Living Through the Pandemic as an International Student

The U.S. Congress should include international students in any new relief package as well as adjust other key governmental policies, argues Osasu Osaze, a graduate student from Nigeria.

March 1, 2021
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Some of the worst-hit people during the COVID-19 crisis, who are often undermentioned in the news media, are international students studying in the United States, especially those from low-income countries in Africa and South America. I am one of those students from one of those countries.

In 2016, I came from Nigeria to study mechanical and aerospace engineering as a graduate student at the University of Missouri. Like many international students, I lost my campus job when the university had to shut its doors last March to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. I have faced untold hardship with a spouse and two small kids to protect and have had to fend for my family. Many international students lost their campus housing and jobs in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic still upends our lives.

International students who relied on campus jobs to supplement their rent and tuition faced severe hardship when those positions evaporated as our institutions closed last spring. Most of us remain unemployed to date, given that numerous colleges and universities moved their courses and programs online. Meanwhile, according to U.S. immigration law, international students on F-1 status cannot work outside their campuses. The rule is even more fierce for our spouses and partners, who are prohibited from working anywhere in the United States.

Faced with no way to raise income, international student families have had to turn to food banks, where supplies have become increasingly lean due to widespread calls. One point to note is that these food banks do not often culturally meet international students’ food needs. Most American food banks do not stock the variety of food we are used to in our homeland. Sometimes, in fact, our children go on hunger strikes rather than eat the unfamiliar meals on their plates.

But beyond all those trials and struggles, international students experienced the worst pain when the U.S. government left us off the list for the first and second stimulus checks. The checks would have had a tremendous impact on our lives and allowed us to stock up on food and buy the essential supplies we lacked. International students have had to scratch to get soap, toilet paper, masks and sanitizers. Without assistance from faith-based organizations, like churches and mosques, some international students would have no next meal.

The pandemic has also wrecked our countries’ economies to the point that often families and friends have also lost jobs and cannot afford to help. Some international students have turned to work on local farms, risking their college enrollment, simply to survive.

Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce shows that international students added more than $40 billion to the American economy in 2018 and supported over 450,000 jobs in the 2017-18 academic year. International students contribute to scientific and technical research, aid multicultural understanding one their campuses and the local community, and help prepare undergraduates for global careers. And like U.S. citizens, international students pay taxes on the income from their campus jobs. We cannot, therefore, fathom why we have not qualified for any government relief.

The sufferings and needs of international students in the United States have not changed in recent months. Now that Congress is deliberating another relief package, including direct payment to residents to ease the debilitating economic effect of the pandemic, legislators must not ignore international students’ interests. We should be considered worthy of the stimulus checks. We are part of the United States at this time of our lives. Our works are geared toward improving the social, cultural, economic, academic and scientific outcomes of our beloved United States, where we have come to study.

We appeal to the government to keep us alive through the pandemic by demonstrating care, empathy and humanity. Canada has set an example -- the Canadian government has extended financial assistance to international students who earned some income in 2019 through its Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has also extended by 18 months its Post Graduation Work Permit (PGWP), the equivalent of the United States’ optional practical training, for former international students who hold or held a PGWP to support them through this difficult time. And if it cannot offer cash relief, we hope the U.S. government will at least temporarily adjust its policies to allow international student families to work outside their campuses.

American higher education institutions and organizations can do more to support international students during this challenging time, as well. At the University of Missouri at Columbia, international students have inundated administrators with requests for financial help. President and chancellor Mun Choi has responded by donating to expand the university food bank service and providing $250 in cash relief to international students impacted by COVID-19. In addition, the Institute of International Education is donating at least $1 million and working to raise more funds to help international students impacted by the COVID-19 crisis in recognition of their precarious position. The money is being used to provide hundreds of international students with $2,500 grants to help meet living expenses.

We call on more colleges and other organizations to provide international students respite by supporting us, speaking out for us and drawing attention to our needs. Most of all, the U.S. Congress and key government agencies can alleviate our woes by including international students in their relief packages and modifying their policies. International students are human beings, too.


Osasu Osaze is a fifth-year Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri at Columbia and past president of the University of Missouri African Graduate and Professional Student Association.


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