To sleep or not to sleep? Students struggle with time zone changes

a clock at night
Some students who live abroad have had to choose between preserving their sleep schedules and mental health, or engaging with their classmates and professors. (Courtesy: Linda Åslund/Flickr)

It’s midnight in London and Mia Kriegel PO ’22 just finished a Zoom session for her history class. But her night won’t end there. She needs to work on a group project with students in the U.S., and won’t be going to sleep until after 1:30 a.m. 

Classes have moved online for students at the Claremont Colleges, along with thousands of others across the U.S., due to the coronavirus pandemic. For many students, the change has meant moving back home, sometimes half a world away from Southern California. 

In order to prevent classes from overlapping, the 5Cs’ official policy has been that students should expect to take classes at their regular times. But some students who live abroad have had to choose between preserving their sleep schedules and mental health, or engaging with their classmates and professors. 

While many professors have accommodated students who live outside of the Pacific Standard Time zone, including recording classes for students to watch later or offering individual meeting times, some students complain that the recordings don’t compare to class in real time.

But not all professors are being so accommodating.

Kriegel said some of her professors require students to privately request and provide reasons for needing recordings, while others refuse to record their classes due to concerns of people selling their lectures.

Ash Louis SC ’20 is living in Bangkok, Thailand — 14 hours ahead of PST. Her classes are now between 3 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., and she said she’s faced some particularly severe difficulties with professors.

One professor is requiring her to write a 1500-word paper discussing the readings each time she did an asynchronous class, so she decided to attend classes. Her dance professors did not want to record their classes because of privacy concerns.

“I did inform all my professors about my time zone issues but international students are usually in the minority so, while they’ve all been empathetic for my situation, I believe that professors aren’t really dedicating sufficient resources to truly help international students,” she said via email.

Louis has been attending all of her classes and said her sleep schedule “is a disaster” because of it. During the week, she goes to bed around 9:30 p.m., she said.

“I’m trying to sleep early because I wake up at 3 a.m., and after class and Zoom meetings I nap from like 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., and these chunks are the only sleep I get,” she said. “I try to catch up on sleep on weekends but it’s really rough.”

Louis added that the quality of her work and her motivation has decreased as a result of the schedule disruptions. She recently took days to write a two-page response paper she said would have otherwise been straightforward. 

“It’s been incredibly challenging just to find the motivation and energy to complete assignments that are actually of quality,” she said. “Half of our ‘day’ is spent in the middle of the night, and since most of us are home we also have other responsibilities.”

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Louis feels that professors are not being clear with their expectations for international students, and have been encouraging them to attend class despite the time difference. 

“We are literally living through a global pandemic, and have to wake up in the middle of the night to attend a class and participate for a grade, so there are real stakes that matter a lot and we want to do well, so we almost have no other choice but to be compliant,” Louis said.

Kriegel is eight hours ahead of California in London, and has exclusively evening and late-night classes. Her earliest class runs from 5:35 p.m. to 6:50 p.m. and her latest class goes from 9:15 p.m. to 12 a.m.

She chose to attend classes despite the time difference, because she doesn’t want to watch recordings of her classes.

“It sucks. I think that what’s difficult is that no matter what time zone you’re in, being in a Zoom class, it’s much harder to stay engaged and to be an active listener in general,” Kriegel said. “[In Claremont,] I try not to be in class after 2:30 pm because I just don’t function, so I like doing things in the morning. … I think [the time difference] is hard because I’m tired, I’m not super engaged.” 

Ananya Sagar SC ’21 is in New Delhi, India, 12.5 hours ahead of PST. Her classes run between 10:05 p.m. and 6 a.m. 

All of Sagar’s professors record their classes, but she tries to attend her earliest class so she can participate.

“I just think that watching recorded lectures is not the best tool for learning, and I feel like I’m missing out if I don’t attend class in ‘real-time’, not to mention the fact that all of the office hours professors have are in the middle of the night,” Sagar said via email.

Kriegel said the time change has affected her ability to interact with friends and classmates for group projects, mentor sessions and collaborative work. 

“Trying to find times when I can work with other people, both socially but then also for academic purposes, has been really difficult,” she said. “I now have very limited times to do things because if I try to do it at 10 a.m., nobody is awake.”

Varshika Kanthadai PO ’22 is in Hong Kong, 15 hours ahead of California. Her classes now begin at 12:35 a.m. and end at 5:45 a.m. 

Kanthadai and Kriegel’s Chinese professor set up a separate, shortened class time to accommodate Kanthadai’s time difference. Kriegel said she thinks more professors could make similar changes.

“We have to be respectful of the professor’s time,” she said, “but I think that it’s a disservice to have students who literally have no other option but just to watch a recording, when both considering tuition, but also what Pomona preaches in terms of what education is supposed to be.”

Sagar said attending her late night classes is not possible anyway, because she shares a room with her sibling and has to be up during the day to help around the house. 

“I think it’s just harder to get work done if we don’t have a schedule or access to campus resources, and I think that many students right now, although they may want to prioritize academics — cannot afford to do so,” Sagar said.

Scripps and Pomona officials did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

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