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The Daily Tar Heel

Midnight classes, thousands of miles away: Living abroad during UNC's remote semester

UNC sophomore Ideliya Khismatova poses for a FaceTime portrait from her home in Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.

At 1 a.m., while the rest of her family sleeps, Vedika Parikh quietly opens her laptop. She’s not doing late-night homework or watching Netflix before bed. Instead, she’s joining a class where most of her classmates are still basking in the afternoon sunshine.

She's one of the 1,700 international undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at UNC who had to figure out how they would respond to this online semester.

Of these students, 40 have opted to take classes through the UNC Study Abroad Office at partner universities around the globe, Heather Ward, associate dean for study abroad and international exchanges, said in a statement to The Daily Tar Heel.

Many more students are taking courses remotely. Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, senior associate dean for social sciences and global programs, said in a statement to the DTH that nearly a quarter of the approximately 576 participants in the remote Carolina Away program are international students. 

Parikh lives in India and is 9 1/2 hours ahead of Chapel Hill time — and she’s not alone. From Russia to China, the pandemic has scattered UNC students across the globe, and the thousands of miles separating them from the University has compounded the challenges of remote learning.

Remote challenges

A senior majoring in business and economics, Parikh was studying abroad in Denmark in March as a GLOBE scholar when she heard that President Donald Trump had imposed a travel ban on all non-U.S. citizens coming in from Europe due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Parikh, who isn’t a U.S. citizen, didn’t think she could go back to the United States, but she also didn’t know if she could stay in Denmark.

Parikh said that she was reluctant to go home to India, but she thought she’d be returning in two weeks. Little did she know, she would not only be missing out on the rest of her time in Denmark, but also the next leg of her program in Hong Kong.

“Oh my God,” Parikh said. “I could still cry about it.”

Now, Parikh is taking classes at her home in Gujarat, India. The 9 1/2-hour time difference means that her classes start at night.

Luckily, Parikh said, her three economics classes can be taken asynchronously, so she can watch recordings of the lectures at a different time. However, her two classes through the business school have mandatory attendance — and both start past midnight and end around 2 a.m.

“I often find myself being in class, but not registering anything, then watching the lecture again the next morning to actually understand the material,” she said. “So I feel like I spend double the time on one lecture.”

Due dates, too, have become a minefield, as the time difference makes it more difficult to keep up with submission deadlines — though her professors have been accommodating and have given Parikh extensions.

Zhuyu Li, a sophomore majoring in economics and communications, is also struggling to keep up with asynchronous classes while halfway around the world. Li returned to China in April due to the pandemic — 12 hours ahead of Chapel Hill time.

“It is hard to manage the class work when classes are online and are asynchronous,” Li said in an email to the DTH. “So, I had to drop a class, compared to previous semesters when I always took 5 classes.”

Living in China, Li also has to contend with China’s firewall, which blocks Google, YouTube, Gmail and Google Drive, as well as many social media sites and sensitive topics — though Zoom is working fine, Li said.

Dennis Schmidt, assistant vice chancellor and chief information security officer, said the University offers an encrypted VPN, or virtual private network, to access UNC resources such as ConnectCarolina and Sakai. The VPN utilizes split tunneling, where users can access UNC resources through the VPN but not other services that may be blocked, such as Google.

“For example, if you’re in China and you’re browsing the web, then that traffic will not go through the VPN,” Schmidt said. “If you’re trying to access Sakai or ConnectCarolina, your traffic will go through our VPN. That’s one of the reasons our VPN seems to be tolerated in China.”

Schmidt said students aren’t encouraged to look for workarounds to accessing blocked internet resources, and said that students who might be facing such challenges should talk to their professors.

New opportunities

Ideliya Khismatova, a sophomore statistics and environmental science major, decided to take advantage of remote classes to visit family in Tatarstan, Russia, for the semester. 

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For Khismatova, the seven-hour time difference is outweighed by the opportunity to learn more about her own ethnicity and the political situation in Tatarstan, where she said that the Russian government is slowly erasing the Tatar language from classrooms.

“Basically, a lot of the languages here are dying, and it’s hard to get a lot of this information in the U.S. because a lot of the sources that are Tatar or Russian are just not easily accessible there,” she said. “So I’ve been trying to learn more about the situation and see what I can do, and talk to the people here to try and understand the situation more, and maybe bring back some information.”

Khismatova said she’s treating the trip like a study abroad and trying to improve her language skills by practicing Russian and Tatar with her grandparents.

“Since I live in my grandparents' house, they have a bunch of older Russian books and novels from the Soviet Union," she said. "And that’s really fun to look at.”

Return issues

One uncertainty that looms over all UNC students, regardless of their location, is what the spring semester will look like. Li, who said people in China are shocked and worried by what’s happening in the United States, found the situation around campus concerning.

Parikh considered taking a gap semester but was worried that she wouldn’t be able to return to Chapel Hill.

“This is way too much money for an online education,” Parikh said. “The thing is, if I take a gap semester, my student visa ends right now, and I have to apply again. And usually applying again is not a problem, but with the political environment and Trump giving all these statements on F-1 visas, it’s a little bit up in the air.”

In September, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security unveiled a new proposal that would tighten regulations on visas for international students.

Khismatova said she does worry that she won’t be able to get back to the United States.

“I just got lucky," she said. "Stuff was open for where I was going, and hopefully it stays that way. If not, I will be taking a boat and rowing across the Atlantic Ocean."

But for now, she’s just trying to enjoy the Russian fall and winter. She said she looks forward to skating on a frozen lake, and enjoying the natural scenery.

“If you drive an hour down the road, there’s this place where the Volga River meets with the Kama River,” Khismatova said. “It basically looks like an ocean, where you can barely see the other side.”