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Taking classes in a different time zone: tips from around the world

Three international students on finding support, adjusting to learning, maintaining friendships
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When COVID-19 hit, U of T students had to figure out how to get home, and fast. Domestic students were ushered back to their hometowns quickly by parents, and international students faced the challenge of booking a flight back to their homes. However, as the beginning of the new school year approached, U of T students faced a new question: would they be staying home?

For international students, the answer largely depended on COVID-19-related policies. Multiple countries closed international borders, forcing airlines to respond by cancelling flights. On top of this, international students faced challenges related to the risk of contracting COVID-19 on long flights and in airports. As a result, some decided to stay home, and now had to concern themselves with the logistics of class schedules and the effectiveness of long-distance learning while living in another time zone. 

Over the summer of 2020, in a survey conducted by Easy Group, an education company founded by a U of T alum, 90 per cent of the surveyed Chinese international students enrolled at U of T despite the pandemic. 57 per cent of them said that they will not move back to U of T in the fall, and nearly 70 per cent of them felt negatively about online education.

These numbers raised important questions for The Varsity to consider, such as whether or not other international students taking online classes remotely still feel the same sentiments. The Varsity interviewed three international students, all of whom remained largely optimistic about their studies and shared tips for adjusting to new schedules in different time zones.

These students hail from Indonesia, Vietnam, and India, and they admitted that the large discrepancy between their time zones and the schedule on which U of T is running has impacted their lives. However, they all emphasized that while online learning is a challenge, it is still manageable provided you have the right resources.

Communicating with family members

Living in a country with a different time zone can affect a student’s behaviour and their family’s schedule. Students may run into the problem of having classes late at night and sleeping in the morning, which may disrupt the schedule of the rest of their household.

Akshit Goyal, a third-year student studying computer science who is currently living in India, 9.5 hours ahead of Toronto, knows this concern all too well. He lives in a household of 10 people, and while the number of members may not be ideal, the continuous support from his parents creates a better and less chaotic atmosphere. He wrote to The Varsity about his experience with online learning, commenting that communicating with family members helped them work together and foster a flexible and effective learning environment.

“My family was very supportive,” Goyal wrote. “They understood the issues and made their best effort to help.”

Regina Angkawidjaja, a second-year student double majoring in criminology & sociolegal studies and industrial relations & human resources, and minoring in sociology, understands this problem well. Living in Indonesia, she was also concerned about the discrepancy in time zones, since she is 11 hours ahead of Toronto.

Anticipating synchronous courses before the semester began, Angkawidjaja wrote to The Varsity that she had tried to mentally prepare herself for an altered schedule

“I even came up with a plan with my parents to ensure that they wouldn’t disturb me when I am napping or sleeping during the day,” Angkawidjaja wrote. However, she noted that posted lecture recordings helped her maintain a normal schedule.

For Goyal, his parents quickly realized the difficulty of attending school during a pandemic and continued to encourage him to prioritize physical and mental wellness.

“It definitely becomes difficult to concentrate on school, but they made sure to keep noise less during exams, [and] check upon me often if I needed anything,” wrote Goyal. “My mom used to make meals for me and made sure I didn’t have any other task apart from focusing on studies.”

After communicating with family members about their class schedule, international students have realized that parent-child relationships are vital for completing postsecondary education. Support and accommodation are the results of teamwork, collaboration, and mutual understanding.

However, it is important to acknowledge that the ability to communicate with family members varies depending on the student’s situation. Living with an emotionally supportive family is a privilege that many lack, and some students may have to stay home due to COVID-19-related circumstances.

In these cases, it is essential for students to prioritize their emotional well-being and access mental health supports when necessary. Support may come in the form of confiding in friends, speaking to a Health & Wellness counsellor, or locating local resources for support.

Preparing to adjust to class schedules

Going to class at 2:00 am may seem like a nightmare at the beginning of the semester. However, Angkawidjaja wrote that she prepared for this moment before the school year even commenced.

“When I was choosing my courses in July, I was mentally preparing myself to go nocturnal since my courses are all between 9pm to 8am in my time zone,” Angkawidjaja wrote.

When registration began, however, and students could see how their courses would be officially delivered, some of them enrolled in classes with asynchronous options. This means that lectures are either recorded or available at a different time than stated on the class schedule.

Danny Ly, a fourth-year student who is double majoring in psychology and economics and currently living in Vietnam, prefers the option of online classes and recorded lectures. “Even in Canada, I’d prefer to take classes with WebOption [sic] courses,” Ly wrote.

Since the lectures can be watched at any time, he can adjust his class schedule to his time zone, which allows him to plan a more convenient schedule. He wrote to The Varsity that if he needs help on a question, he can also stay up to briefly attend the live lecture session and chat with professors through Blackboard Collaborate. The flexibility of the class delivery methods have allowed Ly to plan his schedule efficiently. 

Angkawidjaja had a similar experience to Ly in terms of online classes. She wrote that the asynchronous class experience was more convenient for her.

“I have the opportunity to create my own structured timetable according to my sleep schedule,” wrote Angkawidjaja.

While some international students were able to schedule mostly asynchronous classes, not all were so lucky.

For Goyal, his experiences were very different. According to him, the adjustment period was complicated due to the large difference in time zones.

“It was one of the most difficult part [sic],” Goyal wrote. He would wake up at 6:00 pm and go to sleep at 9:00 am in order to attend his classes.

“I was basically living by Canadian time in India,” Goyal wrote.

Goyal initially found it hard to adjust. Being on such a different schedule from his family and friends at home, he noted that he lost “most of the daylight.” On top of this, he “had a little time to interact with family and friends in India.”

His schedule was completely nocturnal. He would wake up in the evening around 6:00 pm, attend his morning lectures and office hours, and then study for the rest of the day. Outside of school, he used to go for a run or go cycling at 6:00 am before going to bed.

Having to live on this new schedule and figure out how to adapt to the time zone difference was a big shift for Goyal. He relied most on his family to accommodate his new schedule and keep the house quiet when he needed to study. In his downtime, for some moments of normalcy, he would spend time with his family when their schedules overlapped by playing board games with them at night.

Adjusting to the new social scene at home

The pandemic social restrictions imposed on international students living at home vary depending on the country. For Ly, he wrote to The Varsity that he doesn’t feel worried living in Vietnam but can see why international students in Canada would feel anxious.

“In Vietnam, the cases of COVID-19 are rising at a much lower speed compared to others, so I’m not as stressed,” wrote Ly. As of September 26, Vietnam has just over 1000 cases.

On the other hand, the COVID-19 case numbers in Angkawidjaja’s home country are worse than those in Canada. The restrictions are tighter, but Angkawidjaja remains optimistic about adapting to the situation.

“If I were in Toronto, I think I’d be able to see my friends, eat out, go to libraries, and explore the city more as opposed to staying home most of the time. However, most of my friends aren’t even in Toronto right now, so I don’t really mind staying home,” Angkawidjaja wrote. “I’ve definitely had to adapt to my circumstance and change my mindset to positively appraise each situation.”

While social media remains an option for students looking to interact with friends and peers, Ly and Angkawidjaja have sought internships or additional extracurricular activities. In Ly’s case, he picked up an internship as a daytime activity.

“I don’t have a fixed schedule,” wrote Ly. “I’m doing an internship during the day, so I have free time to catch up during the nighttime.”

For Angkawidjaja, participating in U of T extracurriculars has given her regular access to her network of friends. However, she mentioned that being on track with her sleep schedule is difficult due to the time zone differences.

She is part of a club called Power to Change, which is a Christian fellowship on campus. Meetings are held every Thursday from 5:00–7:00 pm on Zoom. For Angkawidjaja, this is a 4:00–6:00 am meeting.

“In one way I’m at a disadvantage for being on the other side of the world,” Angkawidjaja wrote.

In order to participate in the meetings, Angkawidjaja has to wake up at 3:30 am and sleep after the meeting is over. However, despite the disadvantage, the club meetings do not have a major impact on her schedule, as she adjusts accordingly.

“It’s definitely a struggle, but I guess that’s just what I have to adapt to!” she wrote. “The benefits of being able to see my friends… by far [outweigh] the struggle to adjust my sleeping schedule.”

Goyal also used to socialize with his network of friends over conferencing programs or by gaming together before exams “to release stress and pressure.”

The overall takeaways

Staying home for university this year can be daunting for many international students. Not only is a pandemic raging, but the clashing class schedules across different time zones can cause a hassle for students.

Given how many major changes U of T students are facing this year, community members  were initially hesitant about U of T’s reopening plans. For those who are taking courses online from around the world, the experience with online learning may have had some adjustment bumps, but students have adapted.

“It was a big shift, something that no one expected,” wrote Goyal. “Initially, I was scared about my academic successes, but the faculty and university was [sic] so supportive and accommodating that everything went so smoothly.”

Angkawidjaja also believes that the pandemic has not altered the quality of education at U of T.

“From the syllabi, lectures, and announcements, as a student I can really tell that professors are doing their best to accommodate every student and their unique experiences,” wrote Angkawidjaja. “Extra planning and consideration is being made to maximize students’ learning.”

With certain crucial resources, such as a supportive and communicative family environment, the option of asynchronous classes, support from fellow peers, and outside extracurricular activities or hobbies to occupy time, a virtual university experience can be more fun and flexible than imagined.

“Learning was different,” wrote Goyal. “Surely, the in-person element cannot be matched in an online format, but it was something new.”

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