High Cost of Living Hits SMC's International Students
Ada Unal travelled over five thousand miles from Norway to study business at Santa Monica College. She was attracted to the United States’ open education system which would allow her to change majors more easily than the rigid system in Norway. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to study,” Unal said, “so coming here with the general ed system... it just was a better option for me.”
Despite the convenience of changing majors, however, the cost of high tuition paired with expensive housing hits international students hard. Unal came to the United States on an F-1 student visa which largely prohibits her from working. F-1 students are mostly relegated to low paying jobs on campus, which only pay eight dollars an hour.
Shaoyi Sun, a first year student from Xi’an, China, doesn’t blame the US for imposing work restrictions.
“There’s gotta be some protection for natives, for locals,” Sun said. “I understand, but the tuition is freakin’ high.”
Tuition and other school expenses are exponentially higher for international students. According to the Bursar’s Office, international students pay an additional $300 per unit more than students with residency, and since last semester they must pay a mandatory health insurance fee of $702.
SMC requires international students to provide bank statements which demonstrate their ability to pay for school. According to SMC’s International Education Center and Career Services, international applicants must show that they have “sufficient funds” for “tuition and living expenses per year.”
Some international students are able to receive money from their governments to get an education abroad. “Luckily, I’m getting grants and loans from my government,” Unal says, “but, again, it’s not enough for living, school, and food, and fun.”
Dounia Boughelous and Lia Blanquet are film students from Paris. “We’re poor basically,” explained Boughelous. “We have to watch everything,” Blanquet added, “because we’re living off our savings.”
Now, with the housing crisis, the cost of living is only going up. Although other cities have recently surpassed it, Santa Monica was the most expensive rental city in the country according to a 2017 study from Apartment Guide, with an average apartment rental price of $4,799.20.
“In one year,” Unal said, “I think I’ve changed my living situation about four times.” She complained that “you basically gamble on who you live with” and that it does not “always work out.” She claimed that shady roommates scammed her out of thousands of dollars.
Denise Kinsella, Interim Dean of the International Education Center, said that the organization “warns students to be careful of scams” and counsels students to “avoid falling prey to scammers.”
Despite the pitfalls of life in a new country, Sun stated “we’re lucky, actually.” He said that, “After Trump was elected, it’s getting tough for all the foreigners to get a visa.”
Kinsella confirmed that “F-1 enrollment has seen a decline in the past couple of years.” She approximated that there are currently “about 2,900 F-1 students” enrolled at SMC, “down from about 3,100 last year.”
The dream of studying and later working in the United States is still a big draw to many, despite the cost. Anson Dahong Su travelled from Guangzhou, China, to study computer science at SMC. He hopes to stay in the country after graduation and go to work for Blizzard Entertainment, a video game programming company based in Irvine.
“When I was young, I played a famous video game, but that game was made by Americans, so I want to study computer science and go to that company to work,” Su said.
But the outlook for students who wish to work in the country after graduation is grim. A 2016 study from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that “for every 100 F-1 students educated in a state, none were working in the state five years after graduation.”
Despite the difficulties and drawbacks, however, many students still think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
“Whether you like it or not,” Sun said, “America is number one."