Global City

Sleepless in Zoom: International students’ struggles with sleep

How international students with time differences are coordinating their sleep schedules with academic and extracurricular life.

It’s your earliest class but you’re still in your bed. Camera’s off. Eyes closed. We’ve all been there, napping during the Zoom call. But, what about international students, who are nearly half a day ahead, tuning in at some ungodly hour, and with faces completely devoid of joy?

Virtual scheduling for academic and extracurricular obligations is hard to keep up with. For international students, they also have to keep track of other basic activities, such as sleeping or eating.

Louis Ro, a sophomore majoring in communications at USC Annenberg, lives 14 hours ahead in South Korea. He said asynchronous classes might help, but not significantly.

“Even though USC provides asynchronous options, not attending classes live makes me really behind on class stuff,” Ro said.

In fact, Ro has to work synchronously in order to stay on track. “For example, for exams, I usually just take them during the actual class time because I know I can’t wake up for the accommodated time,” Ro said. “The fact that I’m taking it at 3 a.m. really messes me up because I can’t focus and I’m tired.”

Ro is not the only one facing the challenge of coordinating sleep schedules with classes in different time zones. Serena Wang, a junior also majoring in communications at USC Annenberg, is now based in Changchun in northeast China where the time zone is 15 hours ahead of PST. She has to get up at 6 a.m. on every Tuesday and Thursday for an upper level seminar.

However, this adjustment is not too painful since she enjoys interacting with her classmates when she attends live discussions. “I am okay with my new sleeping schedule,” Wang said. “I chose COMM 400 (”Mindful Communication”) and really enjoy it.”

Despite a relatively regular sleep schedule, Wang, like many of her friends, does stay up late from time to time. She used to stay up in order to have more personal time, but that has changed since the pandemic. “Now the reason for staying up late is because I am more efficient at night,” Wang said. “I used to stay up for a little bit just to have some time for myself, watching TV and other things. But now under quarantine, I have too much personal time.”

Not every international student is having the same experiences, though. For Ro, remote learning ultimately leaves little to no room to do non-school activities. “I really just try to do classes and then just go to bed right away, and then do my assignments after I wake up because that’s when I least have some motivation,” Ro said. Clubs and other extracurriculars are extra hurdles in addition to classes.

Although everything has been moved online, Wang does not find herself more relaxed. Last semester, she took 18 units along with an internship. This semester, she is taking 20 units. A more flexible schedule allows for multitasking, so many peers started taking extra units or applying for internships while having classes online, which in turn brings peer pressure. “I just feel like everyone else is doing so many things at the same time. It really adds more peer pressure,” Wang said.

Wang finds herself physically and mentally well despite the frustration the pandemic brings to everyone. Staying at home also offers her with the precious opportunity to stay close with friends and family. With the manageable workload at school, Wang has tried her best to balance life during the pandemic. She added, “I am also about to finally take my driver’s license test.”

Even when loaded with multifaceted commitments, Wang manages to keep her good habit of not procrastinating. She strives not to be affected by the time difference. It largely depends on the workload of the assignment, though, Wang said. “Sometimes I would finish up a rough draft and polish it later.”

Wang often pulls up the syllabus and writes down every deadline in a journal to keep track of them, which is her secret for punctuality. Therefore, she hasn’t missed any deadlines so far. However, many mistakes can still happen when one is converting the deadline in a different time zone.

Time differences are not just minor inconveniences and, unsurprisingly, there are major consequences for productivity, physical, and mental health.

USC Professor Stephanie Eggert, who teaches PHED 160 (“Stress Management for Healthy Living”), covers the topic of sleep extensively in her course and reiterates the necessity of getting sufficient sleep.

“Sleep is one of, if not, the most important aspect of managing stress,” Eggert said. “Once we prepare for sleep, the most amount of physical repair occurs between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., and if we’re not sleeping during those times, essentially our body does not get the opportunity to repair itself.”

Wang echoed with Eggert’s words. For her, sleeping early does not equal sleeping better. “Sometimes my parents would force me to go to bed but I can’t fall asleep right away,” Wang said. “I have a hard time falling asleep.”

For those facing similar problems, there may be another option. Surprisingly, being nocturnal can also be possible, and even beneficial, if students are able to train their bodies to be efficient during adjusted schedules, according to Eggert.

“For example, an individual is sleeping during the day but at school or work or doing something creative during the night. You can actually train your body to be efficient during those times and not have it be so detrimental to the system, but it does take consistency, which is incredibly important,” Eggert said.

A term Eggert mentioned was “social jetlag,” which refers to the sleep deprivation that may happen when people choose social obligations over biological needs, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. She often sees this in tired students who choose to party, instead of sleep, during the weekends.

Eggert stressed that consistency is key. It can take three days or more to readjust one’s sleeping schedule. Rather than struggling with pulling occasional all-nighters, it may be helpful to find a regular, even if odd, sleep schedule that works for you.

However, it is important to note that everyone is relative and what works for some will not work for others. However, there are daily practices that can make it easier for anyone to adjust to any schedule they decide on.

Eggert recommended techniques like meditation or taking a cold shower to let your body know that you’re awake and starting your day, because “your body gets used to doing that same thing at that specific time.” However, Eggert added that it doesn’t mean you have to set aside specific times, if you feel that you are too busy.

“Most importantly, you’re just looking to get it in at some point, one time per day,” Eggert said.

This all said, the onus should not fall completely on students. Ro said he understands the inevitably of time-zone conflicts, while flexible due dates are extremely helpful for international students.”[If] the professors provide a 24 hour window for exams or essays, that is the best way,” Ro said.

Wang said she has friends who have missed deadlines but were helped out by understanding professors with this mindset. “They had to email their professors and explain the situation. Most professors were kind enough to let it pass,” Wang said.

This is already the case for some of the classes that Wang is taking. However, as Ro said, it may be more helpful for the policy to be more universal.

If not, Ro suggested changing the due dates to match the international student’s actual time zone, especially since the 11:59 p.m. PST deadline converts awkwardly to lunch time for some. Wang also recommended scheduling more internationally accessible times for virtual campus events.

Even beyond remote learning, it is important to make sure that we are getting regular sleep. Focus on consistency. And, even if you can’t, just make sure you make time to watch all the recorded lectures.

Julie Cornet contributed to this story.