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Friday, August 12, 2022

Caught in the middle: International students restricted to on-campus jobs

Vinayak Ganesh said the day he left Mumbai, India, was one of the saddest of his life.

Once he got to UF, it took the fourth-year information systems and operations management graduate student about a month to settle down.

Ganesh, 24, said his father had been planning for him to earn more than a bachelor’s degree for about 20 years. He didn’t have to take out a loan, thanks to his parents’ savings, but he applied for a job at the UF Bookstore to cover living expenses.

Ganesh is one of about 6,200 international students at UF, many of whom find it difficult to pay for both tuition and living expenses.

International students are restricted to only on-campus jobs because of federal regulations, said Debra Anderson, director of International Student Services. They are also not allowed to work more than 20 hours a week. One minute over and they could lose their legal status.

"The federal government looks at employment as totally secondary to their purpose for being here," Anderson said.

Even though employment is secondary, it’s necessary for many students because they don’t want to place any more burden on their families, she said.

Ganesh applied for his job in October 2014 but didn’t get it until January 2015, a typical timeline for an international student.

"If at all there was a way for us to work outside campus, it would be a help for us," he said.

• • •

Ganesh said he thinks the $8.25-per-hour pay is enough to cover expenses, but he wishes he could work somewhere related to his field of study to make him more competitive after graduation. He said he chose to come to UF because every graduate he knew had a good job back home.

Reaching that goal comes at a cost: $47,585 a year for graduate students and $46,100 a year for undergraduates, according to the UF International Center website.

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Students must prove they have that money in order for the international center to process the form to get their visas, Anderson said. Even though students are able to show proof of those funds, it doesn’t mean they actually have them, she said.

"We know, and the government knows, that family members pool their funds so that they can show this money," Anderson said.

She said many students come to UF with large loans from their home universities, too. Some countries’ governments supply aid to their students, but countries experiencing conflict, like Venezuela or Iraq, sometimes cut off aid, she said. Banks in India grant loans to students, but when the value of Indian currency, the rupee, drops, the funds turn out to be insufficient, Anderson said.

"The kids are caught in the middle," she said.

• • •

UF international student Darshil Shah said he considers himself to be one of the lucky ones. Shah, a second-year information systems and operations management graduate student from Mumbai, India, said he got his job at the UF Bookstore within a week of applying. Because international students aren’t eligible for federal aid, employment options on campus are limited, Anderson said. Most on-campus jobs are for students with federal work study, she said. International students are also competing with domestic students.

"If you’re really, really lucky you get the job," Shah, 22, said. "They definitely do not prefer international students. It’s actually frustrating."

Shah said one of the biggest difficulties international students face is not having a social security number.

Without a social security number, students have to pay higher deposits on apartments and can’t get credit cards, Anderson said. Once international students are employed, they get a social security number, she said.

The international center gives students lists of places that are hiring, Anderson said. The Stephen C. O’Connell Center, UF Bookstore, Rec Sports and Gator Dining hire the most international students.

"[Anderson] has been really helpful and really supportive of not only Indians, but of every international community here," Shah said.

• • •

Anderson said she doesn’t see restrictions on employment changing any time soon. The difference between a work visa and a student visa will remain distinct, she said.

There are opportunities for students to find employment after graduation through programs such as Optional Practical Training, a program that provides a year of employment, and the STEM extension, which gives science, technology, engineering and math students a 17-month employment period, she said.

The STEM extension may be eliminated, Anderson said, due to a recent lawsuit from the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, an organization that represents STEM workers. They claimed the STEM extension was taking away jobs from U.S. citizens, she said. The court found U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services had skipped a step when creating the STEM extension, and a February deadline has been issued to file the regulation properly.

"If they remove the STEM extension, I have a feeling that that will impact enrollments probably across the U.S. of international students," Anderson said.

• • •

Shah said there are more difficulties besides financial burden.

"I have experienced racism on the job," he said.

He said while he was answering phones, he mistakenly ignored a customer. A co-worker yelled at him in front of everyone in the store.

He said he’s never seen that happen to American employees.

"I have had to deal with it in a very polite manner," he said. "I have told a few people, ‘My accent is different. I do not speak the way you speak, but I do speak English, so I don’t think it’s nice of you to treat me that way.’"

Other difficulties include traveling to campus and buying food, Shah said. Most students live far from campus and can’t afford cars, and food is more expensive than in India. He said overall he likes the U.S. and wants to stay here.

"We do miss our family," he said. "We do miss our country. We do miss our friends, but you just have to look at two different parts of life. Do you want a good lifestyle, or do you want to stay with friends and family? You have to choose between that."

Contact Alexandra Fernandez at afernandez@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter @alexmfern

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