International Bulldogs overcome challenging circumstances to learn remotely

by Chuck Gordon

Like many other Wingate students, freshman Niraj Panthi is learning entirely online this semester. He usually wakes up around 5:30, splashes water on his face, turns on his laptop and prepares to learn.

Outside his window, the sun sets behind the Himalayas.

Panthi is learning on Nepalese time, stuck in his home country because of the travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. By the time he logs in for his chemistry class, his family is busy preparing their evening meal. Meanwhile, it’s 8 a.m. in Wingate.

“If it’s night here, it’ll be day there,” he says via Zoom from his home in Pokhara, Nepal. “I have to stay awake all night.” By the time his head hits the pillow, it’s 11 a.m. Nepal Standard Time.

Panthi is one of 23 international students from 13 countries who elected to continue – or, in Panthi’s case, begin – their Wingate education this fall despite being unable to step foot on campus.

Time differences, unstable internet connections, time-management issues – learning remotely brings with it a variety of inherent challenges. It’s often doubly difficult for international students, who might have a language barrier on top of glitchy Zoom feeds.

Sarah Huynh poses for the camera

The time difference for Gabriel Vereza Da Costa is only an hour, but the Brazilian has time problems of his own: He’s attending Wingate on a swimming scholarship, and he travels an hour and a half each way to train. Add in an hour at the gym each day, and six hours are gone before he’s even factored in class time and outside-of-class studying.

“It’s been a challenge, but I’m trying,” says Da Costa, who lives in Rio de Janeiro. “I’m doing my best.”

Sophomore transfer Sarah Huynh was at Mercer University this time last year. A member of that school’s tennis team, she had a manageable routine.

“I had classes every morning, then practice every afternoon, then homework and studying at night,” she says. “Here, it’s not the same.”

Huynh lives about 15 minutes outside of Paris. France is now in the early days of a second strict lockdown, which means that Huynh can’t roam farther than 1 kilometer from her house and can exercise outside no more than an hour per day. When it’s raining, she can’t practice at all, because indoor tennis courts are closed.

Most of Huynh’s classes are asynchronous, which means she can do the work on her own time. The marketing major has just three hours of live class (via video) each week.

“I’m a lazy person, so that’s good,” she says with a laugh. “But I don’t feel like I’m in college.”

Aside from more-tangible problems associated with learning remotely in another country, the students’ emotional fortitude is being tested as well. They’re in a perpetual state of limbo, with their plans changing with the wind.

Ideally, Huynh will be in Wingate in late January, in time for in-person classes, which are scheduled to begin in early February. “That’s the plan,” she says, “but everything changes every day.”

Faculty support

Da Costa, who also plans to major in marketing, is hoping to be on campus in January as well, but he’s been on a roller-coaster since the pandemic hit, having had visa appointments canceled three times already. He has another visa appointment scheduled for Dec. 17, and even if that goes according to plan, he’ll still need to quarantine for two weeks in another country before he can enter the U.S.

Many of the hardships and challenges international students are facing were predictable. Panthi even considered putting off college until 2021, but his mother advised him to give it a go this fall.

“Time is precious,” she told him. “You can’t waste this year waiting on the pandemic to resolve. You never know when this pandemic is going to end.”

Gabriel Da Costa diving in a swim meet

Panthi is just shy of making straight A’s. His biggest problem, aside from his out-of-whack circadian rhythm, is the occasional power outages that plague Nepal, where “load saving” measures mean that Panthi and his family sometimes lose power for stretches at a time.

“Being in a developing country like Nepal, sometimes you have to face problems like that,” Panthi says.

The saving grace for all of these students is the dedication shown by their professors. Da Costa says he feels disoriented without having fellow students to lean on, so having faculty members who go out of their way to help has been important.

“I would be so much happier if I were at the university,” he says. “It’s been a lot of stress. But I think it is better than not doing anything. It’s a different type of challenge. It’s a great thing that we have online, but it’s not the same as being at the university. It’s not ideal.”

Keeping him on track are his professors. “The professors are excellent,” Da Costa says. “They always ask me if I need help. They have office hours. If I’m not doing well with grades, I email explaining the situation. They take late assignments.”

Panthi joins Dr. Chris Dahm’s Chemistry 101 lectures live via Zoom, and Dahm also records the lectures and sends them to Panthi, to make sure that the chemistry-business major doesn’t get behind.

“Covid hit me hard,” Panthi says. “To be honest with you, at first it was really difficult. I was even thinking of dropping. But the way the professors are invested in me, the way they provided me with resources, the way they instructed me, really helped me a lot. I’m getting pretty used to it and so far I’m doing good.”

“They are giving me the resources, and it all depends on me.”

Nov. 5, 2020