Despite the flexibility of asynchronous learning, where students outside of the Pacific time zone can watch class recordings instead of attending classes in real-time, some students value the live interactions with professors and peers. Students living overseas and on the east coast share their tireless schedules and how they cope with mental health by maintaining human connections.
Mahima Varanasi, a junior studying industrial and systems engineering, is living at home in Pennsylvania. When she was in LA, Mahima would finish school in the afternoon and do schoolwork at night. Now, with late Zoom classes, her work time has changed to 7 a.m.
“This has been the hardest part - waking up and doing work right away, I sometimes lack motivation,” Varanasi said.
Back in week five of the semester, Varanasi was still adjusting her circadian rhythm, the sleep-wake regulation process that correlates with the 24-hour sun cycle. When she first returned home before the semester started, she would fall asleep around 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. because she had grown accustomed to LA’s time zone. “I was always tired and mentally I just felt behind, time-wise.”
Dr. Y.C. Yeh, a sleep specialist at the Cathay General Hospital in Taiwan, provided suggestions for USC students. “Generally speaking, it won’t take longer than two weeks to adjust your circadian rhythm. If you still experience circadian rhythm disorder after a month, then you should take other factors into consideration,” Yeh said.
“Academic stress, pandemic lifestyle, physical and mental conditions can influence your circadian rhythm adjustment, too.” He advises students to exercise more, avoid sleeping in late, and seek professional help when necessary.
Some of Varanasi’s Zoom classes don’t begin until her parents get home from work. After dinner, she’s still Zooming. “As a junior, I feel like I need to really be investing in my involvements and yet I find myself in meetings at 11 p.m.,” Varanasi said. Not only is it hard to schedule meeting times, she also finds it difficult to keep an active brain.
“I have to contribute to discussions and projects and I’m so tired,” Varanasi said. When she needs to complete work for school or other commitments, she turns off her camera and zooms from her phone so the computer can be reserved for completing work.
To balance work and mental health, Varanasi schedules morning calls with friends and takes walks around the neighborhood. Studies show that dedicating time to connect with others stimulates one’s oxytocin activation. A significant increase in oxytocin production can improve the brain’s response to stressful situations.
Fifteen hours ahead of USC, Sarah Fong, a junior economics major, is living back home in Hong Kong. She typically watches class recordings but stays up for quizzes and tests. Recently, she started a new part-time job, pushing her sleep schedule beyond healthy limits. Fong stays up until 5 a.m. every day a quiz is scheduled and goes to work at 8 a.m. Her schedule is “mentally and physically exhausting but always a huge relief when it’s over,” according to Fong.
For students more concerned with their academic performance than their sleep schedule, Dr. Yeh suggests wearing a pair of sunglasses during the day and sleeping in a dark environment.
Dr. Jing Ma, associate professor for the department of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, suggested students take vitamin D and melatonin supplements. According to Ma, bright environments interrupt melatonin production, a key chemical for sleeping.
“It has been shown that comparing people with day-time jobs, night shift workers - such as hospital nurses - had lower levels of blood and urine melatonin and are more likely to develop breast and colorectal cancers among many other diseases,” Ma added.
Study groups, while distracting, are an opportunity for Fong to connect with her boyfriend and sister. The three often study together to bond and support each other. Fong has not found it tough to balance academics and her loved ones. “In general my parents and family are really supportive and try to leave me to spend my days how I need to,” she said.
Torres Chi, who is double majoring in journalism and philosophy, politics & law, currently lives in LA but normally stays up until 4 a.m. to finish his assignments and work from his internship. “I feel drowsy all the time during the daytime, which makes it pretty difficult for me to concentrate on Zoom classes,” he said.
After beginning this sleeping pattern, Chi noticed he was gaining weight. Weight gain can be traced to an increased caffeine and sugar intake that some individuals use to combat their lack of sleep and energy.
Chi’s strategy to survive his schedule is to work when he’s alert, which is around 2 p.m., and go to bed anytime when he wants to sleep. So far, Chi said the polyphasic sleep approach, sleeping multiple times during the day rather than having a continuous long sleep at night, has been keeping up his mental health.
However, Dr.Yeh warns that polyphasic sleep may not be the best approach in the long run. “Polyphasic sleep can damage your focus and learning retention. If you practice polyphasic sleep for a long time, you may experience autonomic dysfunction including palpitation, chest pain or dizziness,” he said.
Catching up with friends and family has become a fantasy for Chi. “It’s impossible to balance them (social life and academics),” he said. When he’s not sleeping, he is either working or catching up on assignments.