No Place Called Home: Tackling Immigrant Struggles in the College Application Process

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Naisha Roy

No place called home. Students on dependent visas often find themselves in limbo during the college applications process. While designed to be helpful for all types of students, the process can end up being very alienating.

By Naisha Roy, South Forsyth High School

On October 1st, 2021, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opened, and the metaphorical floodgates of my email burst.

Subject line after subject line said the same thing: “Fill. out. FAFSA.” The bold-faced subject lines rang alarm bells in my friends’ heads and groans in our group chats time to pull out the tax receipts and dig through files in the hope of getting some financial aid in one of the most expensive college systems in the world.

But for me and a few of my peers, these emails are just salt in our wounds. As immigrants on a visa, the most popular source of financial aid for applicants is simply unavailable to us.

While the FAFSA is a key step in getting financial aid and grants for college, it’s also only available to immigrants with a Permanent Resident or “Green” card, a T-1 immigration status, or other forms of immigration that allocate a social security number. These lucky immigrants are called “Eligible Non-Citizens,” and they’ve earned the golden ticket to financial aid in this country. But for non-eligible non-citizens, this isn’t an option.

Although the U.S. has a student population of over a million, the college admissions process is increasingly difficult for immigrants on a visa.

To a United States college, an immigrant on a visa is viewed the same as an international student. This means there is no distinction between those of us who have lived here often from our childhood and those immigrating here solely for the purpose of college. South Forsyth, a school with a highly diverse student population, has immigrants from all over the world, many of whom have grown up here and will graduate from here. We’ve held onto our friends for these four years, but when college applications come around, our journeys bifurcate. We face a whole slew of obstacles that our peers don’t have to, and it’s a harsh reminder that no matter how hard we try, we won’t really be a complete part of this country.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword because being able to be in a community that’s so diverse is amazing, and that’s what we want for our students,” explains Ms. Short, South Forsyth’s head counselor. “I sit every day and watch how incredibly hard you all work as students, so I certainly can understand the frustration if it feels disappointing.”

“I would certainly say don’t ever feel like all hope is lost by any means because there certainly are other ways to attend college and figure out college,” Ms. Short continues.

Many colleges even use terms such as “alien” to describe us- and even though it may be legal vernacular, it is extremely dehumanizing. Not only can’t we complete FAFSA, but colleges also tend to refuse us financial aid at all, because instead of a federal investment, we’re a personal investment to each college. In fact, only five colleges in the U.S. are need-blind for internationals and meet 100% of their demonstrated financial need: Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton, and Amherst. Most other colleges are either need-aware for international students (meaning the decision to pursue financial aid lowers our chances of getting in) or just offer scholarships, which oftentimes aren’t enough to make a significant contribution to finances.

Ms. Short recommends students in this situation individually get in touch with international aid advisors at respective colleges to understand all their possible options. “Your best source is really looking at private schools, looking at schools that are able to use their own money for their purposes,” she says.

“If you’re not sure, start with your counselor here. We can get on the phone and call people together and figure it out,” Ms. Short recommends.

Lack of financial aid means a huge narrowing of our college options. We either have to aim for an Ivy League or hope that our applications are stellar enough for need-aware colleges to accept us. But even without financial aid, a multitude of other small factors alienate us from the admissions process.

“It aches me to see that there are so many limitations associated with applying as an international student as a non-permanent US resident,” says senior Rasagna Vuppala. “We are caught in a struggle as we can’t seem to fit in a defining category as either an international student or as a permanent resident.”

Several colleges require international students to prove proficiency in English. For immigrants like us, this means submitting additional test scores for a language most of us have been speaking since we were toddlers. Colleges can waive these requirements for our unique situations, but it is still an extra step we have to take to get it waived. In addition, submission fees are often 10-20 dollars more expensive per application for International Students than domestic applicants.

I’ve even noticed on a few college websites that admissions officers tend to look at students like me in a different light as compared to other applicants.”

— Senior Rasagna Vuppala

Different colleges have additional restrictions on international students as well. Some don’t let us apply early and others limit the scholarships we are applying for. While it is understandable to have additional requirements for those from other countries, the process shouldn’t be harder for those that have lived nearly the entirety of their lives here.

In addition to increased restrictions, there is very little information available online for students in this situation. Most guides are geared completely for international students or domestic ones; most websites have limited guidance for students on a visa and the majority don’t even acknowledge them.

“Check with your country’s embassy or a consulate here in the U.S. or with the appropriate government office back in your country to see what they offer,” reads the FAFSA page concerning non-eligible non-citizens.

Immigration is a long and tiring path. Several of us have been trekking it since before we could talk, and the alienation of the college application process just provides another roadblock to surmount. Although our situation may seem niche, immigrants on a visa are starting to make up a larger proportion of the United States population, and it’s time colleges start recognizing the unique and distinct identity we deserve.

This story was originally published on The Bird Feed on October 21, 2021.