When My ZIP Code Matters Most: An International Student’s Story With Financial Aid

“Dear Noah, 

We’re sorry to inform you that Oberlin cannot change your financial aid package,” wrote the Oberlin Office of Financial Aid in an email to me.

I’ve heard this speech so many times that I could probably recite it by heart. In Zoom calls with the Office of Financial Aid in December 2019, I was told that because Oberlin is a need-aware institution, I was admitted on the basis of what I informed the college I could pay.

My story with financial aid began when I was first applying to college. It was simple math: college in the U.S. is expensive, so I need aid. Oberlin is a school that meets 100 percent of demonstrated need, even for international students, so I went all in. I was accepted, and I fell in love with Oberlin. Yet after all the grants and loans and work-study positions, it was still too expensive. “No problem,” I thought. “I can try to appeal.”  But, my admissions package contained a special letter for international students that said, “We will not be able to reduce your family contribution or provide additional increases in financial aid for future years.” Even during a global pandemic?

Fortunately, on May 5, 2020, President Carmen Twillie Ambar sent out a Campus Bulletin about fall reopening:

“We know that COVID-19 is placing a financial burden on our families,” Ambar wrote. “We continue to be committed to meeting the full demonstrated financial need of all families throughout the duration of their time at Oberlin. Our financial aid staff is available to speak with families who have questions regarding their options, regardless of whether they applied for institutional aid at the time of application.”

On top of that, the Fall 2020 Reopening FAQ stated that, “Students who have had a change in circumstance, loss of income, or other financial issue may appeal to be considered for additional need-based financial aid.” I know that doesn’t mean that I am guaranteed more aid, but as a soon-to-be first-year student, I imagined this statement applied to me. I later found out that it didn’t.

I had a meeting with a representative of the Office of Financial Aid, in which they listened to my explanation about how hard the situation was for me and how much aid I needed. Then, I was asked to submit a written proposal. My request was denied. 

I know the College isn’t obligated to give me more money. I truly know that. Everyone I talked to was extremely nice and heard my story a thousand times, but I still didn’t feel listened to. When I argued that the dollar currency had changed drastically compared to the time I sent in my application, they said that the exchange rate changes every year with inflation, so that is automatically considered in an international student’s package. Perfect — except a 13 percent increase in one month alone isn’t normal, and it can certainly affect my ability to pay. I told them that my father lost his job because of the pandemic, and that he was counting on his salary to pay for my education. I was told that this change wasn’t permanent enough — that he could get a new job any day. Well, a year has passed, and my dad is still unemployed. The U.S. dollar is still expensive. 

All of this happened in December 2020. They suggested that, if I couldn’t afford Oberlin, I should maybe consider withdrawing and applying to college again. But my dad said he’d figure something out with his savings — that everything would be okay.

In the beginning of July, another catastrophic event happened; there were some complications with my father’s savings, and he wouldn’t have all the money. So there was no way I could go to Oberlin. I went for a walk when I heard the news. I started strolling around my neighborhood, not sure which streets I was walking by, with my brain too busy trying to intercept a divine signal to show me what my next steps should be. I just couldn’t believe that I wasn’t going to college because of money. I had spent years preparing for the college entry process. I got accepted, got a scholarship, got a roommate, chose classes, made friends, and this one detail would stop me from going? No way. I’m not one to give up that easily. 

I asked to talk with the Office of Financial Aid again. Nervously sweating, I joined the Zoom call with my mom next to me for support and asked them to frontload my loans for the next three years so that I could afford this first year. Basically, they would loan me more money this year and less than expected in the other three, so my overall debt wouldn’t increase. I must say they weren’t as thrilled with the idea as I was. My new written request was sent and, to no one’s surprise, denied.

So why did the website say anyone could appeal? I’m not even at Oberlin yet, but I fear my experience will be like this: I see an opportunity and go after it, only to be told at the finish line that I’m not eligible because of citizenship. Seeing pieces like Ritesh Isuri’s article for the Review just further cements this idea. While Isuri’s situation has had a happy ending, what if it isn’t an isolated case?

Fortunately, the student community is working to improve this situation. I started a crowdfunding campaign on LinkedIn, aimed at Oberlin Environmental Studies alumni, to see if I could raise enough money to still go. Everyone who talked to me was very kind and attentive, and I could feel they cared. However, the campaign wasn’t raising as much money as I had hoped. My soon-to-be roommate encouraged me to post it on Instagram — thanks, Ri — and, to my surprise, it went viral. From night to day, Obies started sharing it to their friends, donating, and sending me messages to see if I was okay, if I needed anything. It was truly surprising to see them getting involved just because I said I needed help, and with no judgment. 

Recently, I got the money I needed through crowdfunding, and I’m going to Oberlin! Although  I’ll always be impressed by how this community gave me the opportunity to go to college, I still had to spend months in a roller coaster of anxiety, thinking of ways to come up with extra money that, should I have been born in the North of the continent instead of the South, wouldn’t have been such a miracle to get. 

I wish folks in the U.S. knew how different the process is for international students. A lot of people from my class tried giving me tips that just didn’t apply to me because of citizenship. An appeal? Rare. Federal loans? Not in my wildest dreams. A private loan? Only with a U.S. co-signer. I wish the College had more money for us. I wish my classmates knew about this. I wish this whole process wasn’t designed in a way that made me want to give up after having doors closed in my face after every new step. I’ve wished for many different things in these past two months, but now I only wish for one: to see my cap flying in the air along with my classmates’ — eight semesters from now.