Overcoming Gratitude: How the GOP Tax Bill Could Impact International Students

On Saturday morning of December 2, millions of people in the United States woke up the news that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act had passed in the Senate. For current graduate students, this was a step closer to the passing of the House’s version of the bill that would make tuition waivers taxable income, dramatically increasing the amount of taxes graduate student would have to pay in addition to the various ways the bill would devastate folks healthcare and labor security.

As an organizer working with the Syracuse Graduate Employees United (SGEU), I have been struggling over the past few weeks about how I might address this in the next installment of the SWR blog on anti-racist pedagogies. Given that the new SWR mission statement calls for an expansion of sites and discourses of study, I ultimately decided to share a speech I wrote for a rally (with help from Poonam Argarde, a fellow international student and friend) hosted by SGEU on Wednesday November 29 at Syracuse University. Its alignment with anti-racist pedagogies stems from a recognition of how existing structures within higher education, such as the ever-increasing workload expected of graduate students and the ever-existing threat to documentation status, work to keep marginalized bodies in precarity in order to maintain exploitative labor practices.

The speech was intended to address the ways that the bill will impact the lives of international graduate students as well as why I think union organizing will be key to collectively addressing any potential repercussions. Although this speech focuses on international students, I want to be clear that I don’t want to conflate all international students with students of color, but international students are often from countries largely populated by people of color, especially at my own institution. My hope is that by articulating the issues facing international students, we may be better able to join in solidarity with U.S. students of color, and recognize the ways in which we are sometimes pitted against each other within educational spaces heavily laden with white supremacist ideology that perpetuate narratives of competition between students of non-white identities.

Since last week, I have been finding other pieces highlighting the impact that the bill will have on international graduate students. Desiring something more polyphonic than my own voice, I have hyperlinked to those pieces throughout the speech. They are worth checking out and provide a more rounded view of how international students think they’ll be impacted by a change in the tuition waiver structure.

The speech that follows appears in a slightly version to make sentences a bit more concise, and was delivered before the passing of the Senate’s version of the tax bill on December 2, 2017.

“Thanks for the chance to talk here today. I am a graduate student employee of Syracuse University, and also an international student from Belize. Syracuse University is the third U.S. university I have attended but the first private United States university. I am very wary of talking about the experiences of international students as I don’t want to reduce a wide array of experiences based on nation-state relations, ethnicity, race, ability, class, gender and sexuality that all commingle and inform the experience of studying in a country that is not your own. That said, I wanted to take this time to talk to folks unfamiliar with the obstacles facing international students and how the proposed GOP tax bill will further exacerbate difficulties for this particular student population.

To be an international student means to always be engaged in processes of currency exchange both literal and speculative. Even before our bodies have made it here, we are already out of our countries’ equivalent of hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars in the hope of acquiring a visa in order to attend a U.S. university, and this is after we have had to spend other money on application fees, and standardized testing fees, among others. The international students around you are oddly enough the lucky ones, the ones who passed whatever tests U.S. embassy and Homeland Security personnel state makes one person eligible for entry into this country, and another a person to be turned away with no chance of recovering all the money spent.

Knowing that you are one of the lucky ones has its own weight that compels some international students to always feel grateful for this opportunity even in the face of emotional stress caused by xenophobia, racism, and tokensim within programs and departments that desire our presence for the various forms of capital we provide them without even bothering to know our countries, our ways of knowing, or our histories. Being one of the lucky ones is the feeling of returning home and knowing that you might be making more money or making serious advances in your career compared to many, and also feeling shame for the difficulties you face in your coursework, teaching, research, and navigating American taxes, and healthcare. And so even when the difficulties swallow us, there remains the resistance to scream out regarding our injustices, and our exploitation. Instead, we are expected to say thank you, thank you, thank you.

It has taken me 8 years to move past this shame and recognize something: I am not grateful to this university for this opportunity. This university should be grateful to us for making the sacrifices to attend here at great personal expense, and enrich the body of knowledge produced and disseminated here.

At present, 33% of the graduate student population at Syracuse University is an international student with the largest percentage being students from China and India. In the case of international students pursuing master’s degrees, these students often end up needing to take out loans in their home countries to float the cost of tuition. They then arrive here with the hope that they will be able to acquire one of the few hourly wage jobs available to international graduate students if they aren’t one of the handpicked students who receive graduate assistantships. This situation can often make international students view each other as primarily competition rather than as potential collaborators, furthering the individualistic pursuit of goals, an educational orientation that’s very unlike the collectivist education experience emphasized in certain other spaces outside the United States. Additionally, hourly wage international students are not provided any security that their jobs will remain theirs between each semester.

To be an international graduate student can often mean an intensification of the isolation that grad school’s work load requires from anyone hoping to make it through. Last year, I was the only grad student here from Belize, as was the one person from Antigua and Barbuda, the one student from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, the DR, Ecudaor, Finland, Georgia, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, and that’s just the lone student representatives from the first of three pages on the Slutzker Center’s 2016 international student report. As a result of this isolation, I and many international students regularly feel the need to return to our country of origin in order to revitalize ourselves between breaks when we are able to afford it in the hopes that time spent there will keep us buoyed when we meet difficulty and are feeling alone in this university space. The proposed GOP tax bill would suck whatever savings international graduate students have been able to make, limiting their ability to shuttle between spaces. This limitation impedes people’s opportunity to spend time with their loved ones, and within the cultural communities that they may still call home no matter how long they’ve been here.

To be an international student means not being certain about whether you’ll be able to maintain your documentation status within a university if you get the wrong person angry. When I first moved to the United States with the intention of working in journalism, my dad told me to keep my head down and focus on getting through school rather than calling attention to the tensions existent on that university’s campus. At the time, I listened to him because I was afraid to be turned out and excluded from the opportunities afforded to those in my country who have acquired higher education in the regularly called developed world. For other students, this manifests as a fear to seek help when mistreated by an employer, or to call out aggressive or discriminatory behavior from colleagues, faculty, and administrators.

To be an international student for many means saving as much as they can while they are making American dollars for a wide variety of reasons whether that’s to send money home to those they care about, or planning for uncertain and precarious futures. And in order to manage those savings, international graduate students sometimes make decisions that put them at risk, such as deciding against visiting an emergency room when hurt or ill due to fear that the medical bills will be more than they can afford.

For international graduate students then, a union could mean the opportunity to gain legal support when necessary, the chance to feel greater assurance about your ability to feel safe and looked after by a collective invested not solely in your academic labor, but in your opportunity to live a dignified life.

Given all this, some folks may ask why international students bother to come here, and to that I can’t give any answer but my own. I came here because I feel that international students play an important role in holding U.S. academics accountable for their work, and moving dominant Western academia to a space where its better able to recognize the ways in which it’s been complicit with racial projects, imperialism, positivism, environmental destruction, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.

Though I am not grateful to American higher education in ways I said earlier, I remain forever grateful for  the opportunity to meet and create friendships with talented students, from diverse backgrounds, particularly students of color and international students. Those  who work towards a more expansive and richer understanding about what it means to be on this planet outside the United States, and those working towards its improvement.”

Thank you.”


Featured photo by Patrick Oberle

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