Zoomed Out: How sustainable is online education for students overseas?


Daily file illustration by Isabel Gitten

This winter, international students who are taking online classes from their home countries continue to face difficulties related to uncertainty and time difference.

Irem Ozturan, Reporter

Weinberg sophomore Ece Agalar usually wakes up around noon and goes to bed at 3 a.m. Except for occasional at-home yoga sessions, the Istanbul native and former Daily staffer spends most of her days at her desk. The nine-hour time difference between Turkey and Evanston has turned Agalar, a natural early bird, into a night owl.

“It is very hard to maintain the balance under these circumstances,” Agalar said. “Especially for an international student who has to do this from miles away amidst the pandemic.”

Like Agalar, many students living overseas feel stuck in limbo — physically in their home countries, mentally in Evanston.

Mark Zajac, student and exchange visitor information system coordinator at the Office of International Student and Scholar Services, told The Daily in an email that according to their best estimates, 352 of 829 international undergraduate students took classes from their home countries this fall. Thirty took Fall Quarter off, and some planned to also take off Winter Quarter.

In these circumstances, late-night study sessions are an everyday reality, not a finals-week phenomenon. Some students say they get headaches from staring at the screen for up to ten hours. They miss meetings for clubs and events, often scheduled in the middle of the night for them. The workload of classes with multiple online components may be heavier than it would be in person. The result: exhaustion.

With limited exceptions, freshmen and sophomores were not allowed on campus this fall. Juniors and seniors who stayed chose to do so due to uncertainty, parents’ concerns, logistical issues such as the infection risk associated with long flights or multiple layovers and financial concerns such as the risk of expensive flights getting canceled.

Monika Gutkowska, associate director for outreach and education at Counseling and Psychological Services, said the combination of these circumstances can take a particular toll on international students.

“The time differences, inability to go home or come to Northwestern due to COVID and visa restrictions, anxiety, isolation, stress related to job search and general uncertainty is predominant for international students right now,” Gutkowska said in an email.
Weinberg junior Tolga Sonmezer, another Istanbul native, decided to participate in the Chicago Field Studies instead of taking classes this winter, after what he described as a mentally exhausting quarter.

“Some classes have been very accommodating and some have not,” Sonmezer said.

But taking a quarter off is difficult for students whose majors aren’t as flexible. Weinberg junior David Sten, a Stockholm native, said he had to complete a course sequence, which deterred him from taking the quarter off.

Student clubs, activities, social events and career fairs — all vital parts of the college experience — are now remote. Many take place at undesirable times for those in Europe, Asia or Africa.

Sten said he has been feeling disconnected from the University and the WNUR “Streetbeat” show he used to DJ on. It starts at midnight Chicago time, 7 a.m. Stockholm time, and because nobody is allowed in the studio after 7 p.m., even DJs in Evanston have to record sets at home and send them in, “which takes away the enjoyment of it,” Sten said.

“The big attraction of electronic music is that you can actually go out and experience it,” Sten said. “Nobody can access that scene right now. So I just don’t see an interest in it.”

Geet Vanaik, director of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services, said even though NU is watching the immigration updates 24 hours a day, it is hard to predict what the circumstances will be in the next week or the next month.

“We can’t make guarantees around things like immigration, and that makes it very hard,” Vanaik said.

The International Office is offering some online events such as the Coffee Talk, a biweekly discussion series, and a support platform for international students. However, some students said they are skipping these Zoom events to escape more screen time and online interaction.

Weinberg sophomore Chumei Wei, who is taking online classes from her hometown Wuhan, China, said it’s difficult to get involved on campus as a transfer student. She said some universities are offering in-person options that are more international student-friendly.

Some U.S. institutions like New York University and Cornell University have established temporary go-local options, where they partner with foreign universities or use overseas campuses to house international students.

Cornell University, for example, has worked with academic partners around the globe to offer onsite, in-residence Study Away options for students who are unable to return to the United States. International students can live and study at or near a campus in their country or region while taking Cornell classes and at least one class with any of nine partner universities, including the University of Ghana and Peking University.

“Cornell students have many options,” said Wei, whose friends from back home are enrolled in thse go local programs. “I’m so jealous of them.”

Even though freshmen and sophomores are allowed on campus for Winter Quarter, many international students like Agalar and Wei have decided to stay in their home countries for another quarter, citing uncertainty and issues related to travel. While at home, the disconnect from NU and the exhaustion will remain.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @OzturanIrem

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