More than Just a Number: Stories from International Students

With his signature skateboard, leather jacket, black cap, and jeans with chains, Richard Muniu '20 is lovingly called the "hard Kenyan" by some of his friends. Muniu, however, disagrees.


"You should see the real 'hard Kenyans'. On a scale from 'zero' to 'hard Kenyan', I'm probably a one or a two," he chuckled. To the spirited and independent student from Nairobi, Kenya, a "hard Kenyan" holds a special mindset and attitude towards life, one which he has yet to develop.


Muniu is far away from home at Swarthmore College – the journey from Nairobi took nearly twenty-eight hours, and he has not been home since arriving at Swarthmore for freshman orientation. He is a member of I20, the International Students' Club. He also identifies as a low-income student receiving financial aid from Swarthmore.


International students hail from vastly diverse backgrounds. Some, like Muniu, have traversed long distances and jumped through numerous administrative hurdles to set foot on American soil. Others have studied or lived in the US for some time, but still identify as foreigners.


Swarthmore and the US government classify most international students as "nonresident aliens", even if the moniker seems more suitable for Uncle Martin O’Hara. There are currently 211 "nonresident aliens" enrolled at Swarthmore, comprising around 13% of the total student body.


Although many international students are able to pay full tuition, others rely on scholarships and financial aid to attend college in one of the world's most developed countries. This fiscal year, eight percent of students on financial aid are "Foreign Nationals," while four percent are from an "Other or Unknown (American)" racial or ethnic background. Around 34% of international students are on financial aid, lower than that for the student body at large (53%).


Unlike domestic, undocumented, and DACA students, international students face a need-aware admissions policy, where the Admissions Office takes into account their financial needs while reviewing their applications.


Minh Nguyen '20 from Hanoi, Vietnam, discovered that Swarthmore's basis for distributing financial aid is very different from that of Vietnamese universities. Swarthmore awards aid solely based on financial need, or the ability to pay, while Vietnamese universities look at both financial need and academic performance.


"You would get a scholarship if you are low-income and if you display a certain level of qualifications. It's a mix of merit-based aid and [need-based] financial aid," Nguyen said.


While Nguyen receives financial aid at Swarthmore, and could be regarded as a low-income student, she feels that her family's financial status is considered differently in the US. "In Vietnam, I am definitely not a low-income student. My family is middle class back at home," she said.


"We are middle-middle class. I have friends who are upper-middle class, or maybe even higher up in the ladder, but if they go to the US, all of them would be low-income students. It's all relative. The US is a more developed country, so overall, people have higher income. But in Vietnam, people have much lower income," she explained.


Muniu shares Nguyen's sentiment that the criteria for classifying students as low-income is different in the US than in other countries. "I feel that generally, a lot of people from Africa probably qualify as low-income students by American standards. If you check out GDP per capita, here and in Kenya, it's definitely so much lower in Kenya, but the cost of living in Kenya is also lower," he said. "A low-income student in the US is not a low-income student in Kenya."


Unlike Muniu and Nguyen, who had never lived in the US before college, Hyeop Song '19 is a DACA student and financial aid recipient who grew up in the Bronx, NY. When he was two years old, his family moved to the US from South Korea. The older of two brothers, Song is first in his family to attend college, and hopes to become a pediatrician.


Song identified two things that are important to him as a low-income, first-generation college student: "One, knowing how precious education is, and two, realizing the contributions of my family, friends, and other people in my life, people who helped me along the way to get to where I am now," he said.


Song also remembered some of his anxieties when he first came to Swarthmore. "I have no older family members who can teach me their background, history, and what they've done successfully in their career. So for my first two years, I was in a dormant state, where I didn't know if I can or cannot successfully take advantage of my education or develop my career. Sort of like doubt, I guess, because no one else has been able to [attend college], so can I?"


Swarthmore offers various forms of support for low-income international students. Student organizations, such as I20 and Swarthmore Organization of Low-Income Students (SOLIS), often host social activities that encourage dialogue and build a sense of community.  The Office of International Student Services, Dean's Office, and Financial Aid Office are always ready to advise students and help them with any unexpected financial obligations. However, with so many available resources and little information, it can be difficult for students to know how best to get the help they need.


"I feel like there's a lot of things that they have [at Swarthmore], but they just don't tell people about [them]. That's probably something they can do better at," Muniu said.


Song, however, disagrees. "I think Swarthmore does a great job already. I get emails about meetings for first-generation college students and low-income [students'] luncheons. It's just me, I was not proactive enough in seeking these people or asking for help," he said.


When asked about who he might ask for help from, Song responded, "I don't know...probably an adult who understands what it is to be a low-income student, who is encouraging and knows who I should be reaching out to." Faced with two overlapping identities of being low-income and international, students like Song may find it difficult to understand their own needs, much less what to do about them. With more active efforts to communicate with low-income international students and foster dialogue among them, perhaps Swarthmore can reduce the feelings of confusion among these students when they need to seek support.