Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 17, 2021

Up all night: Students in different time zones tackle a virtual semester

By JACKIE RITTENHOUSE | March 8, 2021

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Students living abroad can be more than half a day ahead when attending class.

Due to this semester’s hybrid model, students are able to take classes either remotely or in-person. While many undergraduates chose to return to campus, those who did not have faced many challenges. Students living away from the East Coast, for example, have had to tackle two disparate time zones on top of the difficulties of online learning.

Junior Yuchen Li is currently living with her family in China, 13 hours ahead of Baltimore's time zone. In an email to The News-Letter, Li described her issues dealing with time difference.

“[There’s] the inevitability of having to stay up late to take courses. Not being an evening person, I preferred to work in the afternoons and early evenings rather than late night,” she wrote. “My performance has for sure been influenced because of the time difference.”

Sophomore Kyoungjin Lim reported that she is having similar troubles managing the time difference in Korea, even with some asynchronous lectures.

“Since [Korea Standard Time] is almost in the opposite time zone from Baltimore, I had to stay up way past midnight if I were to take classes live,” she wrote. “For asynchronous classes, it was also very challenging for me to keep up with the schedule. I had to make sure that I did the required assignments on time, and sometimes I had to catch up on lectures as they constantly accumulate.”

Sophomore Anna An had to change her sleep schedule in order to manage online classes from Korea, waking up at 5:30 a.m. She shared that the change has affected her participation and ability to engage with teaching assistants for her courses.

“My biggest challenge is being unable to attend TA sessions when needed. Usually, I study in the afternoon KST, which is midnight in EST. This hinders my [ability] to ask questions right away until everyone living on the opposite side of the world wakes up,” she wrote.

She also noted that living in a different time zone adds an extra level of isolation during quarantine.

“In Baltimore, I could see students studying hard in Brody and I was able to have casual conversations with them about the difficulties during lectures. But this remote environment makes me unable to see the faces of students, which leads me to be depressed a lot,” she wrote. “Being in an isolated place makes me blame myself a lot more when I get a bad score on exams or HW because I do not know how others have done.”

For many students, COVID-19 safety played a large role in their decision to stay home this semester.

Li explained that the safety risks from traveling and various shut downs in the Charles Village area caused her to opt out of returning to campus.

“After the school closed last March, I stayed in Baltimore for a couple of months, but because of the closing of the school cafeteria and nearby restaurants and groceries, it was a bit more difficult to maintain the same living status as before. My family also prefers that I stay closer to them in a situation like this, which eventually led to my decision to return,“ she said. 

Family also played a role in sophomore Shira Shans’ decision to not return to campus this semester. Currently, Shans lives with her sister in Israel, which is seven hours ahead of Baltimore. 

“I decided to go to Israel because I wanted to be with my extended family. I’ve gotten to see my grandfather and aunts and uncles,” she said. “This is the first opportunity I've had to spend time with them and get to know them. It's pretty awesome.”

Sophomore Janice Roh explained that the asynchronicity and costs of the spring semester played a major role in her decision to stay in Seoul, South Korea, which is 14 hours ahead of Baltimore.

“There are way fewer COVID-19 cases in Korea and no one is against wearing masks — hence, it's much safer here. All of my classes are completely online and more than half of them are asynchronous or have an asynchronous option — I don't think that going to Baltimore is worth the money for housing, plane tickets and other costs,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Regardless of their reasoning, students in different time zones have to deal with the challenges of adjusting their EST-based schedules to their home time zone.

While most students in Baltimore take classes during the day, Roh listens to lectures after midnight. Club activities have further complicated Roh’s sleep schedule.

“The biggest challenge was having to stay up until 4 a.m. because of classes and classwork, but then having to wake up relatively early in the mornings because a lot of student group meetings or events take place in the evening in Baltimore,“ she wrote. “It sucks to wake up for a meeting after only four hours of sleep. It is also difficult to communicate and keep in touch with friends or student groups and labs because I am asleep when people are most active online.”

According to Li, many professors have offered accommodations for their courses given the large number of students functioning in different time zones. This can include recording lectures or meeting individually with certain students.

“Most of the professors in my original course list were considerate of providing time zone accommodations,” she wrote. “However, there were also professors who were very strict on lecture participation as part of the grade. After considering the choice between staying up late and falling courses, I had to eventually drop this course.” 

Roh reported similar issues with some of her professors.

“The professor for my one class that requires attendance has two options for class time on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but it seems to be an accommodation for people on the West Coast, rather than for international students” she wrote.

Other students in different time zones, such as Lim, have not experienced such problems.

“Almost all of my lectures, except for the language class that requires more interaction, provided an asynchronous option. Instead of participating in classes live, I participated in Piazza, office hours and discussion on Blackboard. Also, some of my exams had a 24-hour window, so I was able to pick the time that best fits my schedule,” she wrote. 

In an email to The News-Letter, Assistant Vice President of External Relations for the Office of Communications Karen Lancaster listed the various ways Hopkins staff and faculty adapted their work for international students with large time differences.

“Joelle Frechette, a professor in the department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering taught a class last semester in which she offered the class twice (teaching off cycle at 7:30 AM) to accommodate students overseas,” she wrote.

Lancaster also described how PILOT sessions, which previously were held between 5 and 10 p.m. EST, are now being held as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 1 a.m.

Regardless of accommodations, most students with more than a 12-hour time difference have adopted nocturnal lifestyles.

According to Li, this change can have significant effects on both physical and mental health.

“Not being able to communicate with my friends face-to-face and virtually not being able to make new friends pose the threat of feeling down mentally,” she wrote. “Some of my friends also expressed that they feel lonely and depressed and feel that they have no one to talk to. The lack of real-life interactions have for sure influenced us.”

Shans has had to sacrifice some of her socialization time because of the time change.

“Sometimes I have to do classes during the afternoon and evening which kind of sucks because that's when people are off work and hang out socially,” she said. “My biggest challenge is the afternoon/evening thing interfering with my social life which is so important nowadays, especially with COVID, because otherwise it can be depressing.”

However, other students, like Roh, have been able to support their mental health despite the challenges of online school and disparate time zones.

“I've always slept really late, so other than being tired midday due to a lack of sleep, adjusting to the time differences didn't affect my mental health,” she wrote. “However, I noticed that a lot of my friends in Korea who went to the East Coast this semester decided to do so because they were having a hard time adjusting to time differences in addition to social distancing.”

Students also reported that functioning in different time zones has its perks. For example, many undergraduates who chose not to return to Baltimore are living with their families, which can provide a strong support structure.

According to Roh, her family’s differing schedules can prove both challenging and comical, since some members are functioning in two time zones. 

“I tell my mom to go to bed, but she ends up staying up super late with me, so we both don't function on the typical schedule here,” she wrote. 

Shans has found that she can easily communicate with her friends who stay up late in Baltimore while she goes for a morning walk in Israel.

“I have a lot of friends who are nocturnal or who stay up late and who love talking at night, so I call them and I go on a walk. For me it's a morning walk which is healthy and really nice,” she said. 

Li explained that she tries to focus on the positives of her new lifestyle.

“Overall, I would say this has been a special experience for me, and probably everyone else. Personally, I got to spend the Chinese New Year at home, meet friends and spend time with my family,” she wrote. “Though it was hard to manage everything in between my family life and coursework, I was grateful for the time to think about what type of life I want for myself in the future.”

Correction: In a previous version of the article, Shira Shans’ name was misspelled. The News-Letter regrets this error.

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