For many international students, time zone differences lead to unhealthy sleep habits

(Cat Nordstrom/Daily Bruin)

By Megan McCallister

November 14, 2020 at 12:16 p.m.

The COVID-19 pandemic and UCLA’s subsequent shift to remote learning has affected how some international students have approached their education. In light of International Education Week 2020, here are four stories that highlight some of the challenges international students have had to deal with during fall quarter.

International students’ abnormal sleep schedules may have short and long-term health consequences, a UCLA neurologist said.

Students living far from Pacific Standard Time have had to stay up at odd hours of the day to take classes remotely.

Kedaar Sridhar, a third-year computer science student who is living in Oman, said he goes to sleep at 6 a.m. and wakes up in the afternoon to attend class and his extracurricular activities. Sridhar said his inverted sleep schedule has exhausted him and that he takes vitamin D supplements to make up for his lack of sun exposure.

Alon Avidan, the director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center and a neurology professor, said people put themselves at risk for a number of health issues if they are not awake during the day. They may face complications with hormone control, blood sugar control and immune system impairment, Avidan added.

The brain has a circadian clock, which makes sure physiological processes occur at the correct time, Avidan said. The circadian clock relies on the presence or absence of light to indicate the time of day. In this way, light can act to stimulate biological activities, like maintenance of blood sugar and immune function, Avidan said.

Avidan said people should sleep when the sun is down and for seven to eight hours to retain the benefits of sleep.

Julius Suherman, a second-year chemical engineering student living in Indonesia, said he doesn’t attend his classes live because of how late they start for him, but sometimes he has stayed awake until 2 or 3 a.m. to attend office hours.

“The main thing I remember from the times I attended office hours is that I felt very tired,” Suherman said. “Even if I sleep at 3 or 2 a.m., my body still somehow still wants to wake up at 8 or 7 (a.m.)”

Suherman said his irregular sleep schedule has caused him to become more moody, which has affected his personal relationships.

“The moodiness is a big deal because sometimes it damages and strains the relationship between me and my family members,” he said. “Even if I try to control the moodiness, sometimes I just can’t.”

Sharon Kim, a third-year economics and sociology student living in Hong Kong, said she thinks her irregular sleep schedule has weakened her immune system, disrupted her menstrual cycle and drained her energy. There are times when she prefers staying at home over hanging out with her friends because of how tired she is, Kim said.

On days when Kim has to attend her Chinese language lectures from 4:30 to 5:45 a.m., Kim said she waits to sleep until the class ends. To compensate for her lack of sleep, Kim naps throughout the day.

Taking naps for more than 30 minutes puts people at risk for cognitive impairment and diabetes, Avidan said. A healthy nap should last between 15 and 20 minutes between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., he added.

Many students view sleep like a bank account, in which sleep deprivation is a debt that can be settled in the future, Avidan said. However, a nap or sleeping in on the weekend cannot pay back a poor night of sleep, he said.

“One cannot sleep for six hours during the night, then take a two hour nap and say, ‘Well, two plus six equals eight,’” Avidan said. “It has to be taken all at night.”

UCLA spokesperson Bill Kisliuk said in an emailed statement that instructors have the discretion to choose whether to address time zone differences and adjust face-to-face engagement.

Erica Anjum, an international development studies instructor, requires students taking IDS 1: “Introduction to International Development Studies” to attend discussion sections. International students had the opportunity to choose a discussion section between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. that fit best with their schedule at the start of the quarter, she added.

Anjum said attending live discussion sections is necessary to complete the class’ group project that emulates the experience of working on a project at the United Nations.

This fall, UCLA offered more than 150 asynchronous classes, which means the class’ content is available online and students can watch lectures on their own time. There are at least 250 classes in which faculty will not record lectures for students to watch on their own time.

“I just feel frustrated,” Sridhar said. “There should be an option for all recorded or asynchronous classes. Attending a mandatory discussion just to get points for participation, it shouldn’t exist … as long as we’re in this remote setting.”

Suherman said he thinks that professors can do more to accommodate students in different time zones.

“It’s like helplessness, because I know it’s just something that we all have to deal with,” Suherman said. “UCLA needs to realize that it affects international students a little bit more than people who are still in America.”

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