International STEM students need funding opportunities, too — especially now

Like many graduate students, I get a mixed stream of excitement and hope every time a fellowship opportunity arrives in my inbox. However, my anticipation vanishes the moment I read the first requirement on the application page: Only U.S. citizens or permanent residents are eligible for this fellowship. 

Being a Chinese national without a green card, I’ve gradually learned to curb my expectations when fellowship opportunities come up. I know they will just lead to one door after another closing upon me. 

Adjusting to life in the U.S. is already hard. The compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the hostility toward international students have made it even harder. International students residing in different time zones are exhausted from waking up in the middle of the night to attend classes. For those of us still in the U.S., the travel bans imposed on many countries prevent us from physically visiting our families and friends. Once we leave the U.S., the chance of getting back in time and continuing our studies is less than slim. We suffer from homesickness and worry about our loved ones overseas. 

Neither are international graduate students immune to the common struggle of graduate students in the U.S.: not receiving a living wage. Despite the stereotypes of international students being cosmopolitan and wealthy, many come from lower-income households. International students are a highly diverse group: undergraduate and graduate students on F-1 visas, visiting scholars on J-1 visas, students seeking refugee. Undocumented and DACA students, and Documented Dreamers, are also sometimes classified by institutions as international students. Many of us face no less financial hardship than low-income students in the U.S. as we try to start our lives in a different country, from visa application fees and travel costs getting here, to paying rent and making ends meet.

Despite the stereotypes of international students being cosmopolitan and wealthy, many come from lower-income households.

However, according to an anonymous survey I conducted for international scholars in the U.S., close to 50% of the 41 respondents express that they do not receive sufficient financial support during their studies. For those who chose to disclose their financial statuses, 75% say they suffer from financial hardship or know other international students who do.

One way for graduate students to relieve financial stress is to apply for external fellowships, which usually offer higher stipends than the average of $15,000-$30,000 per year. Federally funded fellowships like the National Science Foundation’s GRFP and the Department of Defense’s NDSEG are particularly well paid. Both programs offer full tuition coverage, competitive stipends ($34,000/year for GRFP and $38,400/year for NDSEG), and additional educational allowances.

Not surprisingly, both programs are only open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. According to the survey, close to 60% of the respondents are not aware of any fellowships that they are eligible for. 

International students can only apply for certain fellowships that are either short-term or have numerous strings attached. Those fellowships seek applicants of specific nationalities, visa statuses, majors, and years of studies—parameters that immediately disqualify many international applicants in need. Even fellowships that award underrepresented minorities in STEM like the GEM Fellowship program and the Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study exclude international students, despite many belonging to one or more minority groups. In other words, it is virtually impossible for international students to seek financial stability without an excruciating amount of effort to find a well-paid fellowship for which we are eligible.

And the damage of gatekeeping funding opportunities from international students goes beyond denying us monetary support. 

Fellowships give graduate students more autonomy in their studies, as they would be less dependent on their schools or advisors for funding. One survey respondent also mentioned having external funding could protect them from being exploited in the lab because of their visa status. Many also expressed that they would have the liberty to pursue research that may not align with their advisors’ funding sources if granted fellowships. 

Providing financial security for international students requires effort from all levels. Funding agencies ought to eliminate the citizenship requirements on fellowships. However, to achieve that level of change, we need advocacy for international students in general. As of now, less than 40% of survey respondents believe they receive sufficient institutional and departmental support for their general well-being.

Funding agencies ought to eliminate the citizenship requirements on fellowships.

International students are vulnerable. We don’t get to vote nor are we able to effect policy changes on our own. The burden of seeking financial stability and navigating the intricate immigration system should not fall entirely on us. On a local level, faculty need to be more educated about the immigration system in the U.S., such as the different visa types and their limitations. Immigration agencies should make information more transparent and accessible so advisors can direct their international trainees to the necessary resources. Globally speaking, academic institutions need to provide resources for international students such as legal consulting, emergency funds for travel and rent, and flexible deadlines in case of immigration and visa complications. We also need the very institutions that believe in our potential to address discriminatory and xenophobic policies that jeopardize our well-being. I believe in the strong power of solidarity, as proven by the graduate worker unions that successfully defended the Optional Professional Training (OPT) program, which allows international students to work for at least 12 months in the U.S. after graduation. 

We also need the very institutions that believe in our potential to address discriminatory and xenophobic policies that jeopardize our well-being.

Gatekeeping opportunities like fellowships deeply reflects how a country that prides itself with diversity and inclusion is still profoundly xenophobic. Those xenophobic, racist, and nationalistic sentiments deem us as potential “competitors” who strip away opportunities from U.S. citizens. 

But the fact is, granting fellowships to international students would be a win-win for both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens. While we could live a stable life with sufficient funding, our work would contribute tremendously to the U.S. economy. During the 2019-2020 academic year, international students contributed $38.7 billion and supported 415,996 jobs in the U.S. Our innovations, from the N95 masks to the drug Remdesivir, saved countless lives during the pandemic, and they would continue to provide solutions to global challenges. But even without an expectation for greatness, we should simply be able to pursue a science career with access to the same opportunities as everyone else.

Perhaps in the near future, my fellow international students will no longer be disappointed by the citizenship requirements on fellowship application webpages. They will confidently apply and enjoy the bittersweet moments of anticipating the results. Until then, it is up to everyone in the scientific community to make international students feel more supported and like we belong.

This series on gatekeeping in STEM was funded by a grant from the National Association of Science Writers. Reference to any specific commercial product, process, or service does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement of or recommendation by the National Association of Science Writers, and any views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Science Writers.

Editing contributed by Rebecca Dzombak. Illustration by Jenna Jablonski.

Qining Wang
Qining Wang

Qining (she/her) is a PhD student in chemistry at Northwestern University. She synthesizes heterogeneous catalysts supported on metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) and uses them for gas-phase reactions. Outside of research, she is also passionate about science journalism. She strives to use her voice to tell the untold stories of underrepresented scientists and advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in STEM. You can connect with her on Twitter @qnwang_.

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