For International Students, Covid-Era Academics Turn Tragic

Matthew Roth / CC-BY-SA-3.0

By Nicole Chodor

BERKELEY– Content Warning: Death. On February 10, 2021, UC Berkeley Students learned of the passing of Kaijie Zhang, a first-year international student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, following irregular sleep schedules due to synchronous learning. Nearly one month later, campus administrators have yet to adequately respond to cries for change.

According to the initial press release by UC Berkeley Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), Zhang had “been studying remotely from his home in Wuxi, China, where he passed away after having periods of irregular sleep schedules, reportedly due to attending classes at unreasonable times.” Zhang’s tragic death sheds light on the increased marginalization of international students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of Coronavirus travel restrictions and shifting immigration policies (from both the prior and incumbent administration), the majority of the 5,000+ international students at UC Berkeley elected to stay home for the 2020-2021 school year. 

However, staying home comes with a host of negative consequences, most notably different time zones. Simply put, many professors do not accommodate the international community, enforcing rigid attendance policies and synchronous lectures and/or discussions.

In efforts to combat this issue, ASUC Senators Rex Zhang, Samuel Peng, and Will Liu, all representing the International Community at UC Berkeley, lobbied for “Go Local” programs, which would “allow international students to attend universities in their home countries to earn credit.” However, campus administration rebuffed the proposal, claiming it would be too complex to implement both legally and financially.

The social justice impact of this issue is two-fold: international students are not receiving necessary accommodations despite paying out-of-state tuition. Furthermore, UC Berkeley’s image as a stronghold of “diversity and inclusion” is at odds with the lack of direct accessibility.

In the absence of tangible official support by campus administration, international students attending UC Berkeley are often forced to choose between skipping classes and turning their sleep schedules upside down.

Health and equitable access to academics are traditionally considered rights for all students. Zhang’s life and unfortunate demise demonstrate how fatal the aftermath can be when students’ needs aren’t addressed.

To that end, Zhang is reflective of the 94% of international students who fault synchronous learning for putting their physical and mental well-being at risk last semester. His passing highlights the necessity for campus administration to place further consideration toward aid for the international community at large.

Despite the rejection of the “Go Local” programs, Senators Zhang, Peng, and Liu are continuing to advocate for international students. 

In their statement following Kaijie Zhang’s passing, they listed a series of demands to UC Berkeley administration for the ongoing school year, including: asynchronous options for all lectures and sections, flexible exam times, a public statement by the Academic Senate, and efforts to ensure similar accommodations at other institutions.

“We have met with the Academic Senate and we will now be involved in the accommodation committee,” said Senator Zhang. At present, the Academic Senate Chair is drafting a letter of support, in collaboration with a survey from the Berkeley International Office.

For Director of the office Ivor Emmanuel, this survey will be used to gauge the personal, social, and academic impacts felt by international students. Ideally, results will then be directly translated into “programs and services that support their needs based on the data.” However, there is no official guarantee that campus leadership will take the necessary action.

Many international students feel as though, through prioritizing either academics or physical/mental health, they have been left to fend for themselves. 

Without direct accountability and change on the part of UC Berkeley’s administration, it is increasingly likely that student sleep schedules will continue to be disturbed—which, as the example of Kaijie Zhang demonstrates, is now a matter of life and death.

Nicole Chodor is a writer for The Vanguard at Berkeley’s social justice desk. She is a first-year UC Berkeley student at the College of Letters and Science. Orginally from LA, she wants to pursue social justice organizing and/or education policy reform.


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About The Author

Koda is an incoming senior at UC Berkeley, majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Rhetoric. He is from Ventura, CA.

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  1. Alan Miller

    Content Warning:  disbelief

    the passing of . . . Zhang . . . following irregular sleep schedules due to synchronous learning.


     . . . Zhang had “been studying remotely from . . .  China, where he passed away after having periods of irregular sleep schedules . . .

    To ask an obvious question here, what was the cause of death?  Both of the above sentences state that he died after irregular sleep schedules, kind of implies cause and effect, but never states the actual cause of death was irregular sleep patterns.  He likely also died after having had a glass of milk.

    I have known thousands of college students both during and after college, and many of them lived/live lives with very erratic sleep patterns and lack of sufficient sleep.  It’s kind of a college thing.  And not one of them died of lack of sleep or ended up in the hospital from lack of sleep.

    I’m not saying not getting enough sleep is good for you – and it can have negative effects – I say that as I’m not wanting commenters to go down that rabbit hole – but I’ve not known or heard of someone outright dying from irregular sleep patterns.  I currently work with associates who are in Europe and Asia and working remotely.  They work in the middle of the night while overseas so they can communicate with colleagues in the U.S. — and they are in their 30’s and 40’s and adapting.  So is there more to the story about how he actually died?

    I’m not saying the international student class timing isn’t an issue.  But bringing in a story implying ‘death by irregular sleep’ doesn’t really help your argument.  It’s OK just to say it sucks to have classes at 3:00 a.m..

    1. Keith Olsen

      Without direct accountability and change on the part of UC Berkeley’s administration, it is increasingly likely that student sleep schedules will continue to be disturbed—which, as the example of Kaijie Zhang demonstrates, is now a matter of life and death.

      I think the author answered your question here.

      Like you, my reaction is “disbelief”.

    2. Bill Marshall

      Alan… have heard of several cases, where the “irregular sleep” is a symptom (not necessarily a cause, but they can ‘feed into one another’) of clinical depression, which can lead to taking one’s own life, by one means or another… many cultures will never acknowledge ‘suicide’… stigma…

      We’ll never know if that is true… or not…

      But one death, out of 5,000+ international UCB students, does not seem like a clarion call to change what UCB is currently doing…

      1. Alan Miller

        That is true . . . and I’m not opposed to solutions to the scheduling issue.  Your theory rather makes sense on the cause of death and the reason it isn’t being brought forward.  But it only makes sense as a theory, no way to say it’s a fact.  That’s the problem with rolling out what is clearly a partial explanation – it leaves the field wide open to speculation that does more damage than good.

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