Homesick and quarantined: Being an international graduate student at Stanford

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This is the fourth in a series of op-eds by the Stanford Solidarity Network detailing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on graduate students. Read the rest here: part onepart twopart three.

On Tuesday, more than 160 students from 30 departments and schools across Stanford sent deans Stephan Graham, Lloyd Minor, Debra Satz, Dan Schwartz and Jennifer Widom a letter. Among the five main demands made in the letter, one urgent need for international graduate students is dedicated, individual legal counsel for international students. 

The necessity of this legal support was made clear to us through a petition to which graduate students have submitted more than 30 pages of testimonies. In these testimonies, a discernibly loud voice belonged to international graduate students. 

International graduate students bear the brunt of the global nature of the pandemic. As winter quarter came to a close and the world went into lockdown, international graduate students had two choices: First, they could pack up and leave with one of the last flights available back home. Once there, they could temporarily continue education online, as the requirement to take classes in person for maintaining student status in the U.S. had been relaxed by the Department of Homeland Security. It was unclear, however, how long that option would remain possible. Students whose visas are running out were unsure when they would get to renew them and return to the U.S., as embassies around the world remain closed. Such students risked being quarantined upon arrival to their homeland, having to adjust to time-zone differences and suffer from issues of access to resources propagated by power and Internet shortages. In countries without the comforts of delivery of practically anything by an army of essential workers, procuring tools and equipment to maintain productivity became more difficult. 

Alternatively, international graduate students could stay on campus, away from their parents, partners, loved ones, colleagues and support networks. Some are nearing the end of their rental contracts. Left with no place to go, they are forced to stay indefinitely on friends’ couches. 

Stanford graduate students share these experiences with international graduate students all around the U.S. Today, 34% of Stanford’s graduate student body is international. This number reflects a broader trend of globalization of U.S. universities and colleges, where international students are seen as sources of income, ready to pay for the most expensive education in the world. In reality, international students find themselves firmly couched in an affordability crisis with their graduate student income. They commit two to five (sometimes more) years of their life to subsist on graduate student stipends that barely suffice. With their F-1 and J-1 visas, they cannot work outside the University campuses. Those who do so have lost this valuable source of income as the campuses closed down. 

The graduate student stipend is modeled for a young, single individual who enjoys the protections of a nation-state and financial independence, and not graduate students with dependents who have the graduate stipend as their only source of income. International students, undocumented students and DREAMers are excluded from the federal emergency assistance, despite paying 14% of their stipends in taxes. Without federal aid, Stanford is practically the sole protector of international graduate students. The uncertainty of the situation hits international students hard, with dire consequences coming as soon as this summer. They have expressed the mental toll the current uncertainty has created for them:

“The situation has raised considerable uncertainty around my ability to pay the massive rent for graduate housing on campus over the summer quarter, and my ability to go back home and travel back to the States as an international student,” said one such student. “This not only puts my visa status in jeopardy, but currently also affects my mental and financial stability and potentially puts my professional ability at stake to engage in full-time research toward the completion of my academic requirements and degree at Stanford.

The stakes are even higher for international graduate students with dependents. Stanford does not provide dependents with health insurance. Therefore, dependents run the risk of resorting to external, cheap health insurance that may not cover COVID-19 concerns. Those with dependents in vulnerable populations have to purchase expensive healthcare that does cover COVID-19 related concerns, stretching their already-tight budget. 

As the Stanford University Student Parent Alliance has shown, Stanford’s graduate student housing is unaffordable for graduate students with dependents and children. With summer funding not guaranteed for all graduate students, many are facing dire and imminent economic hardship. As one Stanford international graduate student writes, 

Summer quarter is the only time I can financially support my family of four by doing internships. My internship was rescinded due to the financial crisis. Moreover, U.S. residents are eligible for Trump’s COVID-19 stimulus, which is $1,200 for an adult and $500 for a child. Being an international student, I cannot get this stimulus for my family. All of that makes international graduate students with dependents highly vulnerable and extremely hard to survive in the current situation. No jobs, no support from the government, high cost of living.”

International graduate students bear the brunt of the global nature of the current pandemic. The consequences are diverse, and the pandemic is already hitting many economies hard. Without other financial means of support, the tacit assumption seems to be that international graduate students should tap into some source of money they have back home — either through family or personal savings. Due to the visa restrictions international graduate students are facing, the future after graduation looks even bleaker. The Trump administration is looking to suspend OPT programs for foreign students, eliminating a common gateway into lasting company employment or post-doctoral programs in the United States. Graduates of U.S. schools who have secured H1-B work visas but were laid off during the pandemic are forced to go back to their home countries. 

As international students requiring visa sponsorship, [the chance] to build a career through numerous back-to-back one-year appointments is not available to us, which makes the collapse of permanent appointments even more devastating,” wrote one international student. “It feels like we’re trapped in a tunnel with no light at the end, just the knowledge that the University will evict us in one year’s time. … I [find it] highly inappropriate that I have been asked to do additional work tasks “in the time saved by not commuting” (I live on campus). This kind of insensitivity to the circumstances of graduate students has greatly added to the anxiety I feel about my future at Stanford.

As the testimony above shows, the already immense pressures of staying productive during quarantine are further exacerbated for graduate students who find themselves daunted by the uncertainty caused by a rapidly shrinking job market. So we ask that Stanford provide individual legal assistance to international graduate students in need of government assistance. Even in conditions of dire financial need, and with the support of universities, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rarely approves Special Situation work visas that would allow F-1 and J-1 visa holders to work off-campus. While most international graduate students are ineligible for food aid and healthcare programs, exceptions apply to those who are pregnant and those who have dependents who are U.S. citizens. In these cases, the Bechtel International Center actively discourages international graduate students to apply for government assistance. Such a position is understandable, as Stanford would not want the students whose visas it sponsors to be dependent on government assistance. Not only would this reflect poorly on Stanford to have students, feeling unsupported by their host institution, turn to the government for aid, but it would mean Stanford had failed to fulfill the promise it made to support its graduate students financially when sponsoring the visa. Yet, this policy blocks international graduate students who are eligible for and in desperate need of government assistance programs such as CalFresh, Medi-Cal and Women, Infants, Children Program (WIC). As strangers to the intricacies of the legal system in the U.S., international and undocumented students could benefit immensely from individual legal counsel.

There is a precedent for Stanford offering such legal counsel. Following the president’s executive order on Jan. 27 2017, barring entry to the U.S. for refugees and for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, Stanford offered free legal counsel through the Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, and also pledged its support to DACA. Stanford has stood up for its international graduate student community in the past, and should continue to do so in the face of this global pandemic — in a manner that meets the gravity of the situation. Since Stanford is our legal sponsor and therefore our key to residency, it should offer this legal assistance and do everything it can to help students maintain residency. Further, our living conditions should reflect Stanford’s commitment to equality and justice through education. For international graduate students, commitment to justice looks like continued support for the low-income, non-citizen students (international or undocumented) who bear the burden of the structural inequalities generated through this history and exacerbated by COVID-19. 

Contact Kerem Ussakli at kussakli ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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