When Mary Appleton returned from her summer break at home in Monrovia, Liberia, to start her senior year at Illinois College (IC), she found that her ID card was disabled, her dorm room had been occupied by someone else, and she was blocked from using the school’s Wi-Fi. The school administration cut her off from everything because she had not paid her tuition, then threatened that if she didn’t pay, she would be sent back home.
Appleton, 21, is one of many African students who come to the U.S. to get a better education than is available in their native country, but is struggling to afford it. The greatest source of anxiety for African international students is their finances and this affects their psychological well-being according to the Journal of International Students.
“It baffles me because they be preaching about mental health for students and all of that but it’s clear that they’re only concerned about the mental health of students who can pay,” Appleton said as she wept uncontrollably. “Because worrying about tuition makes me physically and mentally sick.”
Before the pandemic started in March 2020, Appleton did not have this much anxiety over her school fees. Since she started attending IC in 2018, her full tuition had been covered by the Smile Liberia program which is funded by various donors.
“Because of the pandemic, lots of donors went out of businesses, they couldn’t continue to fund the scholarships of all the students like me,” Appleton said. “So IC insisted that I pay my full tuition myself ,but I don’t have a prayer of affording it.”
Chris Ngugi, 23, is another African student who is constantly worried about his financial stability.
“I wake up every single morning worried about how to afford rent,” he said. “My parents in Kenya borrow and beg to pay for my tuition so the least I could do is not further burden them with my food and housing.”
Since he got to New York in January 2021 to start his graduate program at Hunter College, Ngugi has worked in a factory, a sweatshop, and a café to afford basic necessities. International students are not permitted to work any non-internship jobs in the U.S. so he is constantly in violation of his status.
“Without work authorization, I get paid under the table and well below minimum wage,” he said. “So my current wages are definitely not going to cut it since my parents can no longer afford my tuition for the next year.”
Michelle Tabansi, 20, an NYU senior and an international student from Nigeria, said getting an internship, which could propel her career, is unaffordable.
“Even if I find an internship, I would still have to pay my school for the accredited internship course so basically I’m paying to get paid,” said Tabansi. “And we can’t even freelance or sell stuff on Etsy without violating our status.”
Although Tabansi has financial aid from NYU, she is constantly anxious about being able to afford the remainder of her tuition.
“Our currency [Nigerian Naira] has depreciated exponentially in the past four years and COVID made our exchange rate much worse,” Tabansi said. “Therefore, even though my father is working extra hard and making more money since our currency is worthless, we’re effectively getting poorer in all the ways that matter.”