As students at Vermont colleges and universities returned home and transitioned to online learning due to Covid-19, international students from China found themselves facing complications unique among their peers.
After flying halfway around the world, many Chinese international students studying at Vermont schools have had to contend with the country’s firewall, which restricts internet access to certain websites, as well as with attending classes with a 12-hour time difference.
Tao You, who is in his third semester studying physics and math at Middlebury, returned home to Hebei in mid-March. He said the hardest part has been accessing Zoom and other online learning tools through the firewall, which the Chinese government enforces to block or slow down traffic to foreign websites. To get around the firewall, You uses a virtual private network, or VPN, which he said can also be unreliable at times.
“I have to connect to a proxy server so how fast my internet connection is depends on the traffic at the server and there’s no way to fix that,” he said. “The government will periodically exercise a VPN ban, so from time to time depending on chance my server will get banned by the government so the VPN provider has to switch around the server.”
You said he tries to limit the number of classes he attends in real time.
“I am trying to keep my live sessions to a minimum because the internet breaks up every 10-15 seconds and so most of them turn out to be a waste of time because I can’t follow,” he said, adding that many of his professors made Zoom attendance in class optional, which has been a huge help.
You also said he feels lucky that his biggest problem is his internet connection.
“In the grand scheme of things it’s not really a big thing to complain about compared to what some of my classmates are going through in the United States. But when you have to do coursework it can be frustrating sometimes,” he said, explaining that he has not had to deal with any shortages of masks or food items like some parts of the U.S. “To be honest if the internet is the worst problem that you have, you don’t have much of a problem.”
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Rachel Lu, a first year at Middlebury, is completing her semester in Shanghai. She said the biggest problem she has run into is the 12-hour time difference between China and Vermont. Lu said that all of her classes are still being conducted in real-time on Zoom, rather than via recordings, and while her professors offered her alternatives she did not want to take them.
“I was offered the choice to watch the discussions at a later time or not participate but that seemed really counterproductive since I wouldn’t get much out of it,” she said.
Instead, Lu attends class at 10:30 p.m., 1:25 a.m., 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. in her time zone, and tries to make up for lost sleep during the day.
“Since coming back I just haven’t adjusted to the time here. I go to bed around 3:30 a.m. and if I have my class at 5 a.m. then I get up for it and then I usually sleep until about noonish,” she said. “I thought the problem was going to be being really tired during class but the actual problem has been falling asleep because it’s really hard to get off Zoom and fall asleep, especially when it’s light out.”
While keeping up with her lectures has been a challenge, Lu said she does not need to worry about the firewall because her parents’ WiFi has a VPN built in.
“I’m really fortunate to have that and I can imagine if you don’t that would be a really big issue,” she said.
For other students, keeping up with their studies from China has been much easier, especially those whose professors are not conducting synchronous learning but instead recording lectures for students to watch later. Shirley Mao, a sophomore at Middlebury who returned to her parent’s home in Shanghai, said that all her classes are recorded, and that her professors treat class hours as optional office hours instead.
Emma Swift, the associate director of the office of international education at the University of Vermont, said that most of the Chinese students she has heard from have asynchronous classes, which makes keeping up with their courses much easier.
“Students were quarantined for 14 days when they first got home, and that seems to have been the hardest part for students. They are so cut off at that point and transitioning to online learning,” Swift said. “Students were learning a whole new way to take in their course materials and they’re quarantined in a city that might not even be their home city and they’re jetlagged. That would be challenging for anyone.”
Swift said that her office has not heard from any students struggling with the firewall in China, although she said that not every student has been in touch since online learning began. Swift added that UVM faculty have been good at offering asynchronous learning to students across the board.
“Anecdotally what we’re hearing from students is they are doing a lot of asynchronous stuff,” she said. “Doing anything synchronous would be hard for anyone overseas but it’s also hard for a Vermonter who doesn’t have access to good WiFi at home. So this is an intentionally inclusive way of transitioning to online learning.”
For the students who returned to China, many worry about what the fall semester will bring.
“I really hope the school reopens but as far as I know whether the school reopens depends on the state of Vermont,” You said. “If I’m in China I probably can’t do another semester of online classes.”
Lu expressed a similar sentiment.
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“I am ready to never do online classes ever again,” she said. “While this has been a learning experience for me, I don’t think I could repeat it in the fall. It’s definitely not a sustainable lifestyle.”
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