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The Impact of Remote Learning for International Students

10/23/2022 10:39 PM | Anonymous

Author: Qing (Shirley) Xian, MBA., CEP

It has been two and half years since the wave of campus closure due to the covid-19 pandemic.

I still clearly remember the chaos I experienced, spending long hours at night talking to worried parents of boarding school students. We were trying hard to figure out where my students were: on their way home, in a quarantine facility somewhere? Were they stuck at an airport? Would they be allowed to board? Were they safe and sound? 

Thankfully, life is getting back to normal and remote learning is gradually becoming a remote memory. Yet, for this college application season, there is still a question in the Common Application asking about the impact of Covid-19. We’ve all heard so much about the inconvenience and negative impacts of remote learning on students, the lack of peer interactions, the heavy burdens on families, etc. The best news is that most students in the U.S. are back on campus already. It seems the right time to move on and lessen the emotional burden we’re carrying.  

As a CEP who works mainly with international students, I have learned firsthand from my students’ experiences that there are multiple layers of impact of remote learning, and the last layer only applied to a small group of students who experienced a profound negative impact on their academic performance and well-being. And today, I want to talk about them specifically, to try to peel off these layers one by one:

The first dimension: being remote and away from campus, your friends, your teachers, and your communities.

This is the dimension that is most common. I don’t want to spend much time talking about the impact of being remote, which has been discussed extensively through many channels; this negative impact has happened to all students to various degrees.

The second dimension: under the impact of time difference. 

This dimension mostly applied to the international students. Several hours of time difference could cause great inconvenience. But 12, 13, or even more hours of time difference literally reversed day and night for these poor kids, causing a profoundly negative impact in their daily life and their academics during remote learning. Some schools were more considerate and offered these students recording of classes and gave them leeway to skip the normal class time.

But we all know, high school material, especially in AP or IB high level courses, can be challenging to digest even if a student is sitting in the classroom with a teacher. Although super inconvenient, many of my students chose to still dial in to the zoom meetings, to participate in real time. As teenagers and young adults, they not only needed to stay up really late and sleep during daytime, which was exhausting, a lot of them also registered to take AP tests.

Importantly, the AP tests were administered in the U.S. time zone, which could mean the tests would finish at 2am or 3am Asia Pacific time. To make sure they still had clear mind during tests, these kids started to adjust to the different time zones months before. So even though their classes may have finished at 12am at night Asia Pacific time, they forced themselves to stay up until 2 or 3am into the morning to train their bodies and minds. Although these kids stayed at home, they were lonely. When they woke up, their parents had already left for work.

And when their parents were at home after work, they were in classes online. Although in the same house or apartment, they barely had any family time. They also barely found time to interact with their childhood friends in their hometowns because their schedules wouldn’t allow it. Not only they couldn’t participate on campus activities, but it was also almost impossible to participate in activities back home. For them, remote learning went beyond being inconvenient. It could be absolutely devastating, both physically and mentally. 

The third dimension: being the outlier or becoming marginalized (unintentionally)

When comparing a Zoom classroom to an in-person classroom, it’s easy to see that it’s harder to carry on conversations, ask questions, or get answers with teachers, or with other classmates via a Zoom classroom.

But let’s imagine a different scenario; for a class of 30 students, you are one of the only three or four students participating via Zoom online, in a day and night reversed time zone, while your teacher and all other 26 or 27 classmates are in the same room. Then, imagine you have a question that you want to clarify with your teacher, but the conversation in the room has already moved on to next topic. You try to raise your hand via Zoom, but the teacher fails to notice it, accidentally……somehow because of this or that, you slowly lose the courage or drive to follow through and your questions remain unanswered. You gradually feel that they, your teachers, and classmates on campus are one group, and you and other international students, in China or in Mongolia or other countries, are another group, a much smaller one.

This was the reality for several of my students. Because at the time, due to travel bans, in order to return back to campus, they needed to stay in a third country for 14 days before entering back into the U.S. Furthermore, due to the limited flight options during the pandemic, they may have had to stay in a country they’d never visited before and where they didn’t know a single soul for two weeks while needing to navigate all the potential challenges and processes required to leave the hotel, get to the airport, and navigate an unfamiliar airport before heading back to the U.S. And these were teenagers!  Because of these uncertainties and concerns, their families hesitated. As a mother, I knew I certainly would under these circumstances. 

The great news is that all these students are now back on campus, and they’ve resumed their normal school lives. They couldn’t wait to come back and were thrilled when they got back on campus. Now, these students have a renewed motivation and deep appreciation. Their engagements in their campus communities are stronger than ever.

But the not-so-great news is that their transcripts sometimes reflect the challenging journeys that they’ve been through. Because of the experiences of students like mine, when we talk about the impact of remote learning due to Covid-19, it’s important for all of us to take the time and effort to fully understand its varied and often complex dimensions.


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