Over the summer, I had to decide between flying to the United States for the fall semester, or studying remotely in China with a 12-hour time difference. Frankly, I didn’t have much of a choice; international air travel is prohibitively expensive, has a higher risk of infection, and requires a two-week quarantine in a third country. That Penn would close after Thanksgiving makes travelling 7,400 miles even less appealing. Recognizing the unfavorable circumstances, I canceled my Fisher-Hassenfeld College House single and stayed home.
But some foreign students took the arduous journey to Philadelphia nonetheless. And Penn’s move to online learning, abruptly announced a week prior to move-in, was a huge blow for them. One of my friends was moving out of her high school host family’s house when the announcement came, and as a result, was left to scramble to find a sublet; another friend learned about the change upon arriving at New York’s JFK Airport from Shanghai.
The Fall plan fiasco affects the entire Penn community, but international students are its foremost victims. As home to the largest number of international students among Ivy League schools, Penn must acknowledge that every decision its administration makes would inadvertently — and often disproportionately — affect all 5,000 of us.
Lamentably, Penn has been failing to support international students. In July, international students began calling on Penn to launch a “go local” program, which would allow Penn students to enroll in universities in their home countries and regions, with those universities’ credits counting toward their Penn requirements. This is important for students who cannot return to campus, as COVID-19 shuts us out of the collaboration, studying, and extracurricular activities we expect from our education.
To no one’s surprise, Penn failed to roll out a plan. The reason, according to Lily Zhang, senior associate director of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), is that Penn’s different schools cannot reach a consensus on what a “go local” program entails. This is not an acceptable answer. Over a dozen universities have adopted similar “go local” initiatives for international students, including Cornell, Northeastern, Tufts, and Penn State, some of which have fewer study abroad resources than Penn.
As an alternative, Penn could have partnered with other local institutions. Penn should learn from Columbia. In September, Columbia adopted an initiative to provide international students in seven countries with Columbia-dedicated workspaces. It also gives students “all-access” passes to use WeWork sites in 50 cities worldwide, where students can connect with those in the same city and have access to amenities like color printers and conference rooms. Besides serving as a bridge to in-person campus life, Columbia’s initiative powerfully conveys to international students that they are a part of the Columbia community regardless of their physical location. For international students at Penn, especially first-years, this sense of togetherness may well not exist.
Penn also shows little consideration for international students when scheduling classes and events. The Student Activity Council’s virtual club fair, for example, was held from 5 to 8 p.m. EST three days in a row. That means somewhere from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. for a student in Europe and from 5 to 8 a.m. in Asia. I, for one, woke up and clicked into Zoom links at 7 a.m. China Standard Time, only to find the info sessions already over. Classes can take place at ungodly hours, too. While my latest class runs until 2:30 a.m., I know plenty of international students who must attend synchronous lectures until 7 a.m., staying awake through the night and early morning.
A disrupted sleep schedule undermines both health and productivity. Now that I sleep at 6am and wake up around 2pm my local time, the lack of sun exposure makes me drowsy while working, thanks to the rising level of melatonin in my body. More unsettling, some of my friends are showing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is known to lead to anxiety and reduced concentration.
International students should not be left to struggle on their own. The very least Penn can do is to advise student groups and professors to provide multiple time slots for classes and office hours. The University of Chicago, for example, offers synchronous classes at 7pm EST to accommodate students in Asia. But while some Penn professors are kind enough to offer recitations at various times, the university pays little attention to international students’ predicament. With COVID-19 cases setting records in the US, a majority of international students may yet be barred from returning in Spring 2021. This time, Penn should learn its lesson.
BRUCE SHEN is a College first-year student from Shanghai, China studying German Studies. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.