International students face unique mental health challenges | The Triangle

International students face unique mental health challenges

Photo by Lucas Tusinean | The Triangle

College life is challenging for any student, but for international students, the journey is filled with additional, often unseen, challenges. In the 2022-2023 academic year alone, international students contributed more than $40 billion to the US economy, filling approximately 370,000 jobs. More than 1,675 international students representing 117 different countries attend Drexel University, enhancing the campus’s diversity and vibrancy. However, they also face challenges that may have a serious impact on their general and mental health.

One of the most serious challenges faced by international students is difficulty in finding a job for a regular income. In 2020, 37% of full-time undergraduate students in the United States between the ages of 16 and 24 worked while enrolled in college; international students have the same need for an income as those domestic students, but more restrictions around working in the U.S. “I had a student loan and… I needed some money to pay for my day-to-day expenses,” said Amna Zuberi, a fourth-year Computer Science major and international student at Drexel. Per current U.S. regulations, international students on a student visa are not allowed to work off-campus and are not eligible for work-study positions, which make up a majority of campus jobs. Kaylie Diệp, a third-year User Experience & Interaction Design international student from Vietnam, said of her on-campus job search: “I did find a lot of good and interesting jobs…, but since I didn’t have work-study, I had to leave them.”

International students face intense competition for a limited amount of on-campus, non-work-study positions. Faizan Malik, an international fourth-year Computer Engineering student who worked at the Drexel Recreation Center, shared that the center “[has] like 5-6 positions and they get like 100 applications.” 

The work restrictions drive down wages and incentivize unsustainable working conditions. Of her on-campus jobs, Zuberi said “[she] got paid, but those jobs… don’t bring stability.” She added, “They just fire you without notice. You are just told the day before, which is not a good thing because I am a student; I rely on the income that I’m getting from those jobs.”

At Drexel, the International Students and Scholars Services is the main point of contact for international students and provides advice “on immigration, cultural, financial, academic and personal concerns.”

The ISSS office does provide contacts and resources to international students looking for jobs, helping Zuberi find a job at Drexel Dining, for example. However, those contacts are very few, so many students have to find jobs themselves.

Co-ops, unlike part-time employment,  are heavily advertised to international students, but places similar stresses on international students, who are provided with fewer opportunities. International students are mandated to get work authorization through Curricular Practical Training. For five-year students, this creates a problem: their CPT allotment is typically exhausted after two co-ops. As a result, students are forced to seek international co-ops, work part-time or use their Optional Practical Training.  This provides a tough dilemma because using their OPT for co-op reduces their time available for post-graduation employment in the U.S. 

Additionally, many U.S. companies, especially those with contracts with the Department of Defense, cannot hire international students.  Other co-ops only hire U.S. citizens to avoid security clearance issues or other complications. “I was really disappointed by the availability of positions,” added Zuberi. “If it said there are 30 pages of jobs available in my major… there were only like three pages that had jobs that I could apply for.”

Diệp noted, “Even though we don’t need visa sponsorship during CPT or OPT, a lot of companies are not willing to hire, because we cannot stay for a longer time or come back for full-time employment for more than three years.”

Diệp shared another story about losing her co-op one week before the start date last year. As an international student, she not only faced the pressure of finding a job, but also grappled with the fear that her F1 visa status would be affected if she failed to secure a co-op, adding an immense amount of stress to an already challenging situation. She said, “My co-op advisor did their best to help me out, but Drexel in general has not been able to help students very well.” She shared that while her co-op advisor reopened the SCDC portal for her to apply for remaining jobs and tried to help her out during this situation, she felt that “[Drexel] care[s] more about their partnership, and their students are like their second priority.”

Health insurance is another significant issue for international students, who are automatically enrolled in the Drexel University Dragon Plan, which costs around $3,000 annually and offers limited coverage. Only government-sponsored students and those with U.S.-based insurance paid by an employer, spouse, or parent can waive this plan, meaning students cannot shop around for better or more affordable coverage.

The financial burden of health insurance is compounded by its limited benefits. “I had a health emergency, which required me to use the health insurance and still I ended up with a bill of more than $1,000, which I could not pay off easily without getting it on installments… I don’t understand if I’m paying $3,000 for health insurance and I’m still not getting my medication or my treatment covered. What’s the use of it?” said Zuberi.

This situation can discourage students from seeking medical help. “Whenever I have health problems or something, I feel like I need to go to the doctor, I always avoid until I go home to go  a hospital in my country, because even when I don’t have health insurance there, it’s still a lot cheaper…. and a lot of my friends feel the same way too,”  shared Diệp. This hesitation to seek immediate medical treatment can worsen the students’ health.

Young adults moving to the country for the first time must also navigate issues like taxes, leases and housing. Unfortunately, Drexel, like many other schools, falls short of offering sufficient resources to assist students in navigating these crucial parts of surviving in the States. Relying on friends for directions can result in biased and contradictory information. Drexel should introduce and incorporate orientation programs to guarantee a more seamless transition and a more encouraging atmosphere for students dealing with these important topics.

Additionally, during breaks, closures and transitions, many campus facilities are closed or significantly reduced. Many domestic students stay with a relative nearby or take a short trip home, but international students do not have that option. Both dining halls close completely during term breaks, so international students need to find other, potentially more costly, solutions.

“There was some issue with my ACC housing… I … lived for ten days with some of my friends then shifted to ACC,” shared Malik about his on-campus living experience when the university returned to in-person operations after the COVID lockdown. Often when switching from dorm or ACC housing to off-campus housing (or vice versa), international students have to fill in the gaps by staying with college friends or family friends. When switching from dorms to ACC housing, Drexel does allow students to stay until the day their next lease starts; this should be extended to those switching to or from off-campus housing.

For international students across the nation, spending summer break back at home allows them to refresh and gain the energy to continue working hard on their degree. However, at Drexel, they only get one opportunity in their freshman year to go home over the summer, and afterward, they only get a couple of weeks of break. “The flights for back home cost around like $2,000, and I just cannot spend that money for a week-long trip,” explained Zuberi, who has not visited home or seen her family in the four years that she has been at Drexel.

Zuberi said she plans to go home at least once in her senior year, before she graduates, by requesting some flexibility in her last co-op. Small changes or adjustments in schedule can completely change the situation for some international students. “Some of the professors are really nice. They were able to give concessions and they were able to help me with the late submission of assignments… during the period while I’m traveling,” added Malik, who is able to visit once a year during the three-week long winter break since he has a spring/summer co-op cycle.

Moving to a completely different country, a different continent or the opposite side of the world is a very difficult process, emotionally and mentally. Homesickness, cultural adjustment and adaptation are just a few of the challenges international students face. Despite this, international students make that move to access the academic resources and personal development opportunities available abroad. They rely on the university to provide them with the support and facilities that their family and community would have back home. Ultimately, addressing these underlying stressors is important to protect international students’ mental health.

This article is part of a grant awarded to The Triangle from the Solutions Journalism Network investigating student mental health at Drexel University.