International student creates tuition GoFundMe in a race to graduate amid pandemic

Tuesday, February 16, 2021 - 4:28pm

Salisha Baranwal and her parents inside Martha Cook Residence Hall

Salisha Baranwal and her parents inside Martha Cook Residence Hall Buy this photo
Courtesy of Salisha Baranwal

As gossamer layers of snow gently piled on top of the Diag during a winter storm warning Monday night, LSA junior Salisha Baranwal reminisced on the moment she first stepped on campus after committing to the University of Michigan. She recalled a picturesque winter walk throughout the University’s historic campus, imagining the many opportunities awaiting her. 

A high school senior at the time, Baranwal had been deciding between the University and another institution when she said “fate intervened.” Scrolling through her photos on her phone, she found a picture of her eighth-grade self, grinning in a maize and blue Wolverine shirt that her homeroom teacher, a University alum, had given her.

“So I decided to go there and basically my thought was, this school is going to help me achieve my dreams,” Baranwal said in an interview with The Daily.

Three years later, however, Baranwal just hopes she can raise enough money through a GoFundMe to be able to walk out of the University in August with a diploma in her hand.

Baranwal is an international student who has been on an F-1 visa since she immigrated to the U.S. from India when she was in fourth grade. She has lived in Michigan for the last 4 years, including her senior year of high school, and her parents pay Michigan state taxes. Baranwal said while she and her parents were ecstatic for her to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor at the University, they had been slightly worried about paying international tuition rates for college since the beginning.

On top of most international students being required to pay out-of-state tuition, which is over three times the cost of in-state tuition, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email to The Daily that international students have far fewer financial aid options than US citizens.

“There are very limited scholarship opportunities at U-M,” Broekhuizen wrote. “International students on temporary visas are not eligible for federal or state financial aid, and are expected to pay the full cost of attendance.” 

In a race to graduate while she can afford to, Baranwal said she picked up three additional credit hours this semester and is taking a laboratory course over the summer so she will be eligible to receive her diploma in August. Though she will have to sacrifice an unfinished minor in Gender and Health, as well as aspirations of writing a thesis senior year, Baranwal said she is doing what is best for her future. She said she plans to spend the next couple of years working to become a permanent U.S. resident and applying to medical school.

The appeals process

In Baranwal’s case, out of state tuition was an obstacle that she’s been trying to overcome since freshman orientation. Though the University states that students with F-1 visas are ineligible for in-state tuition, the University allows students to appeal their individual cases to the Appeal Committee.

This process failed former Architecture student Juan Muñoz, an international student, in 2019 when he created a similar GoFundMe to financially support himself through graduation. Muñoz had lived undocumented in Michigan since his family immigrated from Mexico when he was four years old. However, he did not matriculate at the University until 60 months after graduating high school and therefore did not qualify for in-state tuition consideration. Muñoz went through the process of appealing his enrollment status, but his case was ultimately rejected.

According to Baranwal, the process has not improved since then. She said despite the added financial stress presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, her recent appeal has not been met with any more of a tangible solution than when her request for in-state tuition was first denied freshman year.

“I’ve basically been taken in circles from the international office to the financial aid office to the dean's office,” Baranwal said. “They actually referred me to each other at one point, and it just was a lot of administrative stuff, but nobody ever came up with a solution.”

Criticism of international student fee

The cost of attendance has included a $500 “international student fee” for all students on an F or J status visa since the Fall 2019 semester. When the fee was first introduced, the University claimed it put their tuition rates in “alignment” with several other Midwest colleges that also charge additional fees or higher tuition costs to international students.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, among other campus groups, expressed frustration over the ambiguity surrounding the $500 fee. GEO was concerned the revenue would not go toward supporting the International Center or international students themselves, but rather toward other University expenses. 

According to Broekhuizen, the fee provides funding to expand University services, both for international students and U.S. citizens.

“The university has tuition and fees that vary by school or college, residency and student’s academic level to provide resources to meet overall costs,” Broekhuizen wrote. “As is true of the university’s implementation of many other student fees, the (international student) fee revenue is combined with other resources into the university’s general fund to address growing costs and the expansion of services or to fill gaps left by the loss of state appropriations.”

The problem, according to LSA sophomore Haoyu Du, an F-1 visa student from China, is that even international students who live off campus and are taking classes completely virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic are expected to pay the international student fee.

“Those students shouldn't be obliged to pay anything that's related to campus functioning if they are not on campus or using those resources,” Du said.

Both Baranwal and Du said they were frustrated by the notable disparity between the tuition costs they have to pay and the tuition costs for in-state students.

Eastern Michigan University announced in 2018 that incoming international students would qualify for the same tuition rates per credit hour as all other undergraduate students. 

Du said she understands that with nearly 12% of the University of Michigan community being international, the University might not be able to afford to extend in-state tuition to all international students like EMU. Still, she said, the University might consider provisions that would make their tuition rates more affordable for all.

“Personally I think the in-state tuition, out-of-state tuition makes sense, just because the in-state residents do pay taxes and the University is funded by the state,” Du said. “But I don’t think there should be such a big difference (between in-state and out-of-state tuition rates). For those of us who came here to pursue a better education, it's sometimes an obstacle.”

Seeking community support

Unable to find a U.S. citizen to cosign on additional loans with the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, Baranwal decided to open up to her friends about her financial situation for the first time. She said she was hesitant to do so earlier because she was worried about being judged based on stereotypes regarding the presumed socioeconomic status of international students.

“I thought that it wasn't okay to be an international student and have money problems — they had to be mutually exclusive,” Baranwal said. “Why would I, an international student, want to have the luxury of studying at such a good school when I didn't have the money?”

But Baranwal said her friends were incredibly supportive in transforming “my problem into our problem,” and they immediately began sharing her GoFundMe and seeking donations on her behalf. As of Tuesday evening, Baranwal has received over $16,000 in donations of the $29,000 she needs.

LSA junior Isabelle Fisher, a friend of Baranwal, is also working with her to virtually tutor high school students to raise more money.

“We're trying to start tutoring high schoolers so that we can make some more money besides just donations,” Fisher said. “It’s an easy thing to do on the side.”

Baranwal said if she is able to become a doctor and achieve the dream she thought about while taking that memorable snowy stroll across campus, she plans to actively work to dismantle stereotypes surrounding international students. One day, she said, she hopes to create a scholarship program for students facing similar challenges to hers. 

“If we want UMich to be an inclusive environment for all … we should let people tell their own stories, instead of just thinking that our initial assumptions about them are correct,” Baranwal said.

Daily Staff Reporter Roni Kane can be reached at ronikane@umich.edu.


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