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Communal apartments, visa troubles, and becoming nocturnal: International students try to ‘make it work’

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

“I actually got the email 12 hours before my flight to the U.S.,” said Songtao Li ’24, recalling the moment he learned that his first college semester would be fully online. Ready to quarantine upon arrival, he had already booked a hotel in the U.S.

Instead, he stayed in Beijing, China, as a full-time student, 7,000 miles away from campus and 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

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Li is not alone. “Among active international undergraduates, roughly 335 are residing outside the U.S. this semester,” said Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss.

What has the remote semester been like for these international students? The Daily Princetonian sat down with seven students who live outside the U.S. to learn more about their experiences.

Adjusting to ‘Princeton time’

For students outside of the U.S., realizing that a class or Zoom event will take place in the dead of night has become an almost-daily occurrence.

Ellie Bae ’23, who lives in Seoul, South Korea, reported that compared to last spring, professors have tried to be more accommodating for international students. Still, some compromises have been inevitable. 

“I feel like the biggest challenge for me is attending office hours and social events,” she wrote in a text, “because they are usually around late nights here. My sleep schedule has actually become really bad because I have lectures / office hours late at night and precepts early in the mornings.” 

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Li, a prospective chemistry major, pointed out that scheduling often depends on what types of classes a student takes.

“Luckily, I’m taking mostly STEM classes,” he said, “which makes class times more flexible because of the larger class sizes. My other friends here [in Beijing] studying humanities are having more trouble with precept times.” Smaller humanities classes tend to have fewer precept times available and often require in-person attendance.

Maria Elena Zigka ’23, from Thessaloniki, Greece, echoed Li, citing online social events as the most difficult for international students to join. 

“Clubs have been very accommodating with meetings, but less so with Zoom social events,” she said. “Even if the time worked, sometimes we’re so tired of Zoom that we choose not to attend, especially at inconvenient hours.”

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While some international students such as Li, Bae, and Zigka have tried to stick as best they could to their regular sleeping hours, others are choosing to do the opposite. 

Tevin Singei ’24, who lives in Nairobi, Kenya, has transformed his sleep schedule to match Princeton’s timezone. 

“I wake up at around 1 p.m. and go to bed at 6 a.m.,” Singei said. “Luckily, I was already a very nocturnal person, but I basically shifted my schedule seven hours and now live in Princeton time.”

New apartments, new countries: finding the best learning environment 

Singei’s tactic of flipping day and night has been feasible thanks to Princeton’s external housing program, which made it possible for him to live in his own apartment, rather than his family home. Taking classes from his home would have been a challenge, not only because of internet and electricity issues, but also because he would have disturbed his family every night.

“I didn’t want to be an extra burden on family,” he said. 

Now, he lives in an apartment building full of college students like himself, some of whom attend local Kenyan colleges and some who attend other American universities, such as Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania.

Having an apartment in Nairobi, however, does not solve all the difficulties that come with remote learning from so far away. When a thunderstorm or national power outage disrupts Singei’s internet connection, he can do nothing.

“I turned in my math exam three minutes late via email because the power went out,” he recalled. “My professor didn’t quite understand which felt unfair … it really wasn’t anything I could control.”

He’s faced another kind of trouble when trying to explain his situation to people in his hometown.

“I’m from a rural area of Kenya,” he said, “and the people back home are starting to get skeptical. They’re all like, he’s still in Nairobi? What is this? Is he really going to a U.S. college?”

Zigka took advantage of her proximity to four Princeton friends who live in neighboring countries. The five of them moved to Barcelona, where they have spent the semester.

“Living with my group of girl friends in Barcelona has definitely helped feel a sense of community, although I’m not on campus,” Zigka said. “When you’re alone at home, the pace of life is different [because] you’re with family. But the five of us have the same routine and set of responsibilities, which helps to motivate each other to work and study.” 

Midterms week was a hectic time for Zigka and her four housemates, as they struggled to organize times for test-taking and quiet study in their small shared space. 

“We literally made a spreadsheet,” Zigka said. “It was strange, weird, and hard to coordinate. But we made it work.”

Handling distance, or lack thereof, from home

Among international Princetonians, some have not returned to their home countries at all — whether by choice or not.

Ian Jaccojwang ’23 from Kisumu, Kenya, is currently living on campus. He recounted the visa obstacles facing one of his friends. 

“I have a friend on campus who has a two-year visa which is about to expire, but cannot go home because the embassy in his country is closed,” he said. “There is no guarantee he could renew it to come back to the States.”

Jaccojwang himself has not gone back to Kenya since he arrived on campus as a first-year. 

“I didn’t go home [last spring] because Kenya’s borders were closed and because I had an internship in the U.S. over the summer,” he said. “I’m really hoping to go back this winter since the borders are now open. Unless the pandemic gets out of control, I should be able to go back.”

Students who were able to return to their home countries expressed gratitude and found silver linings.

Home in Kenya, Singei was thankful he didn’t have to go through the culture shock of moving to the U.S. alongside the academic shock of Princeton. Instead, he’s “just dealing with academic shock first.”

Bofan Ji ’24 from Beijing, China, was also thankful that he could stay with his family for another semester.

“Being international, it means we’re going to spend the entire four years of college without proximity to our parents,” he said. “This can be very tough. This pandemic is actually a special opportunity for me to get closer to my parents and make them feel a little better before moving away for college.”

For Zigka, although she’s not living in her home country, “it’s definitely nice to be closer to home [in Europe] to talk to my mom and friends back home without a big time difference.”

Being a first-year from afar

Zigka and Jaccojwang are both International Center Student Leaders at the Davis International Center, where they help organize the International Orientation program for first year students. They both reported that first-year international students have encountered an especially difficult time finding community.

“I think it’s very different for the freshman class,” Zigka said. “Most are stuck at home and can only meet people through Zoom. They seemed to have enjoyed it at first, but I get a sense that they’re increasingly feeling fed up with Zoom calls.”

Despite such difficulties, Singei credited his experience at the Freshman Scholars Institute, a two-month summer program for first-years of first-generation and low-income backgrounds, with creating a sense of community. In addition, he is thankful for group projects. “Working on things together with people helped me a lot getting to know people,” he said.

But Zoom speed-friending sessions? Not so much. 

“Thirty seconds to one minute to get to know someone? Honestly, not really effective,” he said, referring to his experience during International Orientation. “You need a real conversation with people to get to know them.”

Ji, on the other hand, said that the Princeton students in Beijing have made efforts to get together, especially since the pandemic has come under control in recent months. “We formed a group of ourselves, including freshman and upperclassmen,” he said, “and are planning to do some activities together.”

For Ji, extracurriculars have also helped. “You won’t know many people otherwise,” he said.

Li, however, opted not to join any clubs this semester. 

“I didn’t know how I’d be able to commit to things with the time difference,” he said. “I’m leaving that to when I get to campus.”

Unstable immigration policies, obtaining work authorization, and looking ahead

For other students, the implications of returning to campus extend far beyond the academic year.

On Nov. 7, over 100 first-year students sent a letter to President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and other top administrators, urging them to “do what [they] can” to bring first-year international students to campus.

The signatories cited first-year international students’ unique struggles with social disconnection, time differences, and future employment in the U.S.

Annie Zhou ’21 from Toronto, Canada, pointed out that living outside the U.S. makes obtaining work authorization for American internships and jobs difficult, if not impossible, for many of her international friends.

“Two summers ago, almost 80 international students lost their jobs and internships due to delayed work authorization. I was in that cohort.” 

“The issue this time is that there is a prerequisite saying you must be in the U.S. to apply for OPT and CPT,” she explained.

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is an extension of the F-1 student visa which allows international students to work in the U.S. for up to one or three years after graduation. Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is the summer internship equivalent.

Zhou worries that if she is not allowed back on campus in the spring, she will not meet the prerequisite to apply for her post-graduation work authorization.

“Luckily, there’s a particular work visa under the NAFTA agreement that Canadians and Mexicans can apply for. That’s my fall back. But my friends have no other option.”

According to Zhou, working remotely for a U.S. company while being in another country is similarly convoluted, as employers vary in their work authorization requirements for non-U.S. citizens.

“The company I interned for last summer happened to have a Canadian branch, so I was able to find a way to work for them without a CPT. But it’s very case-by-case whether you can work remotely from outside the U.S.”

On top of that, policies surrounding immigration and work authorization continue to change, which adds to the confusion.

“Honestly, a lot of us are left speculating because it’s hard to predict what may happen next, especially now that the administration will change.”

The unpredictability of national visa policy, coupled with nerves about rising U.S. COVID-19 case numbers, has international students glued to their inboxes for the University’s decision about the next semester.

“I just want to be on campus,” said Singei, hoping to finally get the “global exposure” that he dreamed college would provide.

But Ji expressed skepticism about international students’ chances of an in-person spring. 

“Can [the United States] really solve this problem in three months?” he asked.

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