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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