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International student balances work, life

As three-credit courses subside into three-question evaluations, many students dream of summer: languid and idyllic. But even in the lingering weeks of spring semester, every day is a work day for Adriana Clavier Michelena. She deals with freshmen mostly, and in more jobs than one.

You might have seen her leading a family around campus as a tour guide. Or perhaps you called her at admissions where she’s an office assistant. If you’re a transfer student who balked at registration, that peer adviser who reassured you could easily have been Clavier Michelena.

“I just got hired for that one, so yay me,” she said. “I go from uniform to uniform. I work everyday. That’s what I’ve been doing since I came here.”

Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, Clavier Michelena enrolled as an international student at MSUM two years ago, but the ongoing route to her psychology degree is hardly so direct. After spending a year in Germany under an exchange program, she returned home to enter college in Venezuela, a decision that still stirs a sharp twinge.

“I hated it,” she said. “(It was the) worst experience of my life. The system is very different. So over there, if you’re a psychology major like I am, you only take psych classes. That’s all you take. There’s no generals. It’s only psych. And I hated it, I hated it.”

Unlike most American colleges, Clavier Michelena’s first university offered no academic minors and moreover, the psychology program placed heavy emphasis on counseling — a professional direction she didn’t want to follow.

“I went through a couple months where I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do with my life,’” she said. “I was back at home and I was like, ‘Well, maybe school’s not for me,’ which was a terrible thought because I was a straight-A student.”

After some encouragement from an uncle in Colorado, Clavier Michelena traveled to Denver to study two semesters at a local community college. From there, she sought out her permanent alma mater, and ultimately chose MSUM for its in-state tuition scholarship and “great psychology program.”

The international student program office also extended their support.

“I loved it,” Clavier Michelena said. “I called like, 25 times before I came here because I was so scared, and every time they were just super nice to me and I was like, ‘Oh, this is awesome.’ ”

Also awesome, were the minors. For her long-term goal to be in human resources, Clavier Michelena declared two of them, “one in management and another in communications.”

Under immigration regulations, F-1 student-visa holders like Clavier Michelena are permitted to work only up to 20 hours per week while school is in session, as their non-immigrant status identifies them as students first, not workers. During the application process, prospective F-1 students prove their means to afford school by verifying the funds in either their own or a sponsor’s bank account. In Clavier Michelena’s case, her uncle helped her out.

Since nearly all international students are legally limited to regular-funded campus jobs, Clavier Michelena became a resident assistant her first full year and worked as often as she could.

“It was really easy to get hours on campus because I worked at all the desks,” she said. “I worked at Snarr, I worked at Holmquist, and I worked at Dahl.”

After a frenetic year working on campus, Clavier Michelena lost steady financial support from her family. And with summer spelling the end of her RA position — along with free rent and desk access — she quickly assessed her unearthed expenses.

“I pay a lot of tuition out of pocket,” she said. “I really wanted to graduate, and I wanted to stay here, and I read about working off campus and this permit, and I was like, ‘Well, I think I’m in a really crappy situation, so I might as well try it out.’ ”

The only way an F-1 student can work off campus is by proving unforeseen “economic hardship” through a long and intensive application process. Hospital bills, business reports, letters and spreadsheets are all frequently used to demonstrate financial need.

Janet Hohenstein, International Student Services director explained: “It’ll take 60 to 90 days for (the application) to come back. Anything is going to take that long. There’s a cost to it, so that’s kind of an oxymoron I’d suppose you’d say.”

The exact cost to apply for economic hardship is $400, and “it’s possible to pay $400 and not get it,” Clavier Michelena said. “And then Immigration just takes the $400.”

“It happens,” Hohenstein said. “I’ve seen more denials, and I’ve seen the process becoming more selective. You need to provide more documentation to (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) to make a stronger case.”

Three months after mailing her application, Clavier Michelena finally received authorization to work off campus, much to her surprise. Today, she works at the Moorhead Hornbacher’s as a deli clerk and doesn’t begrudge anyone.

“Everybody’s struggling,” she said. “There’s a lot of international students that I’m sure want to work on campus and they can’t find a job. I’m not the only one.”

Hohenstein, though clear to stress school over work for her students, essentially echoes Clavier Michelena: “(While) our numbers of international students have increased, regular funded jobs have not increased. We have more international students on campus and the regular funded jobs just aren’t there.”

According to an expenditure history released by the Financial Aid and Business Offices, regular funded student payroll totaled just over $2 million in 2001. That number saw little fluctuation over the next decade, with a mean average of only $2.1 million. Last year, regular student payroll spiked to $2.7 million, a 35 percent increase from 2001.

“When I came back to campus in about 2001, we had about 111 international students,” Hohenstein said. This year, her office claims 389 — a 350 percent increase in about 10 years.

Although Hohenstein’s students share regular funded jobs with domestic students, her general estimation appears more or less sound: “Our numbers are either going to just maintain or keep going up. I think we’re always going to have this struggle.”

And as for her own personal hurdles, Clavier Michelena remains curiously upbeat. “Now that I look back, it’s not terrible,” Clavier Michelena said. “I’m happy that it happened, because I’ve met such wonderful people in this campus and I have such a strong connection with this campus. I think this is the best decision that I could’ve made,” she said.

And despite all the paperwork, she truly means it.

BY TYLER SORENSEN
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