Asian Undergrads Hit Hard by
Economic Crisis at Home

by Jean Smith, Public Affairs

Imagine that almost over night your Berkeley tuition soars to $25,000 per semester, the pizza you wanted for dinner will cost $48 and that study-break latte will be $6.

These are very real scenarios around the Berkeley campus. Asian students find themselves scrambling to stay in school as their families are financially devastated by the Asian economic crisis. Suddenly, their expenses have doubled or tripled.

International House Student Adviser David Brandt is working to help these hard-hit students stay in school.

"It's primarily the undergraduates who are being affected," says Brandt. "They are dependent on their parents. The devaluation of their currencies against the dollar is doubling their costs. A graduate student or a visiting scholar may have other resources, but these undergrads don't."

To make matters worse, most Asian students must deal with cultural embarrassment, shame and loss of face, making it nearly impossible for them to ask for help. Some have already quietly left their studies and returned home to Indonesia, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia, says Brandt.

The economic crisis began in July 1997, as Thailand abandoned its fixed rate exchange against the U.S. dollar. The Thai baht plunged more than 20 percent and suddenly stocks fell, real estate prices tumbled and corporations, which had borrowed heavily in dollars, found themselves unable to repay.

As weak banks in Thailand called in loans from neighboring countries, the crisis spread. With businesses locking out their employees, and stock markets crashing, many Asians were suddenly unemployed and broke.

"We are encouraging students to schedule appointments to discuss relief from financial issues," says Ted Good, director of services for international students and scholars at International House.

"Some solutions the university has put into place, and can call into place, would include relief from late payment penalty fees. This is done on a case-by-case basis. We are also able to help some students with short-term loan assistance. These loan funds are from sources marked for foreign students by donors," Good said.

Emergency funds available to help students can range up to $2,000.

"Most students are saying to us, 'My family has really planned very carefully for my college money,'" says Good. "But when the dollar exchange requires them to pay double, that is a major problem for them. We hope that by providing waivers of fees we can wait out the crisis. Parents can send their child money at that time."

The university has always had a policy of adapting its financial aid programs to help those hit by economic or civil disasters. During the Nigerian Civil war, several Nigerian students were cut off from their families and funding sources. During the Gulf War, many Iraqi students were financially devastated, but the Financial Aid Office stepped in with emergency loans and most students were able to stay in school.

Students who have only one or two semesters to go are likely to tough it out, waiting for either the economic situation to improve or seeking ways to raise the necessary money to graduate.

But a new student, facing four full years of fees and living expenses, may be told by the family to come home. These are the students quietly leaving campus, hoping that once the crisis passes, they will return.

"We are most concerned with the next fall semester, "says Good. "If the crisis worsens, our prediction is that 10 to 20 percent of our 300 students won't be able to continue. We are hoping the situation will stabilize by the end of summer."



Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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