International students experience difficulty obtaining required academic resources

Students resort to Virtual Private Networks and combined shipping plans to get necessary items a week-and-a-half into the semester

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By Mahidhar Sai Lakkavaram, Collegian Correspondent

International students have faced many disadvantages since the University of Massachusetts decided to become mostly remote due to the pandemic. While visa issues and time zone differences were the initial obstacles, international students now aren’t able to access required academic resources, regardless of whether or not the resources are digital or physical.

With the nationwide COVID-19 regulations, there have been tremendous delays in shipping or manufacturing of certain products, such as textbooks or special learning devices. No matter their major or what country they are in, many international students have reported facing some sort of difficulty when it came to getting these items for their classes.

For instance, all students taking a calculus course are required to purchase WebAssign, an online platform that allows them to complete their homework assignments. This program also provides them with a textbook that is a major necessity while studying. However, Cengage, the portal through which they buy WebAssign, doesn’t allow students from Asia to purchase products from its website. When trying to access the site, a message pops-up saying that the company doesn’t have a storefront in the continent, which is why people from there can’t purchase any of their products, even though the products are digital.

Rahul Vedula, a freshman computer science major from India who is taking Math 132 (Calculus II), said “it was quite a tedious process trying to get access to WebAssign. I was so confused when I saw the message, especially because my professor gave us a link to buy it from and most of my class was able to get easily except for me.”

Vedula also explained that he had to resort to more complex methods to obtain access to the program, including trying to use a Virtual Private Network from the U.S. and contacting people from there to buy it for him through his account. When asked about how he felt and the support he received from UMass, he said that “although the problem was rectified after I wrote to my professor, it would’ve been nice to have a general heads-up saying that something wasn’t working the way it should’ve.

“It would’ve saved me a lot of stress and panicking but otherwise, my professor genuinely tried to help me solve the problem by following up with me regularly and looking for the solution.”

Similar to WebAssign, students taking certain physics courses were asked to purchase an iOLab, a pocket-sized device used in substitute for laboratory equipment. Although UMass removed the lab costs associated with these classes, it only benefited students studying in the U.S. as they could rent it for cheaper. International students, on the other hand, had to buy a completely new one and deal with all the associated costs, which included shipping and import tax.

Initially, UMass provided these students with links to order the device. However, all of them went out of stock roughly a week after the announcement. After this, the students turned to Amazon, where they had to pay around $331, with almost $144 of that being used for import fees. The cost varied between countries.

Mahidhar Lakkavaram

According to the Amazon website, “An estimate of import fees will be levied on the items of your order.” If the estimate wasn’t exact, the additional amount would be refunded, the website said. If the actual import fees exceeded that of the estimate by Amazon, the student doesn’t have to pay any additional amount. If they wish to return the device due to damages or any other issues, they have to comply with the export laws which could include an additional fee to send it back, making this an unfeasible option for many students.

Shreayaa Nadagudy Srinivasan, a freshman pre-engineering major taking Physics 151, said all the websites she turned to were out of stock of iOLab and Amazon was too expensive. When asked about her plan to get the device, she explained, “I’m going into a combined shipping plan that the University came up with. What they will do is, they’ll send a large quantity of these devices in bulk to a person in each of our countries, after which that person will ship it to the rest of us.”

Srinivasan, who is also from India, explained how she felt about the situation: “At this point, I must have the device in hand before my first class which is this Friday, but I don’t know how far the combined shipping would work.” She also said that UMass was supportive of this situation, especially Irene Dujovne, a lecturer in the physics department, who informed all of the students of the plan and was in communication with them throughout the process.

“They could have brought up this combined shipping [plan] beforehand. I feel [like] each student from a particular country would have their devices on hand if they had done that,” she said.

Srinivasan said she felt particularly stressed by the entire situation, as she didn’t want to be delayed in her labs and behind on her work. According to her, it all felt like a “giant headache.” She has yet to receive the device.

Mahidhar Sai Lakkavaram is a Collegian Contributor and can be reached at [email protected], Follow him on twitter @Mahidhar_sl.