Keeping track of day-to-day finances can get difficult for most students. Photo: Sabhanaz Rashid Diya
The B-Deshi Series
Counting the Pennies
Sabhanaz Rashid Diya
I remember meeting Jobayer on a breezy autumn morning. He wasn't in his best mood, so easing into an insightful conversation was taking more time than usual. Halfway through the scattered blasts of remarks, I realised he hasn't eaten anything for over 48 hours. Hesitantly, he explained to me that he didn't have enough surplus that month to make his rent, books and food, and so he was taking long breaks before the 'next big meal.' I was shocked. After interviewing numerous Bangladeshi students studying across North America, he was the first one to be in such a dire state. I offered to treat him, silently acknowledging that that, by no means was a solution. He politely refused the offer, explaining how staying 'in the habit' would allow him to survive the rest of the year.
Jobayer's story probably represents less than 1% of the cumulative mass of international students who enter undergraduate programmes in the United States and Canada every year. However, a tag game between keeping your head high and managing bills is a common struggle. In Ontario, Canada for example, there are multiple ways in which a student can match up with rising tuition and boarding costs. Many, as identified through several interview sessions are studying on local fees since their parents had applied for permanent residency (PR) or citizenship in the past, or they have applied for it themselves once the required time period was fulfilled (around third year at university). As permanent residents, they are eligible to apply for Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) that provides student loans, but amounts they must repay within a limited time once they graduate. Others study as international students, where fees can go up to thrice as much as local fees but can be met through on-campus jobs, summer jobs, research assistantships and academic awards.
Many students provide tutoring or mentorship to others on campus in exchange of a small fee,
Photo: Sabhanaz Rashid Diya.
“I prefer studying as an international student because I have the freedom to call my own shots as well as return to my country once I graduate,” explained Ashik. A second-year Sociology major at one of the top Liberal Arts schools in Canada, Ashik has been effectively juggling between jobs and grades, irrespective of said difficulties. “I won't say it's a smooth ride, but I don't want to be tied down to paying back loans for god-knows-how-many-years. It's been stressful, but I was well aware of the responsibilities and have learnt to work through it.”
“It's not as simple in the US as it is in Canada,” countered Riasat. “Getting a PR is a long shot. However, the good thing about the States is that there are more opportunities for academic awards, financial aid and on-campus jobs than in Canada. I, for example, was able to meet up with more than 90% of my tuition through college financial aid. My friend, who goes to school in California, received 100% financial aid. This, of course varies from school to school.”
Jobayer had a very different story to share. “Our parents send us to these expensive schools abroad in hopes of receiving a world-class education, something that will guarantee a well-paid job anywhere in the world and life security. In spite of financial rewards, it is a lot of pressure on them. I feel guilty asking for more money and embarrassed to tell them how getting an odd job isn't as easy as it seems. Even when you get a job, the hours can get frustrating and grades fall. It's a complex situation.”
Talha, an Economics major echoed Jobayer's thoughts. “It upsets me to think that many of us are studying abroad against our own will, rather because our parents feel it's the best option. What they don't realise is how money is being drawn out of the country. We talk about brain drain, intellectual capital and other complicated issues; but forget how effortlessly and unknowingly hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent to support our education abroad. Even if we return, I doubt if we can repay the amount. If I were to study at a local public or private university, all this money would have stayed within national boundaries.”
Life as an international student, while offering innumerous intellectual rewards comes with unspoken difficulties, managing finances being on top of that list. While making through the day can be difficult, the very idea of deciding to come for higher studies abroad need to be measured not only in terms of career and life, but also finances and various forms of capital. As a community activist, I have been deeply intrigued and anxious about the issue of brain drain and gain, constantly trying to pin down compelling reasons for our students to make a career back home. Understanding that many of such students share my sentiments was encouraging. Listening to Talha's concern raises a spark of hope. The process may have begun.