Balawanth Jadhav is far away from his home country, juggling his role as a teaching assistant and working on his dissertation while in lockdown in South Dakota in the US – like many other international students.
But at a time of exploding need, the PhD student at South Dakota State University does not have a minute to waste.
The international student, originally from Hyderabad, India, has been spending his free time raising donations from the community and delivering groceries to international students in need during the pandemic.
In between filming online classes on his own in the lab, Balawanth has set up a Facebook page that appeals to the South Dakota community to come forward and donate whatever they can, whether through monetary means or goods.
He told Study International in a Zoom interview, “There are about 30 percent international students working in part-time jobs or assistantships at SDSU. Now that the university has closed until August 15, they may not get paid and will face difficulties paying groceries, utilities, rent and food.”
Parents are helping some and many would probably manage for this semester. Come summer, however, these lifelines may not last when a total 81 percent of the global workforce is estimated to have had their workplace fully or partly closed due to COVID-19.
SDSU is pitching in help, conducting a survey to find out where and how to distribute help most appropriately to its international student population.
In the meantime, however, food and rent are immediate needs so Balawanth jumped into action.
He contacted his friend Vivek Patel, owner of Brookings’ Quality Inn, to tell him about what’s going on as he’s always been helpful to the international student community in South Dakota.
Vivek then contacted his friends and family members who own businesses around the city. Five other motel owners rallied by Vivek came forward with the first round of donations, which allowed Balawanth and his team of friends to distribute groceries for international students.
Balawanth said, “Following that, a lot more members of the community said they wanted to help the students. I got plenty of emails and calls from people asking how they can help. That led me to set up the fundraising page on Facebook.”
At the time of the interview, they had raised a total of US$2,100 via the fundraising page, which has been used to buy groceries and organise food packs.
He said, “The Indian community is strong here and very helpful, but I want to help all students, not just those from India. We’re all in this together. We want all of them to know — if you need any help from anyone or anything, if you need US$500, if you can’t pay your rent, just let us know.”
There are around one million international students in the US, contributing US$45 billion to its economy in 2018, according to the US Department of Commerce.
When campuses abruptly shut down a month ago, many faced a difficult choice — return home and face the prospect of not being able to re-enter the US or stay and go through the pandemic alone. For those whose home countries’ borders were shut, they didn’t have a choice.
Restricted to only on-campus work, the shutdown meant many were left jobless. Without wealthy parents to send money from abroad, they stand to face the next months cut off from a crucial source of income, little savings and no help from the US government.
International and undocumented students are excluded from the US$6 billion in federal aid targeted to help students pay for expenses like food and housing.
Universities like SDSU are stepping in to fill this gap, as are enterprising students like Balawant.
And his campaign is not just about raising money alone. The impact of COVID-19 on international students goes beyond livelihoods and into their wellbeing.
His plan is to “help them just like your family”.
“Now they can’t meet their friends or go out and they just have to stay in the rooms. We don’t want them to feel isolated and alone in this difficult and sudden situation,” he explained.
International students in US need support in all aspects
Jon Stauff, SDSU’s assistant vice president for international affairs, is another member of the campus community who is rallying others to help international students in need.
The department has issued a survey to all international students asking them where they are, what they need, the amount of income loss and estimates of their financial needs for the next four months. By doing so, they’ve been able to quantify the number of students facing economic hardship and put a dollar figure next to that student.
There are Zoom sessions for students to connect with staff, as well as one-on-one appointments. His entire team is now virtual, reaching out and letting them know SDSU is here for them.
He told Study International, “We’ve prepared an appeal to be sent out to the town and university community telling them what our students are facing and if they will consider some kind of donation, whether financial or in kind, or even through an internship or virtual work.”
The department is working on organising virtual jobs for students, but face hurdles along the way. While many have come forward with job offers to fill labour shortages, it is challenging because international students can’t work off-campus due to visa restrictions and a rule that mandates their jobs must be related to their education.
Stauff’s team is trying to work around this but admits it’s a challenge.
“It’s the perfect storm of things happening at the same time. We wish we could write a check and help them but it’s a systemic economic disaster for everyone in town. Students like Jadhav rallied right to the cause which is great, but we’re looking at approximately 50k a month in need, and we have over 80 students who need help.”
However, he said that he and his team are here to listen, find out what they need and see how they can help them in any way possible.
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