This semester — 20 months into a pandemic — first-generation and low-income international students are still calling on the University for more support while facing visa limitations, financial aid concerns, career opportunities and navigating student life that are only exacerbated by COVID-19.
For Aheed Hamza ’25, a first-year first-generation student from Pakistan, “Cornell could do better.” As someone who has found more support and resources in friends and Cornell’s Reddit community than the University itself while navigating his first semester, he mentioned that a program targeted towards low-income and first-generation students is much needed.
Hamza’s story is not necessarily a unique one for FGLI international students, who, in addition to the four-year long logistical burden of maintaining a student visa, have limited options when it comes to finding work to support their finances, access to scholarships and career opportunities, as well as socially and culturally navigating a first time in a country away from home.
But their stays in the U.S. have been constantly challenged by unstable policy, like the 2020 Immigration and Customs Enforcement ruling which disallowed stay in the U.S. if receiving solely online instruction, and the Department of Homeland Security proposal which limited the duration of the student visa. Even though both are now nulled, the growing anxieties regarding the omicron variant’s effect on travel continue to leave international students in precarious situations with increased need for support required from their institutions.
Cornell’s financial aid department is already in a marked crisis, dealing with disbursements delayed months into the semester. Even though Cornell is a need-blind institution for domestic students — it largely does not consider financial ability during admission decisions — Vice Provost for Enrollment Jonathan Burdick said in an October Student Assembly meeting that international students who apply for financial aid are at a disadvantage for admission. There is a limited amount of aid available for them, but the preference is given to full-paying students.
For the international students who do receive financial aid at Cornell, their visa poses limitations on their ability to supplement their incomes. Loans are not available, and the work-study permitted in financial aid packages allows for a limit of $1,300 USD per semester, with the F-1 permit allowing for a maximum of 20 hours per week. These opportunities are constricted to on-campus work.
For Gauri Batra ’21, a Tata Scholar — an annual financial aid program for 20 undergraduate students from India — who worked with Cornell Dining the fall of her first year, this combination of policies can be disadvantageous.
“On campus you earn $12 an hour, but off campus it’s $15 an hour [for dining jobs]; so it can be a barrier — you have to work more to earn the same money,” she said.
Although there are several research programs that accept international students, a fair amount of scholarship and research opportunities, like the Mellon Mays, keep U.S. citizenship as part of their eligibility, reflecting similar barriers to jobs which require authorization to work in the U.S.
In addition to working at research labs with professors on campus, Batra has sought career-building opportunities through Curricular Practical Training, a work authorization that permits temporary off-campus employment strictly related to the student’s program of study. But opportunities like these are hard to find, with channels of information to first-generation students being obscured.
Hamza noted that a lot of first-generation students do not have similar access to the cultural capital that students whose parents have gone to college have, and navigating a new system in a new country only compounds that for international students. Without similar soft skills and networks, joining competitive clubs and professional fraternities that can provide further access to opportunities becomes even more challenging.
“It’s all about connection, which a first-generation student isn’t going to have [starting out],” he said.
Beyond the academic and career challenges, the new changes of college without easy access to visiting home become disproportionately difficult for those at the intersection of being FGLI and international. For students like Shehryar Qazi ’24, it can be years between visits with visa challenges and costly plane tickets.
International flights are expressly costly, and the financial aid package for international students who do receive aid is not altered to reflect international students’ markedly increased cost of travel.
Batra, however, has been able to visit home during summer breaks because her Tata Scholarship includes one round-trip estimation per year, which makes it easier for her to visit home during summer break. She said that an overestimation can allow for a winter break trip to be adjusted using the grant.
For those who stay here during breaks, finding affordable housing can be a further challenge, evidenced by the summer’sCOVID crises at the University. For Batra, her financial aid package was reduced to reflect the cost of living in India, even though she had signed a lease for an apartment in Ithaca.
“Ithaca landlords are notoriously bad,” Qazi said. “More support is needed for low-income students’ housing security.”
Resources can fall short of supporting students transitioning not just to a new college but a new country. From time zone adjustments to homesickness — all of which can negatively impact mental and academic well-being — a huge solace for international students is cultural organizations that connect them with their peers going through the same.
While programs like Prepare — an orientation program tailored for international students — are helpful before regular orientation for incoming students, they only allow an extra week to socially and culturally acclimatize before the start of classes, in addition to bearing a cost.
Aheed Hamza ’25 noted that the international student experience is reduced to a cultural shock, and this excludes FGLI students who have to learn from scratch what college is like.
“You see the disparity in terms of social groups; some higher income international students have an easier time assimilating, having a head start knowing what life in the US is like,” Hamza said.
Hamza said it was important for Cornell to distinguish between the students struggling and the ones having a relatively well-adjusted time, which should inform more personalized programs.
Currently, aside from student organizations such as International Student Union and First Generation Student Union, Cornell has a First Generation and Low Income Student Support Center, as well as the Office of Global Learning functioning as a service center for international students. The Einaudi Center is also internationally-focused research-wise, who recently organized cultural training for staff assisting incoming Afghan women scholars.