When the US government announced the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, it excluded undocumented and international students from the federal aid scheme. Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey (RUC) directed additional CARES funding to its COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Application, but its access was also limited to those who filed for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). So the RUC Define American student organisation got involved, starting up the Undocumented and International Students Emergency Fund.

“We asked our students who are affected to share their financial hardships and concerns with us as well as what it would mean for them to have this emergency fund. Many of them faced the loss of housing and wages. We wanted to make sure that all students, regardless of immigration status, had an equal opportunity to receive financial assistance during the pandemic,” says Melani Cruz Stokes, President of the Rutgers — Camden Define American Chapter. Define American is an immigrant advocacy group with active chapters all around the US.

Define American worked with the Assistant Dean for International Students, Elizabeth Atkins, to set up a crowdfunding page through the university. Then, it was time to raise funds. “In addition to posting on social media, we shared our campaign with the Rutgers-Camden community, reached out to local businesses in the area and gained support from various organizations such as NJ Working Families, Humanity in Action, and Make the Road NJ,” Stokes tells.

The team sold T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I Stand with Immigrants” and donated 100% of the proceeds to the emergency fund. Local news networks picked up and spread the story.

undocumented and international students

Define American Chapters Network consists of over 60 chapters nationwide. Source: Melani Cruz Stokes

Undocumented and international students contribute to US universities, too

Proceeds from the fund will directly assist international students such as R.D., a Biology major from Pakistan. The pandemic personally impacted R.D. and their family back home after their grandmother succumbed to COVID-19. “Our family business shut down, and my family had no income to support the costs of me attending school in the US,” R.D. shares. After having loan applications rejected, and facing procedural delays at international offices and US embassies, this international student had to dip into their own savings to pay for tuition, while helping family back home.

“Immigration status change was not possible either, making it hard for international students to graduate or transfer. Most of us come from third-world, underdeveloped countries. Losing a job in a third-world country and paying to attend an institution in a well-developed country is impossible,” R.D. tells. “As an international student, my tuition is significantly more than other students at a state university. I am hoping the emergency fund can help with my academic costs and provide equal opportunity to receive emergency aid.”

Besides international students, the RUC Define American fund will also aid undocumented students, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients such as one Master of Arts in Teaching student. “We made the fund and raised the funds for it. It says no one should be left behind, and that everyone belongs on this campus,” says the DACA student, who is also an RUC Define American member. After paying for the summer semester out-of-pocket, they now require tuition aid in the form of grants, scholarships, or loans.

undocumented and international students

(From left) Raquel Perez, Sam Tuero, Ana Reyes, and Tania Martinez at the Painting & Pen Pals Event. Source: RUC Define American

“Since I am undocumented, I am not eligible for federal or state loans, or loan forgiveness. I am starting a graduate programme, and my tuition has just skyrocketed. In the meantime, I am paying for this semester with my parent’s help and looking for financial aid for graduate undocumented students for my remaining time in my program,” says the DACA student. They hope to use aid from the fund to pay for textbooks and tech gear. They also hope they will be included if the CARES Act offers another round of funds.

“We, as international students, come from thousands of miles away to get an education. We, too, are a part of the campus community, contributing to its diversity and sharing our knowledge with others,” R.D. says. “I hope that more universities can understand and acknowledge how international students invest physically, financially, and emotionally in their institution, here in the US.”

In Stokes’s words, ” This initiative is not only about the students at Rutgers-Camden, but other undocumented/DACAmented and international students who are excluded from any aid dispersed by the government or institution they attend. Now more than ever, we need to support each other.”

How to donate?

“Once the crowdfunding page expires, undocumented/DACAmented and international students from Rutgers University-Camden will have the opportunity to apply for funds through the Undocumented Student Resources website. There will be a short application form that students will fill out and request the amount of funds they need. If they have any questions, they can reach out to our organisation,” Stokes clarifies.

As of Sept. 29, RUC Define American has raised US$2,416 of its US$5,000 campaign goal. There are less than two weeks left to help; head to the emergency fund website to donate.

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