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International students share mixed experiences, challenges during first years at MSU

September 1, 2022
<p>Agrim Gupta sits outside Michigan State&#x27;s Biomedical and Physical Sciences building on July 14, 2022. Gupta conducts astrophysics research in the building as a summer job.</p><p></p><p>His jersey was special made with his name on the back, saluting his favorite soccer team, the Tottenham Hotspur.</p>

Agrim Gupta sits outside Michigan State's Biomedical and Physical Sciences building on July 14, 2022. Gupta conducts astrophysics research in the building as a summer job.

His jersey was special made with his name on the back, saluting his favorite soccer team, the Tottenham Hotspur.

Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

When new students first arrive on Michigan State’s campus, they have to adjust to living in the East Lansing area.

They must adapt to living away from home in a new city, or even a new state, and learn to juggle classes, extracurriculars and sometimes a job.

International students, much like in-state and in-country students, have to adjust to college life as well, all while living in a new country.

Every international student’s experience is unique: Some face more challenges than others. 

Challenges with work authorization and health care

Journalism sophomore Wali Khan came to MSU last August from Singapore.

Due to legal complications, Khan was unable to return home for the summer and had a sublease in East Lansing. Last semester, he lived in Owen Hall.

Khan is an F-1Visa academic student which allows him to study at MSU full-time. International students studying in the United States are allowed to work no more than 20 hours per week during the school year. During the summer, they cannot exceed 40 hours per week.

“Getting a social security number and getting a job here with work authorization is incredibly taxing,” Khan said. “It's really difficult, especially when you're not sure if your employer can go through the (Visa sponsorship) paperwork.”

Another challenge Khan mentioned is with health insurance, which allll MSU students and scholars are required to have. The university offers a health care plan to international students through the Blue Care Network, or BCN. 

Regarding mental health services, Khan said some providers in the area cannot accept the insurance provided by the university. 

“I think it's also worthy of highlighting … a lot of psychiatrists in the area are having trouble accepting … the insurance that the school provides international students,” Khan said. “So essentially, what's going to happen is that if you're an international student who needs psychiatric help, perhaps you could go to (MSU) CAPS for like three sessions, but then you're going to get referred out.”

Additionally, Khan said there is a barrier of figuring out an insurance plan and receiving a medical card.

“I've heard of international students not even receiving their insurance card in the mail until the semester after they join – which also happened with me,” Khan said. “I think I got my medical insurance card, at the end of my first semester.”

Coping with feelings of isolation

Astrophysics sophomore Agrim Gupta is an international student at MSU from India. He was able to go home for about three weeks earlier in the summer to visit his family. 

“I just went back home to reconnect with my family, particularly with my parents and my sister,” Gupta said. “I hadn't been to India in a year or so.”

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Now, Gupta is back in East Lansing staying in an off-campus apartment. 

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“Compared to the fall and spring semesters, which are bustling with people, the summer is kind of dulled down a bit, there are not many students,” Gupta said. “Most of my friends are at home, or doing work somewhere else, so it’s kind of a bit lonely during the summer.” 

Gupta said the main issue international students face is making new friends with different people. He advises students to get to know everyone they can. 

“The diversity at MSU really helps you meet people from all over the world,” Gupta said. “(Connect) with them as soon as you reach campus during the first year – I think that's the main advice that I'll give … just throw yourself out there into the mix.”

Since there are hundreds of student organizations at MSU, Gupta said it was hard to decide which ones to join and which groups to dedicate his time to. 

“I was part of the quiz club and the astronomy club during my first month at MSU,” Gupta said. “I dropped the quiz club because I was like, ‘Yeah, my interests don’t lie here.’ That's kind of the main challenge, just which activities to be involved in.”

Gupta said his transition to the university was smoother than he expected due to a week-long community service program he participated in before the fall semester, as well as early move-in for international students. 

“MSU does its best to provide a smooth transition for international students to get acclimatized to the environment over here,” Gupta said. “There's also a lot of international clubs at MSU, like the International Scholars Advisory Board, and then there's a club for every nation as well.”

Paying extra expenses and learning to file taxes

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Applied engineering sciences junior Rochisshil Varma is an international student from India who spent his three semesters at MSU online, due to COVID-19. He did not set foot on campus until spring 2022, during which he became a resident assistant. 

“I'd say my experience was a little different because when I came in,” Varma said. “I was being a Spartan for the first time but at the same time, I was also being an RA who's supposed to be a mentor for other Spartans.”

Varma is the Vice President of the International Students Association, or ISA, and said he was lucky to be elected.

“I feel like I did gain access to a lot of opportunities and I met a lot of people,” Varma said.

Regarding challenges, Varma said international students are required to pay for additional expenses not necessary for other students. Extra costs include transportation from the airport and renting storage space in the summer.

While most students pack up their belongings at the end of the year and have their families and friends help them move back home, most international students do not have that option, Varma said.

Overall, Varma said the Office for International Students and Scholars, or OISS, has resources available to help international students while they are in the country, but there is still room for improvement. 

“MSUFCU does have a financial education workshop where they show how to build credit system and everything," Varma said. "They say that it is centered towards international students, but then again ... do international students really know about it? Have you ensured that your information is reaching to the right audience?”

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Resources for international students and scholars 

OISS has advisors available to assist both students and scholars with problems they face while at MSU.

OISS Director Krista McCallum Beatty said the office provides support for international students, scholars and faculty from all over the world, including immigration and orientation support for scholars.

“We do a lot of events for students all with the goal of helping them be successful and helping them to really engage with the university and the campus community,” McCallum Beatty said. “We also provide limited financial assistance and … we are also responsible for ensuring university compliance with federal immigration regulations related to enrolling international students.”

Regarding complications with working, McCallum Beatty said students can seek help from MSU’s Career Services Network. More work authorization and immigration resources are available on OISS’s website

McCallum Beatty also said there is a career services staff member who works closely with OISS in helping students find internships and post-grad jobs.

“If it's an immigration-related question, they should definitely come to OISS first,” she said. “If it's more, ‘how do I find a job?,’ resume review, interviewing practice, there are lots of resources, both within their college and then the career services network.”

McCallum Beatty said OISS has advisors who focus specifically on health insurance issues. She said the easiest way to get in touch with them is through the OISS website.

If students have trouble finding providers who accept the insurance, McCallum Beatty said students can also reach out to BCN directly. 

“If they're more comfortable, they can talk to our health insurance advisors and they'll help them understand how it works and find a list of providers,” she said.

Additionally, McCallum Beatty said OISS sends out a weekly newsletter that includes upcoming events, which are ways for students to meet new people.

“I think the big message is, if international students need assistance, regardless of what it is, OISS has the resources available to them,” McCallum Beatty said. “Often we’re only thought of as only the immigration office, but we do a lot more than that.” 

What international students wish others knew about them

Khan said he would like to see an organization that advocates for international students, aside from OISS.

“We're constantly sidelined in terms of our opinion because there is no student organization,” Khan said. “There is OISS but I don't see a more independent … F-1 student association that kind of advocates for your rights.”

Khan said he wishes students and other MSU community members knew international students are not all the same.

“We're not a monolith in the sense that when somebody thinks about international students, they're thinking somebody who's woefully unprepared for the bureaucracy or the hardship of American life,” Khan said.

It is also important to recognize that international students have to stay on top of everything, Khan said.

“There are a lot of barriers and hurdles that are definitely invisible to people who aren’t more aware of just how stacked the odds are against F-1 students,” Khan said. “I would like to see a better effort from the school and educating people who aren't aware of that, or some sort of collective action.”

This story is part of our 2022 Welcome Week print issue. Read the entire issue here.

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