International Students Facing Daunting Financial Challenges Due To COVID-19

Jun 11, 2020

As unemployment and the demand for food remain high in the islands, there are some who are falling through the cracks when it comes to getting help. Even before the crisis, college students from abroad were having a tough time making ends meet. Now, some are hanging on by a thread.

Financial hardship and food insecurity are nothing new for many college students. But the pandemic has worsened the situation for many already having a tough time juggling life, school, and finances.

That includes international students.

Many are still here because they weren't able to return home due to COVID-19 shutting down international travel and embassies. Some were able to leave before the lockdown. But at the East-West Center, the international educational organization next to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, a majority of international students were not able to leave.

Ann Hartman, the center's dean of education, says students were concerned early in the pandemic about their options and had little time to decide.

"It was a really difficult time for students; I think they had about a week [to decide]," she said. "For some students, they wanted to think about if we were going to close down, and options for travel weren't going to be available, should they make the decision to go home now and stay there throughout the duration of the pandemic.

"For some of them, it was already too late. China was closed, Europe was closed, India closed shortly thereafter."

Hartman says about 180 of the center's international students stayed, some living in the organization's dormitories.

Financial Hardships

While the dorms provide shelter, other student services are limited. This leaves many international students with few means to get food or work.

"As international students, we are only allowed to work on campus -- like coffee shops, or as graduate assistants, or bookstores and things like that," said Uyanga Batzogs, an East-West Center graduate fellow from Mongolia.

Batzogs says students are allowed to work 20 hours during the normal school year, and up to 40 hours during breaks. For international students, she says the breaks are a time when individuals can work as much as possible to help supplement their income.

But the COVID-19 pandemic caused the UH system to shut down certain services and lectures, resulting in students being unable to work or receive any income.

"With our campus closed, now, as international students, we can't find the jobs or try to work full-time during summer break at all," Batzogs said.

Batzogs says international students face additional challenges if they seek employment outside of school because U.S. citizens get priority for vacant job positions. Now, in this period of coronavirus-caused high unemployment, those students have even fewer choices.

"We normally go home to our country for about three months, not having any rent costs, etc. But with COVID-19, we're unable to go home because of travel restrictions, and we donʻt know how long itʻs going to continue," said Batzogs.

Their financial hardship and Hawaiʻi's high cost of living leads to another issue impacting students -- a lack of food.

Food Insecurity

Seru Tagivakatini
Credit Casey Harlow / HPR

"Food insecurity is very prevalent in not just among students in general, but more so for international students," said Seru Tagivakatini, an East-West Center scholarship student from Fiji.

"Even before COVID-19, it was already an issue. Especially living here in Hawaii, it's not easy and it's kind of expensive for us international students. It's just gotten worse because of COVID-19."

Tagivakatini says students like him rely on a $600 a month stipend from the East-West Center for expenses. 

"Back in Fiji, I have access to go to the market and buy fresh produce all the time at a cheap price," said Tagivakatini. "To whip up a fresh, healthy meal like that would be affordable for me back home, but it's not as affordable over here. To go down to Safeway, or to any grocery store, and buy fresh produce is kind of expenseive for us as students."

In 2017, a University of Hawaiʻi survey found that out of 600 students, 44% were food insecure. While the study does not reflect the status of UH's entire student population, it is a dramatic increase from one conducted in 2007.

UH administrators took notice of the 2017 survey, and opened more food banks at campuses across the system.

"Most of our campuses have a food pantry of sorts," said Hae Okimoto, vice president of student affairs for the UH system.

"Those still continue to operate, except operate appropriately -- socially distant. Some of our campuses are having an online system where students can request [food they need], and they are told when they can come in. And the food is pre-packaged for them and they just pick it up."

Okimoto anticipates the need for the student food pantries will grow as the economic effects of the pandemic are more widely felt.

To help the students in the dorms, the East-West Center's nonprofit volunteer organization held a weekly food drive throughout the month of May.

Tagivakatini says that helped students in his dorm tremendously, and he appreciated the kindness of the volunteers.

Tomorrow: A look at what resources are available for students in need.