difficulty of attending classes at unnatural hours, such as allowing asynchronous attendance, offering international-friendly office hours, and scheduling alternative exam times. Last fall, Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning also published a guideline for asynchronous teaching across time zones.

However, the University does not require professors to allow asynchronous attendance, meaning some students are still forced to make the choice between academics, health, relationships, and extracurricular interests.

Considering University President Lee Bollinger’s announcement of a three-semester plan, fall 2020 and spring 2021 are no longer representative of the full course offerings for the 2020-21 school year. As of publication, summer 2021 course offerings have not been updated for all departments. It remains up in the air whether the summer semester will be a chance for international students to have a healthier and more inclusive academic life amid an ongoing pandemic.

Until then, international students recognize the difficulties in accommodating all time zones. “There’s a limit to what they [the University] can do,” Gretel Chan, a Barnard first-year currently studying from Hong Kong, noted.

However, international students still express frustration with what they feel is the little accommodation they are currently receiving: “We are staying up every single night for an entire year, with little to no support from the school,” Chan said. “[International students] are such a small population. So who cares about us?”

Jun Yi Zhang is a Graphics deputy editor. She can be contacted at junyi.zhang@columbiaspectator.com.

Melissa Wang is a Graphics reporter. She can be contacted at melissa.wang@columbiaspectator.com.

Michelle Xu is a Graphics reporter. She can be contacted at michelle.xu@columbiaspectator.com.

Jessica Li is the Graphics Editor at Spectator. She can be contacted at jessica.li@columbiaspectator.com.

Interactives were made with the help of Hong Sen Du, Head of Newsroom Development at Spectator. He can be contacted at hongsen.du@columbiaspectator.com.

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