From VPN connection to Zoom fatigue, online classes have been a different kind of struggle for international students

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, teachers and students rely on Zoom more than ever before—and many are finding it exhausting.

International students living in different time zones face greater pressures and challenges in order to survive school. Technical issues happen frequently. Time differences can make their learning experience even more difficult.

Jessica Lou, a sophomore studying accounting and finance at the University of Melbourne, is joining her classes from her home in China, in a different hemisphere from where her school is located.

Lou struggled with technical issues before, when turning in assignments, especially in Shanghai where she needs to use a VPN to connect to Zoom because of China’s firewall against foreign websites. “I remembered one time I had to upload the scanned version of my answer sheet to our school website during an exam. I had to switch off the VPN connection in the first place to use the airdrop function between my devices, but in that way the exam platform automatically shut down as it lost connection.”

Lou also expressed frustration with the three-hour time difference from her classes in Australia. “Many of my classes take place at night, the time that I used to hang out with friends and relax.”

Lou said she has heard that some U.S. universities are offering in-person options that are more international student-friendly.

Some U.S. universities have established Go-Local options where they collaborate with overseas campuses to accommodate their international students. Students can take USC online classes while on campus at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) or at Capital Normal University (CNU) in Beijing.

Cornell University, for example, has worked with academic partners such as Peking University in China to provide onsite, in-residence Study Away options for international students. Students can live and study near a local campus in their country while remotely taking Cornell classes.

“I know students at Cornell have fairly good Go-Local options,” said Lou, whose friends back home have participated in these Go-Local programs. “I’m jealous of them.”

Fiona Zhang, a sophomore physics major at the University of California, Davis, doesn’t have time issues with online classes but finds herself lonely and homesick.

As an international student from China, Zhang didn’t choose to return home when the pandemic began. She knew jet lag and technical issues would negatively impact her learning experience via Zoom.

While dealing with the isolation of self-quarantine away from home, Zhang said she missed her home and family members in China more than ever.

“Online classes exclude almost all my social activities and interactions which would otherwise add more color into my life,” said Zhang. “I do have two roommates here in the U.S., but that’s just different from how you’ll be loved and cared for at home.”

Despite some accommodations, many international students are left to work through that struggle alone.

Observing an increasing level of stress and nervousness among international students, the USC International Office has been offering various online events such as workshops for students who might reside in different countries.

However, according to psychologist and USC clinical assistant professor Dr. Ayoung “Alice” Phang, students are not utilizing these counseling services and resources even though the programs provided are very different from a lecture or class. “I think it’s because students are so tired of sitting in front of a camera and being on Zoom,” she said.

Phang also mentioned that the time difference has made their work rather difficult and challenging. “Given that the majority of our students are from Asian countries, it’s nighttime for them when many online workshops are being held.”

Phang said many international students expressed concerns that their visa status would be affected when new immigration policies come out. For those who were about to graduate, their career planning was disturbed by the pandemic and changing policies.

One thing Phang would like to share is to “be kind to yourself.” She encouraged students to let go of their perfectionism and high standards during this unusual time period.

“Move your body back and forth when your spine is in the same positions for hours,” said Phang. “Take breaks and go for a walk, even if it’s five minutes, because that’s going to help with self-care and stress management.”