After One Year of Remote Learning, International Students Continue To Struggle With Taking Classes Overnight

Students taking classes from drastically different time zones face academic challenges, difficult sleep schedules, and loss of connection during virtual learning.


Looking north from 55th Street at Hyde Park and the South Side, with the Loop in the distance.

By Jinna Lee and Danya Wang

This article is an extended version of “9,300 Miles and 14 Hours Away, International Students Struggle With Attending UChicago Virtually.”

Between time zone differences keeping students awake until 3 a.m., confusion with class attendance policies during enrollment, and feelings of isolation from the student body, online learning has presented unique challenges to international students taking classes from home.

When the pandemic hit in March of last year, many international students returned home along with their peers for various reasons—some students wanted to stay closer to their families in countries with lower coronavirus numbers, while others wanted to avoid becoming the target of anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. In July, concerns about going back to campus were exacerbated when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that international students taking classes entirely online were not allowed to return to the U.S. in the fall. Moreover, students already residing in the country would either need to leave or transfer to a school offering in-person classes. Although this policy was later rolled back, many international students still grappled with questions about their student status in the U.S.

For some, the difficulties of remote learning halfway around the globe last spring caused them to make plans to head back to the U.S. for the fall. In December, Provost Ka Yee Lee acknowledged the challenge that online class presented to students and faculty living abroad, saying that some were “waking up at 2 a.m. to participate in a synchronous class session.”

“Your dedication has allowed the University not only to persevere but to continue flourishing. We should all be proud of this accomplishment, and I am deeply grateful to you for it,” Lee wrote. However, while the Law School has allowed students to petition to waive synchronous attendance for classes between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. in their local time zone since last spring, attendance policies at the College have continued to be at the discretion of professors, several of whom international students say have not been accommodating.

Christopher Cheung, a second-year, has been taking classes from Hong Kong, which is 13 or 14 hours ahead of Chicago depending on the time of year. For Cheung, rescheduling classes taking place late at night in his time zone has been a difficult process, as professors have tended to gear their classes towards students within a few hours of central time.

“As an international student, it’s impossible to go to office hours due to the time difference,” he said. “While professors may be open to [changing office hours, the] process is democratic, so it always ends up [during the day] in U.S. time.”

Last fall, when Cheung asked his professor whether office hours could be moved to a more convenient time, he received an email saying “5 a.m. on Friday for you…is not exactly the middle of the night.”

Other international students have chosen not to attend office hours altogether, instead forming study groups with classmates in similar time zones. Don Assmongkol, a second-year taking classes from Thailand, goes over homework questions with other students in Asia. “I’m in a study group with some people in the Asian time [zones] and we all do problem sets individually and come together. But most of the learning is by yourself.”

Challenges posed by time zone differences have also impacted many international students’ productivity and academic performance. During winter quarter, Bingyang Huang, a second-year currently living in Shenzhen, China, took four synchronous classes, one of which ran from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. in her local time zone. “A lot of deadlines for assignments are midnight CT which is noon for us, so I have to do assignment on that day, so I have to stay up all night until noon, so it’s already daytime for us,” said Huang. 

Inflexible deadlines and exams taking place at midnight have left Huang feeling constantly tired, which has detracted from her performance on exams. “[Not having] a regular routine affects my performance in classes—in some classes I fall asleep.” As a result, Huang had to rewatch one of her Friday lectures every week.

Similarly, second-year Zachary Lee, a Singaporean citizen, has found the demands of balancing his university obligations so difficult that, in fall quarter, he switched to living entirely in Chicago time, sleeping at 4 p.m. and waking up at 1 a.m. in Singapore time.

“Your body isn’t used to sleeping during the day. I did night shift in the Singaporean army for two years, sleeping during the day, and it’s still bad. Obviously, sunlight has a big impact on mood, at least for me, and I try to make it a point to go out in the morning so I can see the sun. Otherwise, it’s really depressing.”

Sleeping for most of the day has also caused Lee to miss meals with his family. “In terms of my family, my parents are working, so I sometimes attend family dinner, but whenever I do that, it screws up my sleep schedule really badly.”

Fortunately, Lee has found his professors to be flexible toward his situation. “All my professors are quite accommodating with exams, and you just have to manage your schedule for problem sets,” Lee said. “My Sosc professor…and my math professor were really nice. You can arrange office hours with my math [professor] outside the normal time. He’s really going as far as he can to help facilitate [this virtual format]. He also changed the exams to a take-home [exam] with conceptual questions. I thought that was really nice also. It just makes you feel less [like] garbage.”

Beyond the classroom, time zone differences have complicated international students’ ability to pursue extracurricular activities.

Most registered student organizations schedule their activities around Chicago time, making it difficult for some international students to participate. “We comprise such a small proportion of the student body [that] it doesn’t make much sense to cater to us specifically,” Lee said.

Virtual schooling has also limited course options for international students. Some students point to evening classes as a potential solution.

Sophia Koock, a Korean American who has been studying in Seoul, South Korea, since the beginning of the pandemic, has adopted the strategy of reaching out to professors in advance to ask if she can take their classes asynchronously. Last quarter, she emailed six professors before winter pre-registration because information about time flexibility was not widely disseminated. “It can be really disappointing because there are classes I really wanted to take, but when it’s at 3 a.m., it’s hard,” she said.

Ahead of spring quarter, Koock hoped that more courses would be offered that meet in the evening in Chicago. Her Sosc class was offered late in the day in Chicago and was also attended by students in the western U.S. two hours behind as well as by Chicago students who preferred evening courses. “It can’t be fun [for the professor] to teach until 9 p.m., but I really appreciate having a more normal class experience,” Koock said.