With the beginning of the second half of the academic year, the Pomona College community has endured another semester of online schooling. The College has made it clear that there won’t be a January return, or even the originally planned March return. Many of us at the Claremont Colleges desperately yearn a return to campus to secure some semblance of normalcy and socialization. However, I strongly agree with a certain TSL opinion article that such a wholesale return is “selfish, foolish and violent.” Coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County are among the worst in the world and worsening; last semester, a number of students living off-campus in Claremont ended up contracting COVID-19. There were reports of students contracting the coronavirus and partying in so-called “pandemic pods,” raising some eyebrows as to the viability of a return to campus. Despite all these factors, I am a proponent of some students returning to campus.
For some, the reason for returning is a question of selfishness. Yet for a few, it is a question of sanity. With enormous time zone differences and decreased opportunity, international students are placed in a disadvantage by virtual learning.
Being part of the international student minority at Pomona, I operate in a completely different time zone than anyone in the States. I live in the Republic of Myanmar, a country that is fourteen hours and thirty minutes ahead of Pacific Standard Time during daylight savings. In other words, my earliest class starts an hour before midnight, my latest at three in the morning.
When Pomona College President Starr sent out an email back in December detailing the return of a small group of students to campus, it served as a glimmer of hope for many. While some have seen this opportunity as one that can rejuvenate their dormant social lives, others like me saw it as one which allows us to obtain our higher education under a humane schedule. This entire ordeal could be quickly mitigated by allowing the international students to return to campus. However, after Pomona postponed the application program for return— planning instead for an in-person Fall 2021 semester—international students like me remain obsolete in our time zone purgatories for an entire semester.
Of course, some may refute my point with the existence of asynchronous arrangements. First and foremost, I want to wholeheartedly thank the Pomona faculty members and organizations for providing this arrangement for international students. Personally speaking, these arrangements are the only things helping me retain my sanity as I soldier on discussing Descartes and solving Taylor Polynomials while my entire country slumbers.
Yet, I cannot participate and contribute my thoughts in discussions by staring at a pre-recorded video. I cannot perform my absolute best on exams that weigh enormously on my grade point average when I have to take them at ungodly hours. I cannot ask for assistance when mentor sessions only occur at four in the morning. I cannot apply for internships in the United States at haphazard times.
That’s not all.
Keeping international students away also deprives us of opportunities. Lab classes that mail lab equipment directly to our houses are also off the table. When customs are involved, and when you need to ship equipment across continents, it makes it extremely difficult for students to perform these experiments along with the class when they have to wait for shipments days on end.
Moreover, for the freshmen like me who have never been in the US, internships and jobs are completely off the table as we are required to be in the states to obtain a social security number making us eligible for employment.
Some may argue that the “bubble” for the Claremont Consortium failed this past semester, and that bringing international students back to campus will fail again, serving only to put more strain on the residents of Claremont. But, international students make up 12% of the 1,599 students at Pomona. Even if every single international student decides to risk the danger and return, Pomona would only need to house 191 students, 309 students fewer than in President Starr’s “bubble” vision.
It goes without saying that if international students were to come back to campus, the semester wouldn’t be entirely normal, but rather a modified one that adapts to the needs of the students and community during COVID-19. Students would practice social distancing, follow regulations of sanitization, and avoid large social gatherings in accordance with state laws. Students should undergo swab tests and disinfecting under the strict supervision of Pomona Safe, and there should be hands free doors and extensive air filtration systems as mentioned in an email sent out by the Pomona administration. If executed properly these protocols can allow students to set foot on campus safely.
In order to achieve a safe campus, I would be willing to sign a strict agreement and follow placed protocols for community safety.
Even if we cannot return to campus at all this semester, Pomona College should think outside of the box to provide innovative solutions to international student issues. Pomona is a leader at the Claremont Colleges, and should step up like some other colleges. Universities like Columbia offer programs like Hy/Flex Teaching and Learning, allowing students the option to take asynchronous courses if they desire rather than having them attend class at midnight. Programs like this one would have a profound impact on international students facing isolation and time-zone purgatory. Pomona should do the same.
Despite the difficulties we are all facing and Pomona’s saddening decision to keep students at home this January and into March, we must not lose hope. Government-permitting, some may still return at some point this semester. I believe Pomona has the resources, and responsibility, to create an on-campus experience for international students in a safe and effective manner, or at least provide better time zone management for tests and assignments, access to resources, and opportunities for those suffering from the brunt of virtual learning.