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Around the World: Time-zones and mental health

By Tausif Tajwar, March 25 2021—

According to the 2019 International Student Survey report, when choosing a university abroad, 32 per cent of prospective international students seek institutions with good career services and links with employers. A high-quality education remains the most important deciding factor with 57 per cent of respondents choosing it over other considerations. Additionally, for many international students, the opportunities available in their home countries are limited and fail to cater to their dreams and aspirations. To transcend these barriers, they make the hard decision of leaving their friends and family to embark upon this arduous journey abroad, no matter how daunting it may be. 

The pandemic had us all under house arrest for over a year and turned many of us into social recluses. But even after things are gradually going back to how they were before, the situation still looks bleak for international students attending foreign universities online. They still have to sit for classes late at night and adopt abnormal sleep cycles to follow the same routine as their peers. This has secluded them from their normal domestic and social life and inevitably made them victims of sleep deprivation, as they continuously endure a tremendous amount of mental and physical stress.

The Gauntlet interviewed three first-year international students at the University of Calgary, all from three different countries around the world with the hope of drawing parallels between their own experiences in university thus far, and how they have personally been affected by the pandemic. Tanzila Ridita is from Bangladesh, and is a first-year student majoring in Environmental Science. Alongside her are Mohammad Ahsan Zia from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Jude Ali from Oman —both are first-years in the Faculty of Engineering. All of them have completed their first semester remotely from their respective countries, from where they plan on finishing the whole of their second semester before transitioning to in-person learning in Calgary. 

“I sleep from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.-ish, sometimes even less,” said Ahsan Zia. Due to the rigorous testing structure he endured in high school, Ahsan Zia had to study for tests almost every other day of the week, which he says conditioned him to function with such limited hours of sleep now as a university student. He likes to take a shower to wake up and then logs into his laptop to attend classes which usually start just around that time. 

Ridita, on the other hand, said she does not sleep anymore. Struggling to find a regular sleep schedule, she drifts in and out of her “mini naps” — as she would like to call them — throughout the entire day. “Even though I feel like I did nothing except lying down on my bed all day and barely paying attention to my classes, I am always tired and in need of more rest,” she explains.

This raises an important concern. Researchers at Iowa State University concluded that sleep loss was negatively correlated with academic performance. They found that sleep-deprived students performed poorly on cognitive-based parameters such as attention, memory and problem-solving tasks. Additionally, sleep loss results in daytime sleepiness — a condition that corresponds with Ridita’s predicament. Another study directly correlates lower GPA grades with lesser sleep duration. All three of the students interviewed by the Gauntlet attested that their grades have been falling over the course of the year as a result of sleep deprivation. Their motivation and excitement also follow suit.

Ali, however, sleeps from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m., maintaining a somewhat normal sleep cycle relative to the other two. But to compensate for this normality, she — more often than not — does not attend live lectures, which occur too late in the night for her. She listens to the recorded asynchronous lectures instead. This method is implemented by a lot of other international students too, which begs the question: does learning via watching recorded videos, without interacting with teachers and the class, provide the high quality education that international students seek from abroad? Ahsan Zia perfectly summarised his experience of attending asynchronous classes in two words — “overpriced YouTube.”

Their hectic schedules and unforgiving course loads also prompt all of them to skip meals and rely on snacks instead. This sacrifice, coupled with odd sleep schedules has had some detrimental effects on their health. Ahsan Zia fell ill on the day of one of his quizzes and was unable to write the exam. “I have lost my appetite and I sometimes even puke involuntarily,” added Ridita. 

The discrepancies in their eating habits, due to having abnormal sleeping schedules, deviates international students further away from a balanced diet with a proper blend of nutrition. They tend to rely more on carbohydrates which provide them with the “quick energy” they require in order to get through the last few hours of the night.  It’s so easy to satisfy those burning midnight cravings of fat-rich junk food, which can be ordered effortlessly with the press of a button. These habits lead to malnutrition which — more often than not — is the principal culprit for making them feel sick or bloated. Mental and physical wellness are symbiotic to the academic teachings international students attain from their university and are equally as important for them to excel during their time there.

Universities need to bring their A-game to ensure a more holistic environment — be it online — for their students to perform well in every faculty. The University of Calgary offers mental health support services online for its students enrolled in any courses. They also host various workshops that advise students on topics such as time management and dealing with exam anxiety. According to our interviewees, there is so much more that could be done, especially for international students, as time zones are the biggest factor impacting their mental and physical wellbeing. 

Remote learning and in-person learning are like chalk and cheese. They do not offer the same experience at all and the former has undoubtedly disappointed many foreign students coming into their first year of university as excitement gave way to uncertainty and anxiety. From being showered with appreciation by friends and family for their courage to study abroad to now having to deal with their sympathetic glances, the university experience for international students has been on a gradual downhill slope.

Around the World is a column about the international student experience and a platform for the voices of those students to be heard. It aims to raise topics often avoided and issues often unspoken about as they pertain to international students at the University of CalgaryThis column is a part of our Voices section.

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