Min Soo Kim: Does the University really care about international students?

Tuesday, March 17, 2020 - 12:55pm

Not many students have direct experience with the University of Michigan’s International Center, as only 2,216 of us are actually international students. The International Center is one of the University bodies that directly represents me and all other international students at the University. However, I cannot say that I have been entirely satisfied with the representation they have provided so far. The International Center could, and ultimately should, do better. 

All Korean male adults have to serve in the military in one form or another, unless they have severe mental or physical health conditions hindering them from effective service. I was unfortunately healthy enough to serve in the army and my 20-month-long service began in October 2017. In order to complete the mandatory service requirement, I had to take a temporary leave from the University and planned on returning to continue my undergraduate program for the Fall 2019 term. With the temporary leave, my I-20 — the immigration document required by the University — had to be cancelled; in order for me to return, I needed a new one. I called the International Center to ask some brief questions regarding the return process, including whether I needed to reapply for a new I-20 or F-1 student visa and if an override for class registration was required. I was told to either schedule a phone appointment with an advisor — for which the earliest date happened to be about three weeks later — or send an email about my inquiry. The latter was the natural choice, as I did not have the luxury of making international phone calls whenever I wanted while serving in the army. I sent an email to the International Center with these same questions, believing them to be simple enough for any staff member to answer. Five days later, I was surprised by a generic response to my email, but I still felt comfortable with the information and my reentry to the University. 

According to the email, I did indeed need a new F-1 student visa. Without much external information or any similar past experience, I trusted the information handed to me by the official University institution that dealt with these kinds of issues. This was in November 2018, so I believed I needed a new visa until the summer before coming back, when I had an indescribable urge to double-check. I decided to call the Embassy of the United States in Seoul myself to ask if I had to be issued a new visa, and the answer was no. In fact, I only needed a new I-20. If I had followed the instructions given by the International Center, I would have wasted the $160 F-1 visa fee. 

The international student fee is a more recent case of the University’s lack of clarity or consideration for international students. The University decided to add an international student fee of $500 per semester starting in Fall 2019. At the time of registration and tuition payment, I was filled with excitement about finally returning to Ann Arbor after two years and overlooked it. The $1,000 per school year fee came to my notice only recently, as the International Center updated information regarding the extra-tuitional charge. The center says the fee will “enable the university to maintain and enhance its campus-wide commitment to international student services, programming, and administration.” The Frequently Asked Questions section about the fee, from the Vice President for Communications for Public Affairs, provides more detail about it. However, the only overarching theme I could understand was that the University is charging international students due to declining state support. The first explanation for the purpose of the fee was “to address increased costs and expansion of services during a time of declining state appropriations support and pressures on the university’s finances.” According to former Provost Martin Philbert, the University is assessing such fees because it highly prioritizes providing sufficient services and infrastructure to the much-valued international students. However, while international students had to face extra fees, the University boasted the lowest in-state tuition increase in six years for Ann Arbor in the same article. The International Center does not provide much more information and clarity about the fee, at least on the surface.

I am not filing a personal complaint towards the International Center about misleading information or the fee, but rather raising questions about the University’s attitude toward the international student community. Immigration documents and processes are highly important and sensitive information for us, as our legal entrance to the country depends on them. To have been misinformed about such an important matter far exceeds the possible monetary waste of $160. While it is clear the International Center provides a variety of events and resources, including advising, to international students, I cannot fully understand the imposition of an additional $500 fee per semester when the University tries its best to minimize the increase of in-state tuition. 

Again, the University is a public institution that mainly serves the state of Michigan in various purposes, so I understand that its main focus is on students from Michigan. However, the University did not hold back in letting everyone know that they minimized the tuition increase for in-state students despite the overall increased costs being due to the decline of in-state support. The University’s decision to minimize the tuition of one group and increase that of another in a time of heightened operating cost does not align logically.

Even the most competent staff can make mistakes when dealing with complicated issues like immigration. It is only right that those who benefit from special services and certain accommodations pay for such provisions. All that being said, I am still left with one question: Does the University really care about us?

Min Soo Kim can be reached at kiminsoo@umich.edu.