Cultural managements

FLI international students share distinct cultural and financial burdens at Stanford

Low-income first-generation international students (FLI) have a unique experience at Stanford. Situated at the intersection of two complex identities, international students at FLI face unique and sometimes overlooked issues, such as navigating visa and immigration policies and finding a community at Stanford. And while the support from the University administration is helpful, it can only go so far.

Many low-income students receive resources from the FLI office after enrolling. FLI provides financial support, including the Opportunity Fund and emergency grants, and coordinates community programming.

“Since it’s really not economically feasible to go home for a week over the holidays, it really feels lonely here at Stanford,” said FLI mentorship program staff member Olivia Ledbury ’25. “I am truly grateful that FLI is expanding beyond a program to a community.”

“It’s a community where everyone is eager to help each other,” said Iyanu Darem ’25, from the UK. “For example, older students are happy to help freshmen find affordable alternatives to some of the expenses of being a student.”

For some international students, home means the other side of the world, making returning to their hometown rare due to financial and time constraints. Some students said they had been unable to go home for a year or more. Helen Deng ’25, a Chinese student identified by the FLI, said the cultural loss due to time away from home was a difficult adjustment for her.

“I and other students sometimes feel very lost,” Deng said. “College is a time to meet new people, but home is still home. I miss my family, but I also know there are pressures to earn a living that keep me here at Stanford.

Ledbury said FLI has provided resources for FLI students who may live away from campus, such as the Summer Stocking Program. A communal library for used textbooks and other community resources has also helped ease the university’s financial burden, Ledbury said.

The financial burdens of low-income students and international students are often compounded by the pressure to find a job, as well as contribute to student loans and send money home, Ledbury said. “Non-FLI students don’t always have that pressure,” she said.

Like Deng, Joseph Kim ’24, who is from Korea and works as an FLI office staff member, said coming to a new school in a new country was overwhelming due to the lack of established support and resources.

“All of this, like taxes and tuition, while having to be so far from home can be a really isolating and exhausting experience, which can very easily affect mental health,” Kim said.

Deng said the University’s financial aid also helped ease the stress. “Depending on your financial situation, the amount of financial aid you receive can cover almost everything, tuition, living expenses and even medical care,” Deng said.

The University “has a limited amount of financial aid for international students” and asks international applicants to indicate whether they require financial aid in their application. The admissions process is blind to the needs of domestic students, “meaning that, for all but some international applicants, financial circumstances will not affect the admissions decision,” according to the financial aid website.

Another pressure Deng identified was choosing a major based on the profitability of future careers, rather than interest.

“People are opting for lucrative majors, like management science and engineering, rather than what they really want,” Deng said. “I think the desire for monetary gain is valid and a general philosophy of these students.” Deng said she was lucky her interests in electronics engineering aligned with the rise of well-paying tech jobs, especially in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Deng said the low-income identity also contributes to social barriers, as it can be difficult to find the time and money to treat friends, Deng said. “Sacrificing that lifestyle also meant sacrificing some friendships and I think that’s how I disconnected with some people.”

Ledbury, Dare, Deng and Kim said they found comfort in their groups of friends who also identified as low-income students. They described the solidarity within this community against common issues that may be foreign to those with different identities.

“I’m lucky to have people in my personal circle who identify as me,” Ledbury said. She said people “who understood my struggles and helped me” in her personal and professional circles were the people she found herself talking to the most.

Deng said community was key to navigating Stanford as a low-income international student. “That’s what I found myself leaning on when I was struggling, and I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t had the people around me that I have.”