Staying up until 4 a.m. to attend synchronous labs, one-way flights going for $10,000, VPN-induced lags during Zoom classes, having a completely nocturnal schedule or only getting two hours of sleep a night. The 14-hour time difference between Walla Walla and China is just one of many daunting challenges that Whitman’s Chinese international students are facing this academic year.
Over 26% of the international students attending Whitman are Chinese. All of the first years from China have yet to set foot on campus, and sophomores who returned to China early in the COVID-19 pandemic remain there.
Greg Lecki, Associate Director of the Intercultural Center for International Student Support Services, wrote a report titled “’14 hours’ – The Chinese Student Experience During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which was published on April 14. The report features the perspectives of nine Chinese students who spoke about their struggles managing the time difference, challenges they faced returning to China at the pandemic’s outset and sociocultural differences between China and the U.S. that have made this school year arduous.
Lecki supports international students throughout their time at Whitman. Now, his role also involves helping students navigate their way back to the U.S. among travel and visa restrictions.
“I was working with many students out of China and started recognizing the difficulties they were facing mentally and physically,” Lecki said. “I thought the time was right to write an update to the campus community on these roadblocks that students from China are facing trying to come to the U.S.”
Noting the constraints of the time difference, Lecki met with students at night or early in the morning to understand how they were feeling about remote learning and the possibility of still being unable to travel to the U.S.
“I started recognizing how determined they are and how resilient they are to live through this mess and getting themselves mentally ready to do it for one more semester,” Lecki said. “This situation asked them to transition to this new world and they did it, and it was so extremely difficult for them and I think they deserve the recognition.”
There have been no updates from the U.S. or Chinese governments on whether borders or visa processing will reopen in 2021. Students have the option to travel through a third country, such as Singapore or Mexico, which does not require a visa for Chinese citizens. After a two-week quarantine period, students would get their visa interview for the U.S. and travel to Walla Walla from this third country.
“This is very costly and very complicated. And when you’re thinking about people who are 17 or 18 years old, that’s a lot to ask,” Lecki said. “But the new semester is coming up and it might be that some of them will have to do it because we still don’t have any updates.”
A group of incoming first year and rising sophomore students are considering journeying to Singapore together for their visas. Lecki hopes that this will be a plan B, but many of the travel details between China and the U.S. remain unknown.
“This is partially a political problem, of course,” Lecki said. “And what pains me is that 17, 18-year-old students that have nothing to do with politics, at least not yet, are paying the price for these tensions, and that seems very unfair.”
Differences in modes of communication and platforms that are used in school, and cultural disparities in teaching and learning style, create further adversities for students. Lecki spoke to a student with the pseudonym Mike who expressed his anxieties over participating in Zoom classes.
“He prefers to keep his camera off during Zoom classes to preserve the limited bandwidth for better sound quality. He constantly worries that some faculty or classmates may think that he does not participate in classes,” the report reads. “Mike is rather shy and Zoom classes make this worse. Once he gathers his thoughts and courage to respond to a query it is usually too late as domestic students will unmute first. It takes him much time to form a response as he analyzes each word for correctness and (his greatest fear!) to make sure the statement is not unintentionally offensive to others.”
Another challenge Chinese students are grappling with is the lack of interaction with their peers. A common regret that international students comment on is their lack of interaction and shared experience with domestic students, Lecki explained, something that all of his sophomore interviewees shared. These feelings of invisibility can further isolate international students.
Another student Lecki spoke to, with the pseudonym of Amelia, shared her stress over communication. She worried that her accent would be hard to understand in combination with the VPN-induced lag.
“‘I don’t feel like a student anymore,’ [Amelia said]. ‘It is so easy to lose the motivation. We receive so many emails, we keep missing the important ones. Normally, your classmates would remind you about things, but we are so separated now.’”
Lecki hopes to further build the connection between domestic and international students.
“It might not be intentional, but … people tend to avoid this contact because of the extra effort that these relationships sometimes need,” Lecki said. “And especially for people coming from different cultures, they do need extra effort but I think that it is our responsibility to offer a hand and offer friendship.”