This is a guest post written by our coach, Grace Chiang.
It’s no question COVID-19 has massively disrupted the education of hundreds of millions of students worldwide. As an educator, I’ve been worried these disruptions are disproportionately impacting students from lower-resourced schools who may have limited access to the WiFi, technology, and quiet spaces needed for remote learning. However, recently, I’m also increasingly concerned for the wellbeing of an important student population: international students studying abroad in the US
Over the last few months, I’ve spoken with many international students (including TSL students) who are now home with their families due to school closures and visa uncertainties. As the new school year begins, schools have done little to address international students’ needs. At many schools, online learning is being taught synchronously during regular school hours, meaning students in Asia have to stay awake until well past midnight to attend their classes or risk attendance and learning penalties. The American-centrism extends beyond individual schools; many students in Asia had to take their AP exams at midnight or later last school year, and without meaningful intervention, I expect the same to happen this year. This is unacceptable because healthy sleep schedules are critical to student learning as well as their mental and physical health.
Studies have repeatedly shown teens who do not get the sleep they need are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Poor sleep also plays a role in poor memory, dramatic weight changes, heightened emotions, lowered immune systems, and increased risk taking. Neurologically, poor sleep impairs the brain’s frontal lobe, which impacts executive function, memory, and decision making by altering brain metabolism and chemistry. For adolescent brains, this is especially problematic as their brains are in rapid development. Studies have shown that, in some cases, the brain changes from prolonged sleep disruption and deprivation can become permanent.
International students who are choosing to disrupt their sleep schedule to meet the demands of studying online with their US schools are sacrificing their emotional and physical wellbeing. The cost is almost never worth it. As a teen, I slept 3-5 hours a day throughout my high school years, which wreaked havoc on my brain and body. The damage took years to address and I wish I had known more about the impact of irregular sleep back in high school when I thought it was the only choice I had.
So what can international students and their families do? Here are a few suggestions:
1) Collectively advocate to schools
International students are an important demographic in US higher education and secondary boarding schools. In 2019, over 1 million students studied abroad in the US and generated $45 billion dollars in economic value. Many schools have long said international students are an important part of their student makeup because they contribute full fare and bring diversity to their student population. At the secondary school level, international students make up on average 20% of student populations at boarding schools. All this to say: you have power. Connect with other international students and their families to act together and petition the school for international student friendly policies. These could include:
- Having more class periods compatible with different time zones for students to choose from (Andover is taking this approach)
- Offering more asynchronous teaching where classes are recorded and students can attend office hours at time-zone appropriate times
- Having guaranteed dorms for international students on campus and contingency plans for accommodations in the case schools have to close again
2) Speak with individual teachers
If the school is unable to take systematic, policy level action, it’s still worth speaking with individual teachers about accommodating for your schedule. Examples of what you can ask for include lecture recordings, batched assignments so you can work on them ahead of time, or being partnered with other international students for classwork. This will be great practice in establishing relationships with teachers and advocating for what you need as a student. These are both critical skills in college and beyond.
3) Prioritize ruthlessly
As this school year starts, take the opportunity to set your priorities. You can include your health (especially sleep) in your list of goals to make sure you’re putting intentional effort to protect it. You can start by making a list of all of your goals for the year and activities you are participating in. Then prioritize ruthlessly until you have no more than 5 top goals for the semester. That way, you can be laser focused on these goals, which often yields better results than doing everything at once. That’s also the philosophy behind a Spike project! I sincerely hope health is one of your top 5 priorities, but if it isn’t, at least you’ve intentionally chosen what you’re putting before your mental and physical wellbeing.
4) Expand your definition of learning
During these uncertain times, it’s worth asking what you’re really hoping to get out of school. Even at the best schools, it’s hard for remote education to match up to the quality of the school’s usual level of instruction. It’s already becoming apparent that test scores and grades will matter less in future college application cycles. Experts are predicting college admissions officers will focus more on how students spend their time and conduct deeper evaluations of what students really know and can do. All this makes my work as a TSL Coach feel more relevant than ever. I truly believe in the power of student-led education and that current circumstances present a wonderful opportunity for students to focus on learning outside of the classroom. By helping students discover their interests, grow into experts on a particular interest, and build meaningful personal projects, The Spike Lab is nurturing lifelong learners capable of directing their own learning. The best part, in my mind, is that our coaches span many time zones and provide a fully tailored learning experience that doesn’t ask students to sacrifice their wellbeing.