Financial Aid, Relief Programs Do Little To Help International Students

Jun 12, 2020

Updated 6/22/20, 11 a.m.

International students studying in Hawaiʻi are having a rough time with the coronavirus shutting down travel, and the lack of job opportunities to help them pay their expenses. But financial aid programs available to American students, may not be open to those from other countries.

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa works closely with the East-West Center. The two institutions sit next to each other in Mānoa and East-West Center students attend classes on campus. They are part of the cultural mix that gives the university its international flavor.

So it's no surprise that many students from both institutions share a commons crisis: a lack of food and financial hardship that's been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

UH administrators have been encouraging students to look at financial aid programs as they wait to ride out the storm. In the meantime, the university and the UH Foundation have established a program to help students.

"We've set up the Urgent Student Relief Fund, where students can apply for funds and receive assistance to meet some of their life needs," said Hae Okimoto, vice president of student affairs for the UH system. "The kinds of requests that we're getting are for food, medication, for rent."

To date, more than a thousand donors have contributed $1.16 million to the relief fund. But due to high demand, administrators had to cap the amount that could be awarded to each applicant.

"Unfortunately, because of the number of students, we've had to limit the amount that students could get from somewhere between $100 to $500," Okimoto said.

A UH spokesperson said the university is finishing its processing of the spring awards, and will begin to focus on the needs of students attending summer courses. They expect to open the application process for the summer semesters next week.

But there are other financial relief options for college students. Okimoto says American students can get additional relief from the federal government in the form of Federal Student Aid - or FAFSA - and under programs funded by the federal CARES Act.

But those federal dollars are not available to students from abroad.

Uyanga Batzogs, an East-West Center graduate fellow from Mongolia, says international students can get a maximum of $350 from UH's Urgent Student Relief Fund.

"It is helpful for food, internet, and all the inks and paper we have to start buying," Batzogs said. "But ... you all know what Hawaiʻi's rent is like. Especially for students who live off campus, it is very challenging."

The East-West Center is providing additional assistance for its students in the form of an emergency student relief fund.

"The East-West Center put together a student emergency fund, anticipating that there would be these needs for people like Uyanga," said Ann Hartman, dean of education at the center. "We wanted to be able to meet those needs, and we wanted to be able to do so in a substantive and meaningful way -- that was not just a couple hundred dollars here and there."

Hartman says the fund has so far raised more than $52,000, and has helped a majority of the center's 180 international students. The fund has helped several students who recently graduated, but are unable to go home.

The East-West Center also established a food pantry for students living in its dormitories to address food insecurity. Hartman says the center has received donations from local businesses such as Times Supermarket, Waiʻanae General Store and Ham Produce & Seafood. Students have access to the pantry seven days a week in a secure building.

While these efforts provide some support, Batzogs says she and other students are concerned about the future.

"How do we continue our education? Tuition is relatively high for international students," Batzogs said. "Graduate tuition is about $10,400 for residents, for non-residents it's twice as much.

"So with no job for the students on-campus, and reduced scholarships, and just limited support back home -- I really don't know how we're going to continue our education."

Batzogs says there's also concerns about meeting U.S. requirements to continue stuyding at UH, such as having a special type of health insurance, which adds to their expenses.

It's not clear when the pandemic will ease enough for those who want to return home can do so. In the meantime, students like Batzogs are holding on and just hoping for the best.

The East-West Center will be hosting a food drive on Friday, July 10 from 9-11 a.m. at Burns Hall on the UH Mānoa campus. More information about the East-West Center's Emergency Student Relief Fund can be found here.

Yesterday: International Students Facing Daunting Financial Challenges Due To COVID-19