Perhaps the only time when sleeping through your alarm and missing class is acceptable is when that alarm is for 3:00 a.m. While Penn, each of the undergraduate schools, the Student Activities Council, and the undergraduate community as a whole have all made valiant efforts to bring a sense of normalcy to the fall semester, they can do more to support students attending Penn from the other side of the world.
For one, the decision to cancel in-person classes came so late that many international students did not have the opportunity to make adequate preparations for the fall semester. For a variety of reasons, including concerns about travel restrictions, visas, costs, or safety, these students simply did not have the opportunity to attend school in the United States this fall.
Now, stuck in their home countries, students are being forced to adjust to Eastern Time. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just about being physically awake at ridiculous times — students also need to be fully present and attentive at these times. Additionally, students can’t pick and choose their sleep schedule based on their classes for the day — they have to establish some semblance of a routine. Thus, even though many professors have been accommodating by providing asynchronous attendance options, even a single mandatory-attendance class in the middle of the night forces dramatic changes to the sleep schedules of international students. Beyond classes, clubs and extracurricular organizations still hold meetings in the late afternoon and evening ET, which further complicates the sleep schedules for international students who wish to fully participate in all that Penn has to offer.
Disruption to a natural sleep schedule can be extremely detrimental to overall health, affecting stress, cognition, and appetite, and making individuals more susceptible to illness. Furthermore, even in the rare instance where students are able to completely flip their sleep schedules, this makes it nearly impossible to interact with anyone during the day, leading to even more isolation in a time where we have experienced far too much already. Trying to find some sort of middle ground is similarly ineffective. Not only has modern sleep science shown that taking many short naps is not equivalent to one uninterrupted period of sleep, this strategy creates frustratingly small productive time windows, making it difficult to keep up with schoolwork.
Even after just four weeks in school, the effects of poor sleep may be catching up to students, forcing them to make a tough decision: participate fully in academics and extracurriculars and risk their health, or lose out on a full Penn experience. Penn is full of strong and resilient students who are more than capable of weathering through this semester, but asking students to choose between getting a lower quality of education and their own health is cruel and unnecessary.
Penn can take a few steps to ease the burden on international students. The University should first mandate all professors provide alternate asynchronous arrangements for students unable to attend synchronous lectures due to time zone differences — this means that no class can require mandatory synchronous attendance. Second, require all student groups to post recordings of meetings and sessions, and ensure that attendance at live sessions is not considered for this semester. Third, wherever possible, attempt to have recitations for different time zones. Finally, Penn should be committed to collecting and regularly reviewing information regarding the well-being of its international students to help identify measures to further alleviate their stress. By doing this, Penn would enable students to take classes from their local time zone without significant adjustments to their sleep schedules. Many classes and groups have already adopted these measures — and if we’ve learned anything from the last few months, it’s that any change is possible if we are open to it.
KRISH SHAH is a Wharton first-year student studying Statistics and Behavioral Economics
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