News, Off Campus, Academics, Featured Story, Coronavirus Updates

International Students Confront Challenges of Virtual Learning

When the University suspended in-person classes in March, Jiayi Wang, MCAS ’22, returned home to Henan, China to finish out the semester in a different hemisphere, and because of U.S. travel restrictions barring entry to those coming from China, she was unable to return to campus for the fall semester. 

Roughly half of BC’s 1,872 international students are attending classes from their home countries this semester, according to Adrienne Nussbaum, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS). But students hailing from China have been among the most affected by travel restrictions, she said.

“A lot of our European students [came] back,” Nussbaum told The Heights. “But 55 percent of our [international students are] from China. … So that’s a huge part of our population that is not on campus this semester.”

Approximately 700 undergraduates did not return to campus this semester because they were granted accommodations to take classes remotely, were subject to travel restrictions, or for other reasons, Senior Associate Director of University Communications Ed Hayward told The Heights.

In planning for the fall semester and since classes resumed, Nussbaum said she has been making an effort to remind professors to be conscious of the challenges international students are facing. 

“A big part of my time over the last six months has been advocating for students who have enrolled abroad,” Nussbaum said. “I’ve had a lot of meetings with academic departments [and] the first thing I say to them is, ‘Don’t forget about our international students.’”

Yiru Shi, a Chinese international student and MCAS ’21, stayed in the Boston area throughout the past summer. Because she was living off-campus when students were sent home in March, she did not have to worry about moving out and returning home immediately, but she was concerned about how Boston College and the city of Boston would react to the pandemic, especially after watching how the virus spread back home. 

“We were anxiously waiting for BC to shut down at that time,” Shi said. “Since China experienced COVID-19 earlier than the US, we knew how serious and dangerous this virus could be. Chinese students have been wearing masks for a long time, but no local students in BC responded to any protection at that time. We were worried and felt unsafe.”

A major challenge for international students attending classes remotely is the significant time zone difference—in China, students face a 12-hour difference. Staying home during the pandemic brought a sense of comfort for some, Shi said, but others chose not to return at all because of the difficulties they knew it would bring.

“I think the majority of my friends are back in China,” Shi said. “They feel much safer there, but a small number of them are still in the US because it is suffering to take classes in China time.” 

Wang said that although this semester has been a less difficult transition than last semester when she went home, she has had to set boundaries for school work in order to juggle the time difference.

“My bottom line is I don’t stay up past 1 a.m. because I simply can’t function after that,” she said. “So when I was registering for classes in the past spring semester, I wanted to find asynchronous classes. I didn’t want to pick anything up that’s past midnight.”

This semester, BC has offered online courses in four modalities: asynchronous, online synchronous, hybrid, and in-person. 

While asynchronous classes may seem like the clear solution to the time difference issues, they can present their own set of challenges. According to Nussbaum, with asynchronous classes, it can be difficult for students to be engaged in the course material.

“If they are watching recorded classes, it feels like they’re watching TV or something, and it doesn’t feel engaging for them,” Nussbaum said.

Even though Wang is technically able to attend asynchronous classes on her own schedule, they lack a personal dimension, and the inability to speak with professors during class or during office hours has been an added difficulty this semester, she said.

“I think that’s the biggest issue … with asynchronous classes … [Professors are] just trying to get through to materials they’re teaching without knowing whether their students understand it or not,” she said. “Me as well as many, many of my friends are overwhelmed during the past midterm wave because there’s just simply too much stuff being thrown on us.”

The time difference has also been a barrier to communication with classmates, Wang said. While students who are studying remotely from within the United States this semester may only have to adapt to a few hours of difference, she said, Wang is half a day off, making it difficult to collaborate on group assignments with peers.

“It’s trickier for group projects since all of my American classmates are in America, with probably three hours difference at most, while I have 12,” Wang said. “So sometimes it’s really difficult to coordinate work with them.”

International students are also unable to benefit from on-campus resources to the same extent they otherwise would if they were on campus. In an effort to compensate for this, OISS holds a weekly undergraduate discussion series to give students a space to feel more integrated with the University. 

Various offices across campus attend the discussions to speak to students, including the Career Center and the Office of Health Promotion, and OISS uploads recordings of all sessions to their YouTube channel so that students in different time zones can view these recordings whenever is convenient for them. 

“We actually started a YouTube channel for our office,” she said. “We record them because we know people don’t want to log on at 1 o’clock in the morning … we’re doing that specifically for students who are abroad.”

With positive cases of COVID-19 reaching all-time highs in the United States, the chances for some international students to come back to Chestnut Hill next semester seem slim, according to Nussbaum. Because immigration services have not given guidance about what regulations universities should follow for the spring, BC has not yet been able to tell international students whether they can plan to be on campus come January, Nussbaum said.

In July of this past year, ICE issued a regulation that would possibly deport all international students in the US if their colleges offered classes entirely online in the fall semester. Although later this policy was rescinded, Shi said that BC and OISS were not active enough in protecting the international community during that moment of uncertainty. 

“When the U.S. government formulated an act to ban international students, MIT and

Harvard, along with many other universities, were very vocal and taking actions in order to protect their international students,” Shi said. “But BC did nothing at that time, not even a public letter to the whole BC community. We were extremely disappointed about that.” 

The question of which international students will be able to come to campus in the spring is contingent on whether they were on campus this semester, and which country they would be traveling from, Nussbaum said. With respect to the current U.S. travel ban on China, Nussbaum does not foresee any drastic changes and anticipates that Chinese students will likely not be able to return in the spring.

“The big issue is going to be our students who were not able to come in the fall,” Nussbaum said. “Are they going to be able to come in the spring? Unfortunately, because of the current administration, I don’t think [the travel restriction on China] … will be lifted before the spring semester. So we’re not overly optimistic that that’s going to change for the spring.” 

The case may be different for international students from other countries without travel restrictions, who chose not to come to campus in the fall, though, Nussbaum said. Because OISS may have to issue students new I-20s, they are in the process of contacting them to gauge whether they intend to return for the spring.

Although this semester has been full of difficulties, one silver lining of being home is spending more time with her family, Wang said. Having studied in the United States since high school, Wang is looking forward to spending the holidays at home this year. 

“It’s good to finally get to celebrate the Lunar New Year for the first time in six years,” she said.

Featured Image by Vikrum Singh / For the Heights

November 16, 2020