Graduate student Sandra Romero didn’t end the first year of her PhD at the University of Alberta quite the way she expected.
After the novel coronavirus prompted the widespread move to online classes, the international student found her world changing quickly.
“For me, the first problem was finances. I was going to work as a summer research assistant, but I would be working with kids at school. When they closed, that project got cancelled,” Romero said. “My income got cut off by 70 per cent. It was difficult.”
Though she remains a student at the U of A, she traveled home to Guadalajara, Mexico to finish the semester.
“It just didn’t make sense to stay. I can just come back home and do everything through the computer,” Romero said. “It’s cheaper. I also felt it was better for my mental health, to be with my family.”
Romero arranged with her landlord in Edmonton that she would pay half of her rent, while she remains in Mexico.
It’s a difficult reality for many international graduate students and, as organizers explained, why a petition has been created calling for the university to waive its spring tuition fees for the group.
“We’re arguing that this is an unforeseen circumstance, so what the university needs to do is waive it since students have lost their jobs, there’s no way they can get them back in the next few months,” said petition organizer Banafsheh Mohammadi.
The university has about 8,000 graduate students which includes just under 3,000 international students.
More than 600 signatures from students, staff and alumni have been collected in under two weeks, supporting those in a unique situation.
“As international students, we pay more. Right now it’s going to be about $3,000 for spring/summer tuition,” said Romero.
According to the Graduate Students’ Association, international graduate students “are far and away disproportionate users of the campus food bank and other support services.”
The GSA’s Marc Waddingham said the students also face additional stress because they are far from family support.
“There’s obviously stress with not being in regular contact with family. Their family members as a result of economic forces may not be able to provide the same level of support as a domestic student might have. There are a lot of other conflicting factors as well.”
Romero explained, though she signed the petition, she doesn’t expect fees to be waived—but rather desires another option like a deferral or payment plan.
“I understand I’m still a full-time student. This was explained to me when I was admitted to the program, that as an international graduate student, I would pay for spring and summer tuition even though I’m not taking courses. I understand and I agree with those things. I’m just hoping the university can come up with a better plan for this particular situation.”
International student Grace De Lima will graduate from a masters of educational policy this year.
She signed the petition to show her support to peers, even though she will be finished her schooling before the spring term.
“I think it’s a nice petition. I thought it would be helpful to the other international students. I know I’m experiencing some challenges,” De Lima said. “We’re put in a pretty unique situation, because we don’t have a lot of resources. Everyone has to go through these difficulties, but we don’t have our families around.”
In a written response to Global News, the University said it recognized that COVID-19 has placed added financial and personal pressures on both international and domestic graduate students, but it will not be waiving tuition.
“Because tuition is essential to providing high-quality learning and research opportunities to all of our students, the University of Alberta cannot issue tuition waivers for spring and summer 2020 for international graduate students. Tuition for spring and summer 2020 will remain the same for all students (including international and domestic undergraduate and graduate students).”