International FLI students share distinct cultural and financial burdens at Stanford

Sept. 25, 2022, 12:31 a.m.

International students who are first-generation low-income (FLI) take on an experience like no other at Stanford. Situated squarely at the intersection of two complex identities, FLI international students face unique and sometimes overlooked issues, like navigating visas and immigration policies and finding a community at Stanford. And while support from University administration helps, it can only go so far.

Many low-income students receive resources from the FLI office after matriculation. FLI provides financial support, including the Opportunity Fund and emergency grants, and coordinates community programming. 

“Since it’s really not economically feasible to fly home for a week during breaks, it gets really lonely here at Stanford,” said Olivia Ledbury ’25, a staff member for the FLI mentorship program. “I am really grateful that FLI extends further than a program to a community.”

“It’s a community where everyone is eager to help each other,” said Iyanu Darem ’25, who hails from the United Kingdom. “For example, older students are happy to support freshman in finding affordable alternatives to some of the expenses that come with being a student.”

For some international students, home means the opposite side of the world, making traveling back to their hometown a rarity due to financial and time constraints. Some students said they were unable to visit home for a year or more. Helen Deng ’25, a FLI-identifying student from China, said cultural loss due to time away from home was a difficult adjustment for her.

“I, and other students, sometimes feel very lost,” Deng said. “College is a time to meet new people, but home is always home. I miss my family but I also know there are the pressures of making a living that keep me here at Stanford.”

Ledbury said FLI provided resources geared towards FLI students who may live far away from campus, such as the summer storage program. A communal library for used textbooks and other community resources also helped ease the financial burden of college, Ledbury said.

The financial burdens of low-income students and international students are often increased by the pressure of finding a job, as well as contributing towards student loans and sending money back home, Ledbury said. “Non-FLI students don’t always have that pressure,” she said.

Like Deng, Joseph Kim ’24, who is from Korea and works as a FLI office staff member, said arriving at a new school in a new country feels overwhelming due to the lack of established support and resources.

“All of this, like taxes and tuition, while having to be so far from home can be a really isolating and grueling experience, which can very easily affect one’s mental health,” Kim said.

Deng said the University’s financial aid also helped alleviate stress. “Depending on your financial situation, the amount of financial aid you receive can basically cover everything, tuition, living expenses, and even medical care,” Deng said.

The University “has a limited amount of financial aid for international students” and requires international applicants to indicate if they need financial assistance on their applications. The admission process is need-blind for domestic students, “meaning, for all but some international applicants, financial status will not affect the admission decision,” according to the financial aid website.

Another pressure Deng identified was choosing a major based on how lucrative future careers would be, rather than interest.

“People go for lucrative majors, like Management Science and Engineering, over what they really want,” Deng said. “I think the desire for monetary gain is valid and a general philosophy of these students.” Deng said she was fortunate that her interests in electronic engineering aligned with the rise of high-paying tech jobs, especially in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Deng said low-income identity also contributed to social barriers, as it can be difficult to find the time and money to treat friends out, Deng said. “The sacrifice of this lifestyle also meant the sacrifice of some friendships and I think this is how I disconnected with some people.”

Ledbury, Dare, Deng and Kim said they found comfort in their groups of friends who similarly identified as low-income students. They described solidarity within this community against common issues that may be foreign to those with different identities.

“I am lucky to have people in my personal circle who identify like me,” Ledbury said. She said people “who understood my struggles and helped” in her personal and work circles were the people she found herself talking to the most.

Deng said community was central to navigating Stanford as an international low-income student. “That’s what I found myself leaning on when I was struggling, and I’m not sure what would’ve happened if I didn’t have the people around me that I do.”

Katherine Lee is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at'

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