International students on tight budget

June 23, 2005, vol. 33, no. 5
By Paulette Johnson and Penny Freno

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A common misconception about international students attending a Canadian university is that they are financed by the bank of mom and dad, with wealthy parents footing the bill for tuition and lavish living expenses.

The reality is that increasing numbers of international students come from low and middle income families and from developing countries. With average international undergraduate tuition fees of $5,700 per semester, even a student with an entrance scholarship needs to be creative to cover their tuition and living expenses while completing their degree at Simon Fraser University.

International students cannot utilize Canadian student loans, have limited access to bursaries and scholarships and programs such as work study, and are prevented by federal government legislation from working off-campus other than as a co-op student. Three students who struggle to balance heavy course loads, mounting debt and the time it takes to complete a degree are Iglika Ivanova from Bulgaria, who just graduated, Laurynas Navidauskas from Lithuiania and Matthew Crider from the United States.

Ivanova came to Canada on a full scholarship to study at the United World College near Victoria, and then was attracted to SFU by its economics program. “Even though I had heard that SFU was a good place for international students before I arrived,” the Bulgarian national says, “I was thoroughly impressed with the level of support available from the international office, from student groups on campus and in residence as well. There is much to learn when you're coming from a different culture - seemingly trivial things such as buying food, finding a place to live and getting health insurance are done differently in Bulgaria.” Ivanova learned about shopping in second-hand stores, something not commonly done in her home country and spent three semesters doing paid co-op work terms.

Navidauskas chose SFU because he wanted to study film, which he says is difficult to do in a post-communist university where it's difficult to get accepted to fine arts programs. To make ends meet he borrows texts from the library or buys them used. He also keeps track of his spending by keeping all his receipts each month to assist him with planning each year.

He became a co-op student initially to be able to work off campus and earn some money, but he is doing a video project on his current work term so he is gaining experience related to his degree, something not possible to do in Lithuanian universities where film programs are based solely on theory.

Crider is a second year cognitive science major from Philadelphia who came to SFU because he had visited Vancouver and fell in love with the city and its diversity. “Here,” he says, “I have friends from South America, Arabia, China, Europe - everywhere.” He finances his education with U.S. federal and state loans, but these have a four-year limit. Like many SFU students, Crider will need five years to complete his degree and is uncertain how he will finance his final year. “When I graduate,” he says, “I'll have a $70,000 to $80,000 debt, comparable to what my friends attending Ivy League schools in the U.S. are facing.”

All say that even students who receive entrance scholarships have to budget in order to stretch out the dollars to the end of their degree program. Things will change for future international students, as Citizenship and Immigration Canada recently announced an off-campus work initiative which will soon be implemented in B.C.

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