How does an international student get financial aid?
November 22, 2009 12:53 PM   Subscribe

I am an international student going to college in the US (one of the top ten schools, but not need blind to internationals). I have not applied for a scholarship when I was first admitted, because I knew that it decreased my chances and the exchange rate was relatively comparable. Then, things went downhill; my aunt who was helping my parents pay the tuition lost her job, the exchange rate went up from 1.21 to 1.85 and that is the story. I am looking for a form of scholarship, be it need-based or merit based. How?

Some background info. I am a successful student, double majoring in Electrical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering and possibly minoring in Math (I am a sophomore). My GPA is 3.97/4.00, I am in a Math TA, and work in a neuroscience lab. I guess you could say that I am not a student that the university would like to lose.

There is also a catch: my parents and my aunt. They haven't really been that supportive through this process and it is stressing me to a point that I go to sleep crying. I feel like I am being an incredible burden and I absolutely hate myself for it. So, last year, we have reapplied for financial aid (even though their policy was to not give anything to returning international students). Our request was rejected as expected, and the finaid people said that they didn't have the resources to give returning international students any aid. So that was that.
This did not come up until last week, when my friend from the country that I am from got some form of a "scholarship". My mom learned about this because she is in finance and takes care of all the international wires and money stuff for them. So, when she saw that they were sending less money, she asked my friend's mom what was going on, and they said that my friend "talked to somebody - a professor" and somehow got some sort of aid. There is also a back story to this, my friend's dad is a surgeon and I guess he hurt his hand and therefore he is having trouble paying, so I am guessing he told them that.

And my parents have been bugging me about this ever since. They are saying that I should talk to my professors in the Math department, since they know me very well and they might be able to help. I am horribly embarrassed and I don't know how to even start talking about something like this to a professor. This is making me very stressed out and I feel absolutely horrible - knowing that there isn't much I can do but seeing that my parents think otherwise. Their logic works this way: If there was a way for him to get it, then you should be able to do the same. Mine works this way: I have applied, got rejected and I don't think much else is going to help. Sorry for the long rant, but combine a very busy workload and stress with some more stress and parents that don't speak English and have very little knowledge of how things work in the US, you have yourselves an exploding head.

Overall, I have two questions:
1. Is it okay to approach a professor like this? Is it awkward? Inappropriate? A definite no-no? How do I even start?
2. Where else can I find scholarships? Keep in mind, I am an international, so I have to cross a lot of things off of my list. If it matters, I am a Caucasian female. Who do I talk to? Who do I approach?

I am open to all suggestions.
Thank you.
posted by kuju to Education (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you're an undergrad, there should be a financial aid department that you can go to to start applying for need-based aid. They'll also be able to point you towards merit based scholarships that you might be a good candidate for. It's the financial aid department's job to help students find money to pay for school, so you shouldn't feel awkward about asking them.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 12:59 PM on November 22, 2009

No, don't approach professors. Go to your school's financial aid office. They are there specifically to help students like you, and your story is nothing that they haven't heard a hundred times. They will be able to refer to you a large number of resources for finding the scholarships and loans that you need.
posted by chrisamiller at 1:01 PM on November 22, 2009

Is there an international students organization at your school? If there is, and it's an official organization (recognized by the school), then they have a faculty adviser. Talk to other international students, and definitely talk to the adviser. Likewise, contact your country's embassy; while they may not have resources, they may be able to point you to some, as you are surely not the first of their citizens to face this.

I have no idea if approaching individual professors is acceptable or not, so I can't address that. Good luck.

On preview: In my experience, the financial aid office is set up to help eligible students find/keep financial aid, and the vast majority of international students here as undergrads don't qualify for anything that the financial aid office can help with. Still, it's worth a shot.
posted by rtha at 1:04 PM on November 22, 2009

Don't be embarrassed to ask. Departments sometimes have discretionary funds and even a phone call on your behalf from a well-respected professor might loosen gears that are locked for you. At the same time, don't get your hopes up. These days schools with need-blind admissions policies are under a lot of pressure to maintain them as much as possible and for as long as possible under the current economic conditions. Foreign students who have come in fully aware that they are not covered by the need-blind policy are viewed as cash cows, frankly.

If your department can't help you, try to get creative. Are there fellowship programs sponsored by professional organizations in your field that you could apply for? Are there organizations of expatriates and immigrants from your home country who might be sympathetic to your plight?

In the main, don't be shy about approaching your professors if your situation really is dire. Just be tactful and respectful, explain your predicament (leave out the family drama, obv) and ask if they can put in a good word for you. But be ready to hear a "no" and if you get one, don't let it affect the way you work with them. If you really are facing the prospect of having to withdraw from school for financial reasons, though, you've got nothing to lose.

Good luck.
posted by felix betachat at 1:07 PM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to be in a similar situation (foreign student in the US, parents at home, etc.).

while I would not approach a professor in my home country in such a matter I feel the barrier to speaking openly about monetary hardship being lower in the US. this is not a taboo topic and it is not disgraceful for you as the foreigner who has less experience dealing with such matters to ask one or two trusted professors for their help. you don't have a right to demand it but do go ahead and talk to them. perhaps they are willing to reinforce they really would hate to lose you or assist you through the jungle of possible scholarship applications. you make it easier on them if you already have an idea about what you want them to do but even asking for a general opinion ("is there any scholarship you have heard of?") is fine. I wouldn't just go to anyone but select one or two you consider most likely to help you find a positive result. look at it like this: it's kind of an honor to be considered the confidant here, the one person worth your trust.

secondly, approach the financial aid office again and make your case crystal clear. you are in a situation of financial hardship, you need to find x to appease your family or they will pull the plug, you are an exceptional student, you are looking for a way. others have said there are tons of programs and I encourage you to investigate. key here is to not go away. they deal with tons of students and you need to be the one who sticks out through persistence. if you get a lead investigate thoroughly and keep them up to date about what you did, what response you got, what happened next, where you are. keep at it so they don't forget here's a pressing problem that hasn't gone away.

finally, let's talk about your parents: the bad news here is they won't stop behaving like this. they are far away and cannot see what you are doing. they don't know how you are spending your day. they only have to go on what you tell them. of course they are anxious and nervous, they are writing big checks. all I can suggest is keep them just as updated on every last little thing you did to find money as you do the loan officers. they would love to help you and they don't realize they can't. they're not trying to unnerve you. it's well-intentioned but misplaced bravado. you could try channeling this to your advantage. imagine you are trying to find your way through a certain scholarship program website. don't read those 150 pages yourself. ask them if they understand it. ask them if they think you qualify. see if they are willing to plot a strategy. remember these are your parents. they are used to being the one who is being asked for advise, they are used to figuring out how to help their kids. it's still new to them you have grown up and could do this better by yourself. they need assurance that you are in fact trying your best and that is why I suggest involving them in such a way. they won't nag you about getting a specific scholarship they investigated with you and discovered together you wouldn't qualify for.

finally: way to go on that gpa.
posted by krautland at 1:40 PM on November 22, 2009

Do not be embarrassed about sudden financial needs. It happens all the time, and especially in this economy. It is not shameful to seek help, many students have to do this at one point or another and universities recognize this. University in the US is extremely expensive! I recommend you seek help in a businesslike way -- that is, by saying that your family's financial situation has changed and now you are trying to put together resources to cover $x of your tuition, what are the sources you can look into? (I say this is businesslike, as opposed to a more "personal story" approach -- beginning with a long sad story about all the details of your family's situation. In some cases, the personal story approach will be helpful and may move people, but I would tend to start with the businesslike version.)

You're in a very good position because your grades are good, and it sounds like you're a woman in a field where women may be under-represented. Both of these can help you getting certain types of funding.

You can seek help and advice from all of these:

International students' office - they may know about specific programs that target students from your country, or at least programs that don't require US citizenship. They also sometimes can help with short-term financial needs in emergencies (depends on your school).

Financial aid office - they have every incentive to help you stay in school, right? So make an appointment and go over there in person, get to know the person who can help you or who has the most info. Tell them you're willing to do the research on various programs if they can just give you pointers to where the information might be. If the financial aid office is large, you might ask around among other students and find out if there's one financial aid staffer who is especially knowledgable, and try to make an appointment with him/her. There may be sources of funding that do not come directly from your school; let the financial aid person know that you are looking for any sources they know about including "external" sources like this.

Professors or TAs - (Begin with the prof you are a TA for, and the prof who runs the lab you're in. Also if either math or neuro has a "director of undergraduate studies" -- should be listed on department website -- email them too.) Email them and let them know that you are working out how to pay for school next year, and are looking for sources of financial aid. You're working with the financial aid office, but you also wonder if they know of any discipline-specific sources that the financial aid office might miss. Do they know of funding sources for undergraduates in your field? (Maybe the Mathematics Association of America has scholarships for promising female students, for example.) If they don't know, ask them what are the major professional groups in the field -- write down their answers, then go to the websites of those groups and look around to see what scholarships they offer. Do your professors know of research-assistantships or similar kinds of work-study arrangements at your school? Do they know of programs where you could apply to do paid summer work in your field? They may, of course, have no clue -- or they may even give you wrong information. Be sure to double-check things on your own, since citizenship may affect eligibility. Ask them "do you know of anybody else in the department who might know of other sources?" But if you keep your contact businesslike, let them know you're already pursuing this with the financial aid office, and ask them questions they can answer briefly, they will certainly not be upset. (Unless they are jerks, but you would already know that)

Also check websites of groups supporting women students, especially in the sciences.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:04 PM on November 22, 2009

Also, do you have a faculty advisor in your major? Make an appointment and go talk to that person face to face. (Again assuming they are not a jerk) Let them know your situation, ask them your list of questions about funding sources, and they may be able to help by asking around, telling you which offices might be helpful (maybe there is a separate office for external funding?), etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:09 PM on November 22, 2009

Also, when making the appointment, let them know that you want to talk about any financial aid in your field -- that way they will be able to look things up before the meeting.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:10 PM on November 22, 2009

Response by poster: I will definitely try to talk to one of my professors and visit the financial aid department. Now that I know what to do, I feel almost relieved. Thank you!
posted by kuju at 4:59 PM on November 22, 2009

they said that my friend "talked to somebody - a professor" and somehow got some sort of aid. ... Their logic works this way: If there was a way for him to get it, then you should be able to do the same.

I meant to mention this before: do you know exactly what kind of aid he got? It's not clear from this story. Different academic departments will have very different abilities to help students directly. Typically different departments (the philosophy department, the math department, etc) have separate internal (within the university) budgets, and have very different sources of external funding available. There may be other peculiarities of your friend's situation that make his funding situation different from yours. So, depending on exactly what kind of aid he's getting, it's very possible that you would not be eligible. Of course, this cuts the other way too -- you may be eligible for things he's not eligible for! But at any rate, I would let your parents know that the funding varies a lot by department/field.

Another point is that the general rule of thumb for university in the US is -- if you're in trouble, ask for help. If you're in trouble with schoolwork, or work habits, or personal problems, or drinking, or money, or anything, ask for help and someone at the university should try to help you. (Of course, some people are jerks, or incompetent, and you won't get much help from them -- if this happens, ask somebody else. Also, sometimes there may not be much they can actually do. But it's never shameful to ask for help.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:33 PM on November 22, 2009

Here are a few starting points - be sure to check the eligibility requirements -

Society of Women Engineers undergraduate scholarships (a number of useful links there. to see info on the scholarships, click on "undergraduate" toward the top-middle of the page)

list of some undergraduate scholarships in mathematics

List of some engineering scholarships
List of some scholarships for women
list of some miscellaneous undergraduate scholarships

I got these links by searching for "undergraduate scholarship women" or "undergraduate scholarship engineering" etc. Lots more links that way.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:50 PM on November 22, 2009

« Older Am I safe from a paypal bill? Can they find me?   |   Don't mean to pry... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.