International students face challenges covering COVID-19 costs

Allegheny College’s international students were the first to learn that the campus would be shutting down for the remainder of the semester in an email announcement on March 16, from Lucinda Morgan, director of International Education, and Lenee McCandless, assistant director. 

When spring break was initially extended for one week, many international students opted to remain on campus. This announcement posed three options. The first two suggested they return home “as soon as possible,” or find somewhere to stay in the United States, adding, “DO NOT let money be the reason why you stay on campus,” according to the email. 

The last option offered international students access to dorms and a kitchen, without guarantee of food or transportation access. 

Many students assumed from this announcement that they would receive financial assistance to help cover travel costs. 

“Saying ‘Don’t let finances be the reason you stay’ is a very big promise. Next-day international flights are very expensive. For me to go home, it would have cost at least $2000 one way,” said Lidia Gebrekirstos, ’21, an international student from Ethiopia.

Lidia had family in Washington, D.C. and was able to retreat there when she learned she had to leave campus. Sweta Rauniyar, ’21, is an international student from Nepal. She was also able to stay in D.C. and traveled with Gebrekirstos.

“We understand they were trying to make the campus as safe as possible, but they have to understand we do not have a permanent home here,” said Rauniyar. “We had to go find one.”

Kaung Myat Htet, ’22, was unable to find alternative arrangements and took the International Education program’s offer to cover his flight back to Myanmar. He was surprised to find the $1,500 amount deducted from his room and board reimbursement.

All students who returned home had their flights booked through the International Education program. The office sent out an email stating that they were unaware the flight cost would be deducted, and included little guidance about how to apply for aid, according to the international students interviewed. Morgan declined to comment. 

Many college students across the country faced similar challenges in navigating sudden displacement. Distribution of stimulus packages excluded people who could be claimed as a dependent on income tax returns, regardless of if they were actually claimed or not, according to an article in Forbes magazine

Congress attempted to reconcile this and other shortcomings of the initial stimulus package by passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Many colleges and universities, including Allegheny College, applied for this aid.

“Allegheny College reviewed, signed and returned the U.S. Department of Educations’ Certification and Agreement for these funds on April 14,” the college’s CARES Act report stated, published on May 23. “Allegheny College received a grant award notification on April 23.”

The initial distribution was first awarded to students who were financially burdened by the relocation due to the pandemic.

 “Of those students that qualified, Allegheny College chose to provide an initial disbursement of Emergency Financial Aid Grants to students who qualified for needs-based room and board grants under Allegheny’s internal criteria because it determined those students were most in need those and necessarily incurred COVID-19 pandemic related expenses following the loss of on-campus room and board,” according to the report. Students who met this criteria received funds through their student accounts.

Following the initial distribution, all students enrolled in the spring 2020 semester were notified via email on June 18 of the opportunity to apply for CARES Act funding through Gator Success Grants. Since then, $729,992 has been distributed to Allegheny students, as disclosed in the college’s updated report on August 20.

However, there is no indication in the college’s reports that CARES Act support only extends to students who are United States citizens.

“To receive federal emergency financial aid grants, students must be U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens, according to guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education on April 21. These are students who are eligible for federal aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act, which has requirements beyond citizenship such as a valid Social Security number; registration with the Selective Service System, if the student is male; and a high school diploma, GED or completion of high school in an approved homeschool setting,” as reported by USNews.

This specification was never made clear to international students.

“I had no idea about the CARES Act until I went digging,” said Htet, who applied for the CARES Act and was rejected. When he inquired about the rejection, Lori Connick, director of student finance, informed him he was ineligible.

“I have looked at the situation with some of the international students where they were charged actual costs that Allegheny College incurred on their behalf and also spoken with(Morgan),” Connick added in the email on June 2. “She shared an email that was sent to all students and I did not see where it indicated Allegheny would bear that cost of travel home for any student at that time. We do not make a practice of providing transportation to the College or home for any students.” 

Htet was eventually redirected to the same application, but was told to apply for a Gator Success Grant rather than a CARES Act Grant. He received a response from Jennifer Foxman, associate dean of students, on Aug. 12.

“The committee has reviewed your request,” Foxman said in the email to Htet. “Unfortunately, the committee is unable to approve your request to reimburse your travel amount as the College does not pay for travel to and from the College … However, knowing that the circumstances of this situation were unique and that, because of the urgency of the situation, you were unable to spend the time to find the most economical travel options, the committee has approved a grant of $500 for you to cover what may have been a higher flight cost than usual.” 

Other international students faced varying degrees of success when going about receiving aid from the college to cover relocation costs.

Dakchyata Thapa, ’22, an international student from Nepal, was visiting her sister in New York when she heard the news about campus closing. She had only brought a few sweaters and was staying with three roommates in a small apartment. She applied for CARES Act funding and was eligible, due to her having a Green Card rather than an F1 Visa, and having filed the 2020 FAFSA. She was granted the full $1,200 amount.

“I blatantly stated, ‘Either help me pay my rent, or get me a flight back home,’ and I know rent was cheaper,” Thapa said. “I think I got lucky because I have papers to show I’m a citizen here.”

Tiaralei Cade, ’23, is a United States citizen since giving up her dual citizenship in Korea. She paid out of pocket to travel to family in England at the time, from Nashville, Tennessee, where she was staying when she learned classes were going remote. She was eligible for the CARES Act.

“They paid for my flight ticket back (to Meadville),” Cade said. 

She became aware of the CARES Act funding in June, when the college initially announced the opportunity to apply for it through Gator Success Grants. It was her decision to try to get return costs covered over those pertaining to relocation. 

Hanna Nguyen, ’23, an international student from Vietnam, was able to stay with family friends in Georgia.

“I feel like (the college) has done enough emotionally, but not financially,” Nguyen said. She never explored more information about the CARES Act, assuming she was excluded since other federal aid has generally not been extended to her.

Other students viewed the emotional support as hollow.

“We got so many, ‘We are thinking of you’ emails,” said Gebrekirstos. “I don’t want to pretend like Allegheny doesn’t do anything for us because they do, but they missed the easy steps.”

Many Allegheny students, international or local, have been calling on the college to work on their transparency in navigating this pandemic.

“They could have gone that extra mile — I don’t know if that is too much to ask,” Rauniyar said. “If they genuinely care about their students, they should have been able to do this for us.”

International students feel they have been used as part of Allegheny College’s advertising, according to Gebrekirstos.

“You keep bragging about us, you put us on posters, you brag about how many countries you’re representing —I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been quoted or posted — but you can’t even give us a sentence or two?” Gebrekirstos asked. “I never thought I’d say this, because I love Allegheny, but if I wasn’t a senior I would probably consider transferring.”

Correction: the print and earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Lucinda Morgan’s name. The online version has been updated.