February 19, 2013, Washington, D.C. – Pouran (not her real name) is a young graduate student studying at one of the most prestigious universities in the United States. With only six credits left, she has been looking forward to completing her degree and moving on with her professional pursuits. However, due to the declining value of the rial (Iranian currency), Pouran has been unable to finish her education because she can no longer pay the needed tuition for her remaining six credits. She is trying hard to raise the necessary funds, but without a work permit or other means of employment, her chances of doing so are slim.
Pouran is not alone in her plight. According to data from the Institute of International Education, there are currently 6,892 Iranian students studying in the US. PAAIA has been contacted by Iranians at U.S. colleges and universities who are F-1 visa holders experiencing financial distress and hardship. Many of these students are dependent on the financial support of their families in Iran. Others rely on scholarships and research/teaching assistantships, pay out of pocket for expenses, or simply are unable to pay for their education.
Summary Results of Survey of Iranian Students
To gather information on the extent of the hardship experienced by these students and how it was impacting them, PAAIA launched an online survey last month that was completed by nearly 1,000 students.
While online surveys are not scientific, the results show that a large majority of Iranians have been impacted by the extreme devaluation of Iran’s currency. Over 90% of respondents noted that their finances were somewhat or extremely negatively impacted during 2012. Over two-thirds of the students said that the devaluation of the rial and restrictions on bringing money to the U.S. were the cause of their financial hardship. 62% of Iranians in the U.S. pay for their tuition and cost of living through support from their family in Iran or through a mix of scholarships and support from family in Iran.
A large majority (76.6%) of the students who took the survey indicated that they would accept any kind of financial help they could get, while 10% said that they were considering stopping their education and returning to Iran. Comments regarding the hardship the students were facing were varied. In addition to providing details on the financial issues they were facing, many voiced frustration at not being able to meet their educational goals. The students who added comments to the survey were exceedingly appreciative of their opportunity to study in the U.S. Many were complimentary of the teachers and academicians who support them and are instrumental in their academic life.
Administration’s Policies Towards Iranian Students
It has been the policy of the Obama administration to engage the Iranian people directly and to encourage Iranian students to come to the U.S. for their education. In May 2011, the administration lifted the single entry policy for Iranian students and made those whose studies do not involve sensitive or technical matters eligible for two-year multiple entry visas. In October 2012, the administration lifted restrictions on U.S. depository institutions and private loan companies from giving student loans to persons from Iran, further lifting barriers for Iranian students completing their education in the United States.
Employment Based on Severe Economic Hardship
There are some options for F-1 students who are facing financial hardship and who are, as a result, unable to continue their education. A student with F-1 status facing unexpected financial difficulties beyond his/her control may apply for off-campus work permission from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This may include a substantial decrease in the relative value of currency the student depends upon to pay his/her expenses. With DHS permission, it is possible to work up to twenty hours a week during the academic year and full time during the summer and vacation periods.
In addition, under emergent circumstances impacting a group of non-immigrants, the DHS Secretary can grant a special student relief and waive any restrictions on F-1 student employment. In the past, the DHS Secretary has suspended courseload requirements as well as the number of hours per week students are allowed to work off-campus.
PAAIA Lays the Groundwork to Assist Iranian Students
In order to help alleviate the financial difficulties many Iranian students are experiencing, PAAIA has been in contact with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of State. In addition to bringing the results of the online survey to the attention of the above entities, PAAIA is taking the following immediate steps to try and assist these students:
- Letter to DHS – In a letter to the DHS Secretary, the Honorable Janet Napolitano, PAAIA urges that the DHS take the following steps: 1) grant special student relief for Iranians studying in the U.S. consistent with previous emergent situations, 2) ensure that applications for off-campus employment based on severe economic hardship are expeditiously processed, and 3) waive the application fee for these students when applicable.
- Action Alert – PAAIA has set up an action alert that allows interested individuals to bring their concerns and support for the Iranian students to the attention of the Obama administration.
PAAIA is also working with a number of organizations that are well-versed in collecting and disseminating funds through scholarships and fellowships to applicable students. In addition, PAAIA is reaching out to various university and college presidents and deans seeking to put together a coalition of such leaders to consider other measures. More information on this will be forthcoming in the near future.
PAAIA recognizes the tremendous value of attracting international students and scholars to the United States and the need for the U.S. government to pursue a strategy of doing so. Many Iranian Americans began their lives in the U.S. as F-1 visa holders. Iranian students currently pursuing their education in the U.S. have the potential to become the future leaders and innovators of Iran. It is of particular importance that they have a positive experience of America. We believe that students currently studying in the U.S. on F-1 visas deserve the same opportunity for advancement, and that a continued educational exchange of bright minds is imperative to our global community.
We will continue to provide updates on the status of our efforts on behalf of these students.