The Realities of Immigration
The difficult process for immigrant students attempting to attend U.S. colleges
By Yolany Paz and Giulia Baldini
When college decision time comes around, every student must consider logistics like cost, location, changes in culture and environment, and the application process. For students that come from outside countries, this process is intensified with the hefty immigration requirements and the economic stress that comes along with it. International
students, like the 828 enrolled at Hofstra University as of the 2018 fall semester, make tremendous sacrifices to pursue a higher education in the United States.
Much of that sacrifice comes before these students even leave their home countries.
“It can be a really long process for them to actually get here,” said director of International Student Affairs, Anne Mongillo. “They’ve already applied for admission to Hofstra, they’ve already jumped through immigration hoops, and, by the time they get here, they probably feel as though they’ve been at Hofstra
for a little while. It can be really overwhelming.”
These so-called “immigration hoops” can be complicated, stressful and time-consuming. It involves determining which visa applies to the specific student’s situation and coordinating with the school they are enrolled in.
“Most degree-seeking students apply for an F-1 visa, but we also have J-1 visa holding exchange visitors who are studying here for only one to two semesters,” said assistant director of International Student Affairs, Clarissa Stewart. “There
are also students at Hofstra who hold various other visa categories that allow them to study.”
Being that Hofstra is a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified school, international students who have been accepted and are in the process of enrolling first receive the Form I-20, or “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” from International Student Affairs, which explicates the student’s eligibility for a visa. Following the certificate, the student must pay a 1901 SEVIS fee, which can range between $180 and $200. They must then apply for their visa at the US Embassy or Consulate, which also includes an in-person interview.
“[The immigration process] was very tedious because they needed all your financial statements signed by a customs agent,” said Dushyant Rakeja, a finance major from India. “He had to review them twice. It just took a long time to get that done. Then we had to send it to the university and then gave me the I-20. With the I-20, I had to go to the US Embassy and get the visa done.”
Stephanie Campos, a marketing major and international student from Panama, described the interview as “nerve wracking.”
“We went to an interview where an American would ask you things very stoically,” recalled Campos. “‘Why are you trying to come to the United States?’ They wanted proof that I had been accepted. My family would tell me not to say certain things. I used to have an aunt who lived in the United States and the American would know that so I said it, but I also made sure to say that she passed away. I’m not trying to stay, I’m just trying to get an education. Once I did that, it was just a matter of being told if I was going to get the visa or not.”
While the process can be stressful, it is often the financial burden that discourages many international students from pursuing an education in the United States.
According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, immigration fees range from $65 to almost $18,000, depending on the situation. The fees for the most common forms range from $100 to $1,140 and the money usually going towards processing and interview funding.
International students apply to colleges before going through the immigration process, meaning that they are committing to a university out of their own country without any certainty that they will be able to attend. This leads to the possibility of spending all of this money without being able to attend the desired university if the immigration visa is not accepted.
Then, once the visa process is complete, there are plenty of international students who have just as many financial worries as American students when trying to pay for university tuition.
“Right now tuitions for college are expensive for most people. With international students in particular, the immigration process requires them to show at least one academic years worth of funds for their expenses, which includes their tuition, room and board, and expenses and fees that are involved in that program that they’re going into,” explained Stewart. “They have to show one academic year of that in liquid funds to even just get the documents to come in [to the United States]. That’s something that could be a challenge for some people, getting all of that together to submit to get their documents.”
While the immigration process requires financial burden that may be challenging for many students on top of tuition and outside fees, each situation depends on a variety of factors that may come into play, depending on the student.
“There are merit and academic scholarships of various kinds in significant amounts,” said Stewart. “Many international students don’t qualify for things like federal scholarships and grants from the government, but there are many organizations and their governments that do provide scholarships for international students. There are ways to apply for funding from other sources. There are even some students who are completely funded by their government. It can vary a lot.”
“I was able to pay for it, but I know there are people that can’t,” said Campos. “The fee was a couple hundred dollars.”
For Semira Ahemed, an economics and computer science major from Ethiopia, an opportunity came from an internship back home.
“They saw my passion and work and offered me a personal sponsorship,” she said. “I, fortunately, found generous people. I don’t know if this thing could’ve worked on a wider circumstance because it’s hard to find people who are generous enough to fund you without expecting anything from you.”
Among the various economic complexities associated with the process, conversion rates between their native currencies and the U.S. dollar are also a factor to consider. Someone from a country whose currency is of lesser value compared to the U.S. dollar is effectively paying more than someone from a nation whose currency is valued equal to or more than the dollar. Another cost to consider is what it takes for these students to periodically travel back home too see their families.
“I don’t go home for spring break or fall break, but for winter break it’s really hard because it’s a month and a half and I’m paying almost $1000,” said Campos.
The investment involved in the efforts to get these students to Hofstra just adds to the pressure they feel to do well once they arrive and their semesters begin.
“A lot of students feel a real sense of responsibility to their families because of the financial commitment their families are making and because they’re representing their families here in the United States, whether they go back or not,” said Mongillo. “That’s something that I’m much more aware of now, that students are thinking that they have to show respect for their families and friends back home.”
On top of the added sense of obligation to their families, students are also trying their best to adapt to a culture they are not used to after being given little time to adjust before classes began.
“[The culture shock] was pretty drastic. You see it all in the movies but it took me a while to adjust to it. I think the people in the East are really warm and touch-happy,” said Rakheja. “We have no concept of personal space, so if you’re sort of friends with somebody you own what they own if you’re living with them. It’s a really weird situation to adjust to because people here are always asking and questioning and don’t seem as warm and as close as people back home do.”
Mongillo often sees the issues international students deal with working in International Student Affairs, and has observed that sometimes it does not always come down to language barriers, but more often has to do with small cultural differences.
“[They have] a sense of disconnectedness, some loneliness, and they’re just trying to fit in,” she explained. “Language issues are definitely there for some students but they’re not number one all the time. You can have someone who is from an English-speaking country feel just as uncomfortable or out of sorts in the U.S. as someone from a country whose language is different. It’s those subtleties in things like finding what familiar: food, people, friends. It could be anything.”
Campos’ difficulties were somewhat unexpected.
“At first, it was very hard adapting [to being in the United States],” explained Campos. “Making friends was really hard. I thought that because Panama is such a culturally diverse country and I had met so many people from America, Europe, and Africa, that it would be a little easier for me to fit into a place that I had never lived in. I had a lot of culture shock that I didn’t expect at all.”
Both Mongillo and Stewart advise that the best thing for international students to do when dealing with this culture shock is to have the “initiative to put themselves out there” and get involved on campus right away.
“Sometimes you have to take that first step and it makes you nervous, but I think most students would say that they’re glad they did it,” said Stewart. “They made connections and they were so much better because they made friends and had something to do outside of class.”
Although it may come with its challenges, international students can be happy with their decision to pursue an education in the United States.
“I do like the open-minded perspectives and education system here,” said Waranya Plengpojjanart, an accounting major from Thailand. “I also love the good friends that I made at Hofstra so far. It’s been a great experiences despite all the difficulties.”
The benefits of a venture abroad for college may even come from an advanced global perspective.
“Understanding the perspectives of people that live in different parts of the world, knowing what they deal with, what their life is like, just being aware of that sometimes gives you an interesting look on things,” said Mongillo.
However, just because the United States is known as the “land of opportunity” it does not mean that every student wants to stay. That global perspective they find from going to school here may blossom into even bigger plans. For some international students, America is simply a stepping stone to those plans.
“I had a professor that I went to so I could find out the different things I could do with a marketing major because I was thinking of changing my major,” recalled Campos. “Instead of answering my question, he started telling me that I could get a PhD and that’s how I could stay (in the United States) and all I could think was, ‘At what point did I ask you how can I stay in the country?’ That was the first time I realized that people kept asking me why I’m not staying because they expected me to want to stay.”