International Students Feel Squeezed by U.S. Recession

When it comes to equality in college financial aid, international students get the short end of the stick, even at USF, with its global social justice mission. International students are not eligible for federal financial aid or college scholarships and must document their ability to pay all four years of full-priced tuition before they are admitted to U.S. colleges. At USF this amounts to more than $180,000, before books, travel and other expenses and means that only the wealthiest foreign students can afford the luxury of a USF education. However, with the current economic downturn hitting the U.S., international students are bracing for a financial crisis at home and many are being told by parents to conserve cash or find an on-campus job.

Neither Gizelle Pei Gim or Erick Irigoyen, international student representatives of ASUSF knew of any international students who have left the university recently due to financial difficulty at home, however, students have contacted the university through the USFcares email address asking for financial assistance or flexible payment plans and USF has worked with “about two dozen international students to help them enroll for spring 2009,” according to Susan Murphy, senior dean of academic and enrollment services.

USF also has an $82,900 emergency grant fund for international students facing financial hardship, however all of those funds have been allocated to students for the year, which is typical even in good economic times, said Murphy.

Pei Gim said she knew of many international students who are worried about what the deepening U.S. recession will mean for the economies of their own countries. She said she had also spoken to many students whose parents were earning less money now than in the past few years and had warned their children at USF to rein in spending and find an on-campus job to earn spending money. International students who, in the past, have enjoyed downtown shopping sprees, returning to campus laden with bags from Neiman Marcus, Saks and Gucci, have become far more frugal, she said.

“Be more economical,” was the advice given to first-year graduate student Sarinda Kasamet by her parents, both of whom work in chemical distribution in her home country of Thailand. The economy in Thailand has been slowing along with the global recession, and has been made worse by recent political instability in the country. The international airport in Bangkok was overrun by protesters and closed for nearly two weeks last December, an example of how rival political factions have forced the country and its economy into gridlock. Kasamet, who is studying financial analysis at USF has been trying to find an on-campus job to earn extra money. She said she applied to two jobs last week, one as an administrative assistant and the other as an audiovisual technician, helping with the setup of video recorders and classroom technology, but has yet to hear back.

International students are only authorized to work on-campus and do not have the visa status to work elsewhere in the U.S.

Other international students who have jobs on campus have had their hours cut. Ginny Chen, a senior from Taiwan who works as an administrative assistant in the School of Nursing, said that last semester her hours were reduced to 10 a week, down from 20 the previous semester. Chen said all of her student co-workers also had their hours cut as part of wider university expense trimming. However, some departments on campus prefer to reduce hours for international students before other students because many domestic students have federal work-study, which kicks in some of the cost.

Pei Gim said she had been working eight to 10 hours per week at ITS but recently was told she could work no more than five. She said that student employees with work-study had their hours reduced, but not by as many as students without work-study, including all international student employees. Like many international students, Pei Gim is looking for more work hours on-campus. She has been warned by her father back in Malaysia that business at his construction company has been steadily declining and that she needs to do more to support herself.

Irigoyen said that while he does not believe all international students are struggling, “Most of them are making changes in their budgets and trying to save as much as they can to stay at USF.” Many international students including Pei Gim and Irigoyen expect the U.S. financial crisis to spread further around the world in the coming months and are concerned for themselves and fellow international students.

USF tries to work with international students who are having financial trouble and created an emergency fund for these students more than 20 years ago. The International Student Grant Program is available to foreign students who have finished at least their sophomore year and are able to prove unforeseen financial problems. The grant has a budget of five times the yearly tuition, which currently amounts to $82,900 and typically allocates money to students who have experienced the death, disability or forced retirement of a parent or sponsor, according to Murphy. The fund goes to undergraduates first and graduate students are only considered if there is money left over. The fund has helped as few as four and as many as 12 students per year in the past few years and has helped 250 international students in total thus far, according to Murphy.

Pei Gim and Irigoyen are now working with International Student and Scholar Services to identify international students who may be experiencing financial hardship. ISSS is planning to host an international student focus group on Friday, Feb. 20 from 1 to 2 p.m. “I am afraid it is too early to say if international students are struggling right now,” Irigoyen said. “I think we will know the real magnitude in the coming semesters.” He hopes that USF will do a better job informing international students about the support channels that are available to them. “I was surprised to learn about the existence of the [Grant] fund since it was my understanding from the first time I got to USF that international students cannot apply for any financial aid,” he said.

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