As Sac State sees big rise in international students, some struggle with financial and bureaucratic realities

The Global Lounge at Sac State.

By Maureen Ojiambo

A growing number of international students are arriving in Sacramento to attend college – and many are facing similar struggles.

Data from non-governmental institution Higher Education Immigration indicates that immigrant students accounted for 31% of all students, or 5.6 million students, in higher education. The institution said international students accounted for 80% of the enrollment growth in U.S. educational institutions from 2000 through 2021.

At Sacramento State University, there were about 650 international students enrolled in fall 2023, nearly double the 360 international students enrolled in 2013, the school’s data show. About half of the university’s international students hail from India.

During interviews, international students talked about the difficulties they faced obtaining and maintaining the right permits to live and work in America, and about adjusting to life abroad.

“My biggest challenge was the language barrier, then second was financial,” said Shachee Baraiya, 23, a senior pursuing a bachelors in Information Systems and Business Analytics at Sacramento State. “Just because the pandemic happened things did not work out the way I wanted. I struggled financially, my parents were paying my rent and I felt so bad about it.”

Getting here and staying here

Baraiya arrived in the U.S. on a student visa (F-1) to chase her American dream in January of 2020.

She was born and raised in India but due to limited job opportunities she decided to leave for what she termed as new opportunities. She said that California was her choice due to its diversity.

“In India the education system is great but just because of the population, we always struggle to find good job opportunities and you know that the United States has always been the land of immigrants and the new opportunities,” Baraiya reflected. “I was raised in a middle-class family and I’m the only child, it was hard for my parents to even think about having me study abroad.”

Immigrant students require a lot of money to adjust their status, especially those who want to apply for permanent residency. The amount varies depending on the services offered. One can spend between $ 7,000 to $15,000 or more on legal fees alone.

Remigio Usai, a native of Zimbabwe, arrived in the United States in 2011 for his graduate studies in Biophysical Chemistry. He says his wife and children faced three visa denials before finally being granted U.S. visas in 2019.

“The major challenges I faced during my academic journey include separation from my family, I managed to get a visa just for myself, staying away from my family is one of the worst experiences in my life,” said Usai, who attends graduate school in Georgia.

Obtaining permanent residency is normally a source of relief for immigrants, easing the constant anxiety associated with the fear of losing immigration status.

“My visa is expiring this December, but I feel like immigration is something that I’m always scared about, I feel like I’m always under pressure, like what if I’m not gonna make it to this timeline?” Baraiya acknowledged. “Are they going to ask me to leave the country.”

Trying to work

Many international students said they would like to see changes to work laws to enable them to survive the economic frustrations that come with paying bills while studying.

Sara Abeysinghe, a 23-year-old Sacramento State senior and biomedical science transfer student from in Sri Lanka, arrived in the United States in 2022. She wants to remain in the U.S. and follow her career path, advocating for an extension of the weekly work hours for immigrant students beyond the standard 20 hours.

“I would say let them have more job opportunities off campus, even while they’re still in their student status, this will really help them to earn money and save up too, because we’re international students we already have it hard,” Abeysinghe noted.

Hassan Abdullah, managing attorney at The American Visa Law Group, said students who desire to work outside campus while on a student visa can only do so if the programs they are pursuing allows.

“There is something called curricular practical training that allows you to work on a full-time basis if the program allows it,” Abdullah explained. “You can take on a job and get paid, but it must be something built into the program where there’s a work study component.”

At Sacramento State, the International Programs and Global Engagement (IPGE) provides support to immigrant students in finding internship opportunities and helps them integrate into society, said Piram Prakasam, assistant vice president of International Programs and Global Engagement.

“We have strategic initiatives for the University, one is focusing on international students to create a sense of belonging, focusing on growing international enrollment and providing support,” Prakasam observed.

Student fees at Sacramento State vary depending on one’s immigration status, with full-time international students often paying at least $17,000 per year.

Dealing with everyday hassles

Experts say that among the many challenges encountered by immigrant students is obtaining a driver’s permit, a task that is especially hard for undocumented immigrant students.

“Getting a job is one thing, but for many people, you can’t hold a job unless you have a form of personal transportation to get there,” said Ben Michael, an attorney at Michael & Associates.

Statistics from the American Immigration Council indicates that there were more than 408,000 undocumented students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in 2021.

“The path to getting a license can vary from state to state, there are some states that make obtaining a license straightforward for undocumented student immigrants, but there are other states that make it much more difficult,” Michael added.

Experts stress that immigration policies may also affect immigrant students, depending on the government of the day. This is the point Abdullah makes about it:  “Under the Trump administration, it was harder to get certain visa categories, even the H-1B which is a work visa because of the strictness that they wanted.”

Abdullah encourages immigrant students to embrace networking and connecting with people in the job market.

“You cannot isolate yourself; you should take advantage of your alumni network and whatever opportunity you have to network with professionals,” he offered.

Despite many immigrant students having it rough in adjusting their status in the U.S., several said America presents great opportunities to them as well as a conducive environment for innovation.

“The work ethic in the United States. It’s exceptional” Usai said. “I’ve seen people who devote their entire time, their life, to understanding the area of research they work on, to make immense contributions to science.”

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