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International graduate students face difficult decisions during COVID-19

(Firyal Bawab/Daily Bruin)

By Maggie Tully

June 12, 2020 12:16 a.m.

The coronavirus outbreak has stacked the deck against international graduate students.

International graduate students are facing heightened challenges from the coronavirus outbreak. Some students are staying in the United States instead of going home to their families, amid fears of being barred from reentering the U.S.

Anna Bonazzi, an international student from Italy, and her husband are one of many families unable to go home this year.

“When the lockdowns started, (students) were worried,” said Bonazzi, a graduate student in Germanic languages. “(If you’re) here, and something happens at home, you’re in a bad position, because you can’t go home to see your family.”

If international students do choose to go home, obtaining a new visa to return to America is nearly impossible because embassies and consulates are closed, said Sam Nahidi, the director of the UCLA Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars, in an emailed statement.

Merely staying in the country doesn’t solve all of the international students’ problems, though. Changing federal and university policies have made students’ visa statuses, finances and job prospects increasingly uncertain.

Most of the international graduating business students who did leave the country weren’t planning to work in the U.S., and they knew they probably wouldn’t be able to come back, said Angela Arunarsirakul, a graduate business student.

“The (students) who would’ve liked to have gone home didn’t go because they were worried that they wouldn’t be able to come back,” Arunarsirakul said. “You never know, … all of a sudden your country might be on (Trump’s) travel ban list.”

International graduate students’ concerns don’t just end with visa uncertainties; many are facing financial hardships as well.

International graduate students are usually ineligible for state and federal aid, said Letty Treviño, the 2020-2021 Graduate Students Association vice president of academic affairs.

Some graduate students – who were already facing financial hardships before the coronavirus outbreak began – must now consider spending an extra quarter at UCLA to complete their degree.

The coronavirus outbreak has halted research in laboratories and delayed some humanities research, which could force some graduate students to stay at UCLA longer, Treviño said.

The approximately $15,000 annual UCLA Nonresident Supplemental Tuition fee is a large financial strain for international graduate students, Treviño said.

“We can’t pay that out of pocket – graduate students don’t have that money,” Treviño said.

Teaching undergraduate classes is one of the main sources of income for many graduate students. While UCLA has extended the time graduate students may stay enrolled at UCLA, the university has not extended the time graduate students can work as teaching assistants, Treviño said.

The NRST fee is normally waived for three years for doctoral students in the final stage of their degree process. The university has not extended the length of the fee waiver for students who choose to stay at UCLA longer, however, which may render students unable to afford to stay at UCLA, Treviño said.

“If you’re not giving an extra year of fee waiver, … then giving (international graduate students) an extra quarter doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “They can technically stay here, but that doesn’t mean that they can pay for it.”

Delaying graduation also hurts graduate students’ job applications.

Graduate students face challenges applying to teaching positions, since university hiring cycles won’t wait for graduate students whose graduation is delayed a quarter, Treviño said.

Some graduate students’ job and internship offers were rescinded as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, Arunarsirakul said. Internships often lead to full-time employment offers, which are especially important for international students, Arunarsirakul added.

Many companies ordinarily avoid hiring international students because of legal uncertainties, Arunarsirakul said. Coronavirus-related hiring freezes have further exacerbated the problems for graduate students, Arunarsirakul added.

“(Your dream company) might not hire international students (at all),” Arunarsirakul said. “(Some companies) don’t want to go through the process of the legal paperwork and … the uncertainty of the risks that come with hiring an international student.”

Campus career centers should help international students identify which jobs to apply to and provide additional resources available to them, Arunarsirakul said.

The UCLA Anderson School of Management’s career center is providing access to international job search databases and informational interview workshops, according to an Anderson spokesperson.

Graduate students who choose to stay in the country also face challenges in ensuring they can remain in the U.S. after their degree is complete.

The federal government has lifted some student visa restrictions because of the coronavirus outbreak. International students are usually not allowed to take all online classes, but this rule has been lifted, Nahidi said in an emailed statement.

After graduation, the federal Optional Practical Training program allows international students to stay in the country. Normally, this program would allow international students like Tarun Rai Madan, a graduate business student, to stay in the U.S. for three more years after their degrees are complete.

The Dashew Center usually processes OPT applications on behalf of graduate students. But because of the coronavirus outbreak, students like Madan must now submit their applications to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services directly.

“The current biggest concern people are having is whether their OPT applications will be approved,” Madan said.

Moreover, the OPT program requires international students to find a job within 90 days to stay in the country.

Many international students in the U.S. intend to remain in the country after graduating, but the threat of a coronavirus-induced recession threatens job security, Arunarsirakul said.

“The idea is that (international students) would have some (work) experience, even if it’s just for a year,” Arunarsirakul said. “I think that’s really getting people to question, ‘Was the investment worth it?’”

Students pay a premium for graduate business programs because of the professional networking opportunities that are available with in-person learning, but a lot of that value has been lost in the transition to online learning, Madan said.

“Most of us (international students) have over $100,000 in loans and (are struggling to get a job),” Madan said. “Obviously there is that question … whether this whole thing is worth it, whether it is worth taking up such a big looming burden only (to have to) go back.”

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Maggie Tully | Slot editor
Tully is a 2020-2021 slot editor of the Daily Bruin. She was a slot editor for 2019-2020 and occasionally covers News and Enterprise.
Tully is a 2020-2021 slot editor of the Daily Bruin. She was a slot editor for 2019-2020 and occasionally covers News and Enterprise.
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