Wednesday, October 28, 2020

International students adjust to online learning, face time differences while away from family

October 14, 2020
<p>Civil engineering junior Francisco Campos Iannacone poses for a portrait near the Red Cedar River on Oct. 9, 2020.</p>

Civil engineering junior Francisco Campos Iannacone poses for a portrait near the Red Cedar River on Oct. 9, 2020.

Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

Wake up. It’s 4 p.m. Attend meetings for the various organizations you’re a part of. Don’t forget to attend class at 1 a.m. Not to mention, everything is online. Finally, around 6 a.m., you get to lay your head to rest. Now, repeat this cycle every day, because it’s part of your life as a Spartan. 

You probably don’t consider this normal, but for sophomore Nikunj Agarwal, it’s his only option as an international student. Agarwal is living over 8,000 miles from campus in Bangalore, India.

On top of his nocturnal schedule, he has been sick for the past two weeks, which he said is unrelated to the fact that he’s up all night and sleeps through the day. 

“In a normal week, when I’m all good, my sleep schedule is really messy,” Agarwal said. “I literally function in the same time as you do, to be honest.” 

When he wakes up at 4 p.m., the day is just starting back in East Lansing. He creates his schedule based off of Eastern Standard Time but lives nine and a half hours ahead, in Indian Standard Time. While his family — along with the majority of India — is sleeping, Agarwal is working, often until 6:30 a.m.

To him, this is just a way of life that he’s gotten used to, but those around him warn that it’s unhealthy.

“My parents have more anxiety than I have, looking at the way I stay and the way I do things because they’re very worried about my health,” Agarwal said. “They complain, saying, ‘Nikunj, it’s not healthy to stay up all night and sleep all day because you’re messing with your body clock.’” 

To his parents’ credit, they could be right. According to Zen Zhong, a counselor at MSU’s Counseling & Psychiatric Services, or CAPS, a sleep schedule like this could be a health detriment. He said that sleep deprivation can impact both physical and mental health, as well as learning.

“A disruptive schedule or routine as a result of sleep deprivation can result in overwhelming stress, difficulties with concentration, or unproductive learning,” Zhong said in an email.

Although Agarwal moved back to India when classes were canceled this spring, he still sees difficulty with his classes, saying he’s been more anxious about school this year than in past years, mostly due to an increase in workload. He also said that the time difference makes him stressed.

“What if there are technical difficulties and the professor doesn’t believe me when I’m given an online exam?” Agarwal said. “Do I lose marks because of that particular perspective, or do I just keep quiet because I know nobody can help me at this point of time? Or what do I do? I’m really confused. Just having time difference. Imagine, I’m having exams this week, I’m sick and I have an exam at, say, 4 a.m.”

Bangalore is also one of India’s hardest-hit areas for COVID-19. According to Covid19india.org, the Bangaluru Urban District has reported more than 250,000 cases. 

Despite this, Agarwal said he wouldn’t feel safer being on campus.

“It’s a big no, with N-O in capital letters, I don’t,” Agarwal said. “It disappoints me, the way students think of coronavirus, at this point of time. They think it’s a time to be really jolly and to have get-togethers and just party it on.” 

Agarwal recognizes the loss that he’s facing while staying home. He said that many international students don’t get to attend online events, such as those put on by the University Activities Board, due to time differences. He said he’s going to miss winter; something he can’t experience in Bangalore. 

Besides these, he’ll miss a connection to the MSU community. He described interaction with his professors as a two-sided coin. On one side, they’re more accessible, on the other, they too are dealing with difficulties related to the pandemic.

“There are these professors who are much more available than they would have had been in any given time, in terms of office hours, in terms of time to talk about research opportunities,” Agarwal said. “There are a set of professors who are preoccupied because they themselves are at their own houses. They’re really occupied with things in their personal life.”

But with interaction between students, Agarwal doesn’t see two sides. He said that out of everything students have lost, this has been the most deteriorated. He explained that he misses exploring with his friends. Last year, he was able to go to different places across Michigan, as well as Chicago and Atlanta. He said he was especially disappointed when his study abroad to London was canceled for this year.

“It literally makes me feel like my laptop is my best friend, which is sad to think about,” Agarwal said. 

Zhong said that isolation and limited social interaction are themes he’s heard while speaking with international students.

“Experiences of cabin fever during the quarantine period — as some of its symptoms overlap with depression and anxiety — and increased distress may trigger other mental health concerns,” Zhong said. 

In contrast to Agarwal, junior Francisco Campos Iannacone is an international student who is in East Lansing. Campos Iannacone is from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He’s thankful that he doesn’t have to deal with time differences, but being an international student in the United States has its own challenges.

“I haven’t seen my parents for half a year,” Campos Iannacone said. “Because of the pandemic, I was supposed to go back to Argentina, but I was afraid I couldn’t come back to the United States because of any changes in the visa.” 

His brother is also a student at MSU, and they were able to secure off-campus housing, but they haven’t been home since March. In July, international students were threatened by a policy that would have sent those that attended all-online universities home but was quickly rescinded due to backlash from many universities, including MSU. He said he’s no longer worried about a change to his visa, but commented on the changes proposed in late November, which would limit most international students to four years of study and limit students from certain countries to two years.

“Yes, people would be affected," Campos Iannacone said. "I think the primary reason is, you're supposed to be in college to know what you want to do for the rest of your life." 

He said that it often takes time for students to figure out what they want to study, or they may want to double major, which could take longer than the time allotted in the proposed visa changes.

"You should have the freedom to get an idea of what you want to do for the rest of your life," Campos Iannacone said. 

Along with xenophobia, uncertainty about the future is one of the other themes that Zhong listed, specifically uncertainty due to visas. These include concerns over F-1 visa duration and H-1B visa changes.

Campos Iannacone didn’t express worry about future policy affecting him, saying that he feels his specific career interest, civil engineering, is currently in high need.

Campos Iannacone, much like Agarwal, said he misses everyday interactions the most. He also misses walking to different buildings on campus between classes, saying that this time is good for destressing.

“You cannot see someone’s expression right now because it’s all through Zoom, and nobody has their cameras open,” Campos Iannacone said. “The time between classes where you go from one room to another building, just walking, I think that also helps you clear your mind; you’re not worrying about sitting in front of a computer all the time.” 

Although Campos Iannacone misses interaction, he sees a bright side to the online format.

“One of the advantages of having everything online, of course, you don’t have to move between classes, which gives you more time to do homework, study for exams, ask questions, even attend office hours with professors,” Campos Iannacone said. “In terms of schoolwork, I don’t see it as more difficult than previous years even though classes are harder when you’re a junior or senior. Actually, it decreased because some of the things you would normally get in person can’t be taught online.” 

Zhong said that there are many behaviors that people can develop to maintain mental health and wellness. These include having a structured schedule, focusing on things within one’s control, exercising, limiting social media use, and goal setting. CAPS has shifted to virtual services and created additional resources, including a virtual care kit.

“It is normal to feel stressed out, overwhelmed, uncertain during these unprecedented times," Zhong said. "Please do not hesitate to reach out to CAPS services if additional support is needed. Additionally, students can access our CAPS Crisis Line 24/7 at 517-355-8270, prompt ‘1’ for crisis."

This article is part of our Oct. 13 print edition. View the full issue here.

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