Issues Affecting International Student Workers

International students are in a particularly vulnerable position when they are not receiving funding. Our options for seeking employment are restricted by our visas. If we don’t have guaranteed funding for an additional year of study, we must have funds to cover an entire year in the bank before we are able to extend our stay in the US. Earlier in the year when my funding for next year was not confirmed, this was a major source of stress and anxiety.

— Graduate Student in School of Arts and Sciences

After being admitted to Penn as an international student, I had to apply for a student visa. Altogether, the costs of application amounted to $600 between the SEVIS fee, the application fee, and, what surprised me the most, paying $100 to UPS to get my paperwork (I-20 form) sent to me from Penn. I do not come from a rich family and the salaries in my home country are much lower than in the United States, so for me this was a serious cost that I had to incur after what was already a very costly application process and before paying for my plane tickets, security deposit for the apartment, and furniture. My visa expires and has to be renewed every year, so if I want to be able to travel outside of the United States, I have to go back to my home country and pay the visa application fee every year.

— Graduate student in Wharton School of Business

When I arrived at Penn as an international student, my stipend was lower than I’d been informed it would be because of the unique tax relationship with my country. A centralized source for such information–that would have alerted me to how I was in a different situation from my cohort–would be great. In order to make up the deficit, I had to work part time; and as all international students are restricted to working on campus, my options were limited: I had to take a student position (and was lucky to find a supportive work space). However, while using writing and editing skills I’d developed over 8 years in the professional world, I started on $8.25 an hour (before tax).”

— Alexis Rider, Graduate Student in Arts and Sciences

“I heard in my department that we don’t have to pay taxes. I feared breaking the law, as deportation is never out of the question, so I tried to find the relevant guidelines on the IRS website. It seemed to indicate that I do have to pay taxes, but directly instead of through my employer. I tried to get clarification on this and was sent from one university office to another. Finally, the university tax office said “we’re not allowed to help you with tax matters.” I probably won’t pay taxes this year as nobody prepared me to save enough to pay such sums. I just hope that Trump doesn’t have a reason to come after people from my neck of the woods…

— Graduate Student in Arts and Sciences


Approximately one third of graduate student workers at Penn do not hold U.S. citizenship and are classified as international student workers. In a message to Penn students, faculty, and staff, President Amy Gutmann stated that they are “a precious national resource and invaluable to Penn.” Once we stop thinking of international graduate student workers as a “resource,” we see that those of us without U.S. citizenship face specific difficulties at Penn, such as uncertainty surrounding visas, institutional opacity about tax reporting, restrictions on ability to work, and hidden costs. International students are also more severely impacted by several issues that affect all graduate student workers: insecure funding impacts visa renewals, dismissal without the possibility of redress means deportation, and increases in cost of living eat into savings to conduct fieldwork and visits home.

International graduate student workers’ ability to come to Penn, do their work, and complete their programs depends on their visas. Maintaining a current visa can be a stressful, time consuming, and expensive process. Depending on where a student is from, it can cost hundreds of dollars, not including the added expenses of traveling home. Some graduate employees haven’t been home in years because of the expense or confusion about status.

International students’ visa statuses are directly linked to their funding. If funding falls short of realistic completion times, some students are forced to return to their countries if they can’t find other sources of funding. Meanwhile, in a number of STEM departments, Principal Investigators (PIs) must provide documentation that they will continue funding their international student workers. This means that many international students’ visa status is dependent on their relationship to their PIs. A clear, written contract which lays out the expectations and requirements of both graduate workers and PIs will ensure that international students don’t have to worry about the ambiguities of this dynamic. There is already enough to worry about with the wave of xenophobia unfolding across the country.

When it comes to taxes, many international students not only get more money withheld depending on where they are from, but also face serious consequences if they accidentally file their taxes incorrectly.  Requirements differ depending on country of origin, residency status, program type, funding, and many other factors, leaving many students especially nervous and isolated as tax day draws nearer.

There are many other hidden costs of being an international graduate employee. Before they come to Penn, many international graduate student workers are encouraged to rent on-campus dorm-style apartments, which cost almost $4,000 per year more than off-campus housing. Further, many international student workers must pay out-of-pocket for mandated English language tests before working as Teaching Assistants or teaching their own courses. Those international graduate students who have spouses or children must also support their families entirely on their stipends, as spouses are often not legally able to work in the US.

Now more than ever, we need concrete action to protect the members of our community who are most vulnerable. This includes not only international students but also undocumented students and DACA recipients. Penn fails to recognize the particular challenges and precarity that this class of graduate student worker experiences when it designates them as international students. Last November, members of the Penn community came together to insist that the administration designate Penn a sanctuary campus. While the administration’s initial response seemed to partially address some of these demands, their hesitance to definitively support these issues over the past few months has raised questions about their real commitment. GET-UP echoes calls from Penn’s international and undocumented community for the administration to use the full resources of the university to support students who are undocumented and DACA recipients. We need more resources devoted to specialized legal and immigration counsel. The university should affirm its commitment to protecting its more vulnerable employees, who have been invited to share their work, ideas, energy, and experiences.

A union of and for graduate student workers can fight to ensure that the university does not waver in these commitments. A union can also provide additional resources and legal counsel to meet students’ needs. This means dedicated funding to help offset the costs of international relocation, including the many associated fees and expenses. It means providing regular tax assistance for students from different backgrounds, such as specialized information sessions and legal counsel. It means providing specific fellowships and funded research opportunities for international students. It means funding packages that are commensurate with the time it takes to complete a program. It means addressing insurance costs and childcare. It means a written contract that protects as well as clarifies procedures for graduate student workers in regards to grants, funding, and visas.


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