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UAB International Students Discuss What Virtual School and the Present State of their Studies Means to Them

©UAB, International Student & Scholar Services

Online classes have been difficult for all UAB students, but they have been significantly harder for foreign students due to different time zone, loss of human connections and language barriers.

“Online classes are hard because of the language.” said Tanya Chotwittayagan, a sophomore from Bangkok, Thailand majoring in marketing. “I mean yes, we can speak English, we can listen to it, we can use a dictionary, but we don’t know the structure of English deeply. If you are an international student, you really have to concentrate on what is being said in the video,”

Chotwittayagan, who is residing in Thailand right now, said that she came far from home, pays more tuition than locals and is still not getting the complete benefit of it because she is not making any friends.

According to the UAB international students who are staying in their home countries, they are facing a major trouble with time zones. Chotwittayagan said she has less time for assignments because Thailand is 12 hours ahead in time than the United States.

“My dreams have faded,” Chotwittayagan said.

Syed Umair Raza, a senior majoring in civil engineering from Lahore Pakistan, said that his experience with online classes was easier due to his proficiency in English.

“Classes would only be difficult if someone is not good at English,” he said.

Raza, a senior from Lahore, Pakistan has lived off-campus for three years and has been involved on campus in different student organizations.

“I don’t feel like a part of the bigger UAB community because all the classes are online and there are no meetings, no social gatherings,” Raza said.

As Alabama saw its first COVID-19 case, UAB switched to online learning during Spring 2020. In Fall, UAB offered a mixed learning system, consisting of online courses and hybrid courses which continues to be observed during the Spring semester of 2021.

During Summer 2020, the Trump Administration imposed a rule for international students requiring them to take at least one in-person class to keep their visas, at a time when many universities were prioritizing online instruction, The New York Times reported.

UAB international students majoring in subjects that require intensive lab work are seriously concerned about learning, according to Anna Schreiber, a doctoral student in biomedical sciences from Poznan, Poland. Raza said civil engineering labs are the only hard thing when it comes to online classes as “we aren’t really learning.”

According to Schreiber, international students are scared since the Trump administration blocked entry of international students who were taking all online classes.

“Requirements for F-1 visas are already pretty harsh. So it was definitely very scary when the former administration said you cannot stay in the U.S. if your classes are online. I was worried how it will affect my visa, how it will affect my scholarship,” Schreiber said. “The uncertainty of everything is the hardest part.”

“I was out of the laboratory for 3 months, and I don’t know how it is going to affect my future, Schreiber said. “These are three months of research that I will never get back.”

Schreiber came to UAB in August 2019 and has not been able to visit family since then due to COVID-19 constraints. She had a close group of doctoral students who worked with her, but everything has been different in virtual school.

“In person, we were like a tight group who would see each other and hang out, and now, there is no socialization and we cannot make any connections with our potential lab mates and potential mentors,” Schreiber said. “I cannot imagine doing it only virtual.”

UAB international students are worried about making connections, according to Sushmita Terala, a computer science graduate student from Hyderabad, India.

Terala from India arrived in the United States in January and said she came to UAB to make connections and meet new people, but due to the virtual learning system, she is “missing out on it.”

Nur Sara Halim is a junior majoring in psychology who is taking this semester from her home in Masai, Malaysia.

“Some professors aren’t willing to work with your hours because they only open exams during class time; I just took an exam at 4 a.m. in the morning the other day,” Halim said.

The opportunity to get has also been affected by virtual school, according to Halim.

“There aren’t as many tutoring sessions available for me because I couldn’t really find any that match with my time,” she said.  

Because of virtual learning, international students feel insecure about their dreams and aspirations they had because they are unable to do research, volunteer hours, and shadowing, according to Halim.

While the international students have some benefits of virtual school such as the ability to go back in lectures, take notes at their pace, make their own schedules, and stay with their families, it has costed them a connected college experience, according to Terala. “There are a lot more cons of virtual learning for international students,” Halim said, “than there are pros.”

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Made By Students from the University of Alabama at Birmingham