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Credit: Felicity Yick

It's 4 a.m. in Bangkok and the city is asleep, the streets of the Thai capital pitch black and empty. Yet one Wharton and Engineering first-year student was wide awake in the dead of the night, finishing synchronous class sessions and getting ready to attend the virtual Student Activities Council Club fair.  

Nicky Wongchamcharoen, like many other Penn international students, had no choice but to become “nocturnal” and operate on Eastern time in order to attend club information sessions and interviews this semester.

The SAC fair is a rite of passage for first years at Penn. In a typical year, student groups like consulting clubs, student publications, and performing arts groups line Locust Walk, encouraging first years to join their ranks. Yet the fair, which took place virtually this year on Sept. 1 to Sept. 3 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. EST, was inaccessible to a large swath of the Class of 2024 that resides in different time zones.

College first-year Serrane Reaz, who hails from Bangladesh, said that after attending classes until 2:30 a.m., she was too exhausted to attend the SAC fair which took place from 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. in her time zone. She wished SAC took on a greater role in regulating the club recruitment process to make it equitable for students in different time zones.

“It kind of felt like I started off with a disadvantage in that I could not necessarily get to know the clubs,” Reaz said. “I do wish that there was more of a regulatory environment in terms of how SAC is setting up the rules because it just feels like they forget that there are international students as well.”

SAC, one of the six branches of Penn Student Government, funds over 230 student groups at Penn and sets rules and restrictions for how clubs can recruit new members. SAC currently has no official guidelines on accommodating students in different time zones. 

SAC Chair and College junior Grayson Peters said SAC asked student groups to be mindful of time differences by recording information sessions and posting the Zoom link to their club page on the Penn Clubs website. He added that through Penn Clubs, students could ask questions on a student group's page to be answered asynchronously.

Some students said that the issue of timing could have potentially been resolved had SAC scheduled the club fair to take place at different times on each day, including a morning session, so that international students could attend with more flexibility.

"I think it's better to hold multiple sessions, or like multiple club fairs, though that will increase the workload for club members,” Wongchamcharoen said. 

Even after the club fair took place, international students faced hurdles attending additional club information sessions, coffee chats, and interviews.

Wongchamcharoen said that international students who missed information sessions lost a key opportunity to show demonstrated interest in highly-selective clubs like Wharton's consulting clubs, leaving them at a disadvantage in the recruitment process.

“I was told from upperclassmen that it is quite important that you attend the info sessions, because that's the way to show your interest to the club members,” he said. 

Wongchamcharoen added that he was able to attend information sessions because he has chosen to operate on Eastern Standard Time, sleeping during the day and working at night.

Wharton sophomore Amjad Hamza, who is currently in Sri Lanka and a Daily Pennsylvanian Analytics staffer, agreed with Wongchamcharoen, adding that the timing of information sessions may have deterred international students from applying. 

Some clubs have taken it upon themselves to hold additional information sessions to accommodate students in different time zones. Penn Debate Society held “Zoom Coffee Chats” prior to the SAC fair from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. EST and 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. EST to accommodate all applicants. Similarly, Phi Chi Theta, a professional business and economics fraternity, held an information session for international students at 6 a.m. EST and had interview slots available early in the morning and late at night.

Wharton junior and Phi Chi Theta rush chair Macy Huang said that her fraternity’s efforts to accommodate international students were driven by their commitment to creating a welcoming environment for all new members. Phi Chi Theta is not funded by SAC, according to the SAC website.

“Because we had an international panel, I think that was why we actually had more people rush,” Huang said. “I remember someone who I spoke to who rushed internationally told me that because Phi Chi Theta was one of the only fraternities that did an international panel, she decided to rush."

Not all students, however, had the luxury to attend sessions that accommodated international students in different time zones.

Hamza said that he had to participate in a group interview at 3:30 a.m. in his time zone. He reached out to the club’s leadership to try and change his interview time but was unable to do so, as the other students in his assigned group could not reschedule to a mutually favorable time. 

For some first-year students, reaching out to club leadership during the recruitment process was a daunting task.

Wongchamcharoen said he was hesitant to email club members about difficulties attending interviews due to the time zone difference, because he was worried any excuse to not make an interview might reflect negatively on him and his application. 

“I didn't want to cause a lot of problems with the interviewers,” he said. “The clubs should just do their best to say, if you have time conflicts, just feel free to email us and we don't consider that in our recruitment process.”

International students and their concerns are often “invisible” during the club recruitment process, Reaz said, because they are not physically present on campus and can easily be overlooked. 

“International students really want to be involved however we can because, for example for myself, there's not anybody I know of in Bangladesh right now who's attending Penn in the Class of 2024, so I can't meet up with people," Reaz said. "These clubs are my way of getting to know people and getting to know about the environment at Penn."

She added that the already stressful club recruitment process coupled with time zone issues has taken a toll on international students' mental and physical health, citing irregular sleeping schedules. 

“I feel like there needs to be more consideration from the governing bodies as to how you can maintain a normal schedule for international students because we're not invincible by any means," Reaz said.

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