Many international graduate students at UC Davis have had research disrupted by COVID-19 and are concerned about further funding needed to finish their program
International graduate students at UC Davis are facing difficulties when advocating for non-resident tuition waiver extensions during the pandemic, according to several graduate students, Grad Students A, B, C and D, who spoke to The Aggie on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. These students and a professor expressed dismay with how international Ph.D. candidates are treated compared to their domestic counterparts when it comes to the timeline of their graduate studies.
These challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has delayed progress for many graduate students in research-heavy fields that rely on gathering data in other locations. Some international students are also unable to return home because of COVID-19 conditions and visa restrictions.
While UC Davis allowed temporary work from abroad in Fall Quarter 2020 and Winter Quarter 2021, as of now the university said it is unable to guarantee remote teaching positions for international graduate students in the future. With travel bans and visa restrictions in place at the federal level, many students have opted to stay in the U.S., where they still face research delays and pressure to graduate.
“The timeline for international students is truncated in a way that it isn’t for domestic students,” said Grad Student A, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the humanities. “A lot of us are encouraged to take our qualifying exams sooner than domestic students.”
According to the UC Davis website, tuition is automatically waived for non-resident graduate students for up to three years post-candidacy, meaning once they have passed their qualifying exams in their doctoral programs.
After the waiver period, international students can access the non-resident supplemental tuition (NRST) fellowship, a non-competitive fellowship designed to help offset the costs of the fourth and fifth years post-candidacy.
Grad Student A suggested that international students were “constantly required” to prove their eligibility for the NRST fellowship.
According to Dr. Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, the associate dean for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars and an associate professor of history at UC Davis, the NRST fellowship program is unique to the Davis campus.
She also explained that Graduate Studies—in a measure approved by the Graduate Council, part of the student-run Academic Senate—had provided a one-year “blanket extension of ‘time to degree,’” meaning that the quarters from spring 2020 to spring 2021 will not be counted against students’ degree progress.
“This extension was not a guarantee of extended funding,” she explained. “Rather, we continue to work closely with campus units and programs to strategize on financial solutions for those students who need additional financial support due to the pandemic.”
In June 2020, UC President Michael Drake also offered a temporary extension of paid teaching positions to graduate students still pursuing doctoral degrees after their sixth year. He encouraged students to work with their graduate studies department and their academic senate if this measure proved insufficient and said additional adjustments were possible if problems persisted.
But despite these extensions and the NRST fellowship, some international students are still struggling to gather funds. As non-domestic students, they are unable to access financial support from federal measures like the CARES Act Emergency Relief Grant Fund, which provides assistance to people whose studies have been significantly disrupted by COVID-19.
“Then there is the key issue that [international students] are put on a very strict clock for finishing before being penalized with large monetary costs that they or the department has to bear,” said Joe Dumit, the chair of the performance studies graduate department in an email.
While most students finish within the time covered by the NRST fellowship, Dumit said some may still be impacted by factors beyond their control.
“This still leaves the 5-15% whose ‘time to degree’ are affected by life, illness, family, project derailment, visas sometimes, or other factors—they do everything they can and still take longer,” Dumit added.
And with the additional pressures that come with COVID-19, graduate students have struggled to conduct research or travel to their field sites, which could mean staying past the fourth and fifth years of post-candidacy covered by the NRST fellowship.
“I haven’t been able to conduct field research since the pandemic started,” said Grad Student B, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the humanities. “My dissertation is based on performance practices that take place once a year and last year they were canceled because of the pandemic.”
Grad Student B is unable to go to the field site where the performance takes place, because it is out of the country and borders were closed due to COVID-19. The student emphasized that individual departments have different financial situations and varying numbers of international students. For example, underfunded departments may simply be unable to cover funding beyond the NRST fellowship. But another student said that the problem existed even before the pandemic began.
“This would still be a problem if COVID-19 is not here,” said Grad Student C, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the humanities. “I realize that there is this power thing between domestic students and us, and I once asked some of them, ‘What if I take longer to finish?’ [And I realized] that their answer doesn’t apply to me, […] because I have to [pay] if I go over a certain number of years.”
The disruption of field work caused by the pandemic has required the student to strategize about the financial implications of an additional year at the university.
“Our NRST waiver has no extension, and it’s a form of discrimination,” Grad Student C said. “It just feels unfair.”
Grad Student d, An eighth-year international doctoral candidate in the humanities explained that while the university has offered individual solutions for some cases, there is no system-wide plan for international students who need time beyond what is covered by the NRST fellowship.
“The [university] is not able to see that by not granting international students a waiver, they’re granting a disparity of access for people from your place of origin,” Grad Student D said. “So that’s discrimination.”
Dumit called for a UC-wide policy for extending the tuition waiver.
“In general the UC Davis NRST fellowship has helped most of these students who took longer prior to 2020,” Dumit said in an email. “But it was not designed for the additional year-long institutionally enforced extra delay that [COVID-19] created. This extension should be applied UC wide to the NRST waiver.”
Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — firstname.lastname@example.org