International students feel alone in pandemic

Dilara Hasdemir

Editor's note: This column was submitted to the Texan by a member of the UT community.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to affect all aspects of our lives. You may have heard sayings like, “The virus does not discriminate. We are all in the same boat.” But while we are staying in relative comfort, can we genuinely say that we are all affected at the same degree? 

For instance, we are painfully witnessing that people of color are disproportionately losing their lives because of the virus. Undocumented immigrants, on the other hand, are not even recognized and may not receive treatment. However, I want to mention another invisible group in the U.S. affected negatively by the pandemic: international students.

I am one of them. I am a master’s student at UT Steve Hicks School of Social Work. I came here from Turkey with an F-1 visa. If you have this type of visa, your status is “non-resident alien.” I should not be surprised to feel alienated when filing the status of residency part of some documents. 

With this visa, students can work up to 20 hours per week while school is in session, and full-time on campus during holidays and vacation periods. Therefore, our employment options are limited to on-campus jobs, which creates tremendous stress if the student is not guaranteed to be employed in the scope of their studentship, which is usually not the case unless you are a Ph.D. student. 

Since the campus is closed, many international students whose only option is to work on-campus jobs will not be able to find a job in the summer, including me. I am a privileged international student in that I work as a TA at another department. However, I also will be unemployed during the summer since the department I work in prioritizes its own students for employment. 

If I did not share an apartment with my partner and his job did not continue, I would probably have to go back to Turkey. The problem is that now if international students go to their home countries, no one can guarantee that they can come back because of the travel restrictions. Some put their education and health at risk and go, others who are somehow able to maintain their lives stay. 

For the former, it is sad to throw all your efforts away. For the latter, students must live with worries about their loved ones in their country and feel like they are stuck. The financial and psychological burden is apparent in either case. 

Non-resident alien international students are also not eligible for the stimulus check, although we pay our taxes. Those who are or will not be employed are worried about health insurance. Although UT ensured that student insurance will cover treatment for the coronavirus, other possible health issues, dental and vision problems are expensive concerns for international students. Most international students wait to visit their countries for affordable medical exams such as these. 

It is also painful to watch my friends who have recently graduated and are searching desperately for a job. After graduating, those who want to work in the U.S. apply to Optional Practical Training, which is temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. 

Since you have only 3 months to find a job after your OPT process begins, this crisis negatively affects many international students. No one wants to hire a new employee while everything is uncertain. Although universities across the U.S. and immigration attorneys have advocated to extend the employment search period, the U.S. government has not waived the 90-day unemployment limit for students on OPT yet. 

Those who are graduating this spring face other problems. Some of my friends suddenly packed and went back to their countries. They will write their thesis there, but they still are sad not to be able to say goodbye to their friends in Austin. 

UT and the U.S. government should recognize the challenges that international students face. Extending the OPT day limit, increasing online employment options on campus, switching to in-state tuition regardless of employment, closely screening and finding ways to ease psychological and financial strains might be useful steps.

Hasdemir is a first year master of science in social work student from Turkey.