Over 6,800 miles away from OU’s Norman campus, computer engineering freshman Mohamed Abdelnaby stays awake into the night to log into his Zoom class at 1 a.m. local time. His parents have gone to bed hours ago, but Abdelnaby is wide awake in front of his computer, its screen crowded with pixelated faces of his 75 classmates across the Atlantic Ocean.
The light from his screen is bright against the night view from his window. By the time his professor wishes the rest of the class a good “evening,” the sun has almost risen.
Abdelnaby has been taking OU classes remotely from his home in Cairo, Egypt, battling an eight-hour time difference.
Several OU international students who attended classes remotely from their home countries described their struggles concentrating in class and maintaining healthy routines as a result of atypical sleep schedules from following Oklahoma’s time zone from across the world.
Living on Oklahoma time
On Mondays, Abdelnaby has classes from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. On Wednesdays, his last class ends at almost 4 a.m. He said his sleeping schedule also has to adjust to Oklahoma time — he sleeps at 9 a.m. and wakes up at 3 p.m.
“I would say it has been extremely challenging, to be honest,” Abdelnaby said. “It’s extremely unhealthy to follow that (sleeping schedule). Sometimes I have insomnia when I try to sleep while the sun is just out there.”
He said his parents wake up in the morning for work only to find him still wide awake in front of his computer. Even on weekends where he doesn’t have classes, Abdelnaby said he finds it difficult to follow a “normal” sleeping schedule since his sleep schedule for class resumes on Monday.
“I have noticed that my overall (academic) performance is very reduced (...) all of that is a direct result of the unhealthy approach towards sleeping,” Abdelnaby said.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, international students wishing to study on-campus have struggled to obtain their student visas due to U.S. Embassy closures across the world. In Egypt, Abdelnaby said the U.S. Embassy has been closed since March 2020. He said he still doesn’t know when the embassy will open and if he will be able to come to campus for his sophomore year next semester.
“I tried everything from sending long emails (to the U.S. Embassy), applying to emergency appointments, to posting comments on the embassy’s Facebook page to get to know other Egyptian students, and writing collective messages (with other Egyptian students) to the embassy,” Abdelnaby said.
He said the embassy cancelled his visa appointments ten times and never responded to his emails.
While some of his fellow international freshmen decided to take a gap year in lieu of taking OU classes remotely, Abdelnaby said he cannot spend any break from his studies because his country granted him a postponement for compulsory military duty strictly to attend university. He also said he cannot go to another country’s U.S. Embassy for a visa. He said his military postponement wouldn’t allow him to travel abroad except for the country where his university is located — and so he began his freshman year with 1 a.m. classes.
'I wouldn’t survive this if it weren’t for my family’s support.'
Some international students who had to take classes remotely last fall successfully arrived on campus this semester. Moez Ullah Khan Durrani, a mechanical engineering freshman from Pakistan, looked back at his struggle with taking online classes from his home country.
“I come from a village named Mastuj which is one of the most rural areas in Pakistan,” Durrani said. “We don’t have 3G or 4G (internet connection), we only have 2G.”
He said it would take three to four hours just to load a webpage sometimes, so he had to move to a nearby city to attend his online classes. He said his parents couldn’t afford rent or wifi in a big city, so he stayed in a relative’s place to take his online classes. All but one of his classes started past midnight and lasted until 4:30 a.m.
“Obviously, I couldn’t focus when I was half-asleep”, Durrani said. “Many times I even fell asleep during tests. I would stay awake the whole night because of my classes, and during the day, I had to stay awake because of my daily house chores. I was sleep deprived the whole time.”
He said his sleep deprivation reduced his academic performance significantly, and he couldn’t attend many extra credit opportunities because of the time difference.
“All students on campus had the privilege of getting these extra credit points,” Durrani said. “I also wasn’t able to attend any office hours even though I wanted to.”
Several students said they also had to adjust their schedules for classes and campus extracurriculars.
Ahmed Abdallah, a computer engineering freshman from Egypt who arrived to campus earlier this semester, said throughout his time taking classes remotely from his country, he was worried about missing out on friendships and networks he considered essential for his first year of college.
Abdallah said he tried to keep up with his social connections by joining several on-campus organizations, like the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Scientific Undergraduate Research Association. The meetings for these organizations would happen in the evening in Norman, so Abdallah said he had to wake up between 3 and 4 a.m. to participate.
“My mom had to adjust to her (sleep schedule) with me because my mom likes to make food for others,” Abdallah said. “So she would make breakfast for me (at these hours).”
Abdelnaby said his social life outside of OU is also impacted by the time difference he has to keep up with. He said many of his friends in Egypt ask him to go out in the morning or the afternoon when he needs to sleep.
“I’d not be able to go out with them because I’m literally adjusted to Oklahoma’s time zone,” Abdelnaby said. “It impacted my social life drastically. I would say that unfortunately, I’m not having much of a social life.”
However, Abdelnaby said his family has been supportive of his decision to study remotely at OU.
“They help me whenever they can, and they try to make the environment at home as comfortable as possible,” he said. “I wouldn’t survive this if it weren’t for my family’s support.”
Abdelnaby also said OU’s International Student Services and United World College Scholars Program office have been very supportive throughout his journey studying remotely.
“They helped me with the documents and papers necessary to send to the Egyptian Embassy in Washington,” Abdelnaby said. “They also wrote a letter for my emergency appointment at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo (even though) the emergency request was refused in the end. They kept on sending me updated I-20 documents, and they always responded to my emails and inquiries.”
He said the office of the United World Scholars Program at OU has arranged Zoom meetings with him to discuss his plans and concerns. He said he feels like the office truly cares about following his situation closely, and the office provides him with any help whenever needed.
“To be honest, if it weren’t for them, I would have just quit and not continued trying alternative solutions,” Abdelnaby said. “They are literally the best.”
Abdelnaby also said his professors at OU have offered him help if he ever needed an extension for deadlines and told him to contact them if he ever encountered any classroom difficulties. He said he feels very supported by his professors amid his challenges.
‘Even in the worst experiences, you could still learn something out of it.’
Durrani said the experience of taking classes with 11 hours of time difference was horrible because of the challenges with studying, but it was also positive because he finally got to spend time in his home country after spending two years studying abroad in Bosnia before attending OU.
“Doing my semester online in my comfort zone at home was a nice experience,” Durrani said. “Also, it was the first semester online for the freshmen (...) so the teachers were lenient with grading and deadlines. To be honest, I was at peace during the chaos of the pandemic.”
During Abdallah’s remote semester in Egypt, he said he ventured the hustle from traveling between countries to obtain a visa from a U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates, all while juggling between different time zones to keep up with classes. During the trip, he said he had to spend one flight memorizing math formulas on flashcards to prepare for an exam that happened hours after he landed.
Despite the challenges, Abdallah said he finished his remote semester with straight As in all but one class. He now lives in Couch Tower and said he has an “awesome” roommate from Texas.
“I’m having good friendships now here, and I’m super happy,” Abdallah said.
Abdallah keeps his passport and his 5-year U.S. visa above his desk to commemorate the unforgettable experience he had studying from Egypt with 8 hours of time difference, all while struggling to get a visa.
Abdelnaby said the challenges he’s faced while taking classes from Egypt are worth it because he truly loves his classes and his major.
“(Loving my classes and major) is the only thing that keeps me going so far,” he said. “If I didn’t enjoy the classes that I’m studying, this would be a horrible experience.”
He also said, throughout the past two semesters, he has learned the ability to adapt and work under pressure in the face of challenges such as the time difference.
“Even in the worst experiences, you could still learn something out of it,” he said. “I’m getting a life experience out of this situation despite all the challenges.”
This article was updated at 1:33 p.m. Saturday, March 27, to correct a misspelling of Mohamed Abdelnaby's name.