Two girls in casual attire at home

How a US education is already paying off for some

International students don’t qualify for federal financial aid, and they pay much higher fees at state schools. However, for a group of young Indian science and engineering students getting their master’s degrees at San Jose State University, the shot at opportunities and high future earnings are worth it. KQED reporter Madi Bolaños says their cramped shared apartment has not dampened their spirits.

The World

After a long day of classes and work, Priyanka Sharma is the first of the roommates to arrive home at the apartment. The place has an industrial, New York-loft feel to it, but there is no hipster furniture around.

When you walk into the living room, the first things you see are two beds and two desks. It’s obvious that many people live in this small space.

“We are five girls who are living together in a two-bedroom apartment,” Sharma said.

They’re among the many international students who come to the United States to further their education.

Sharma and her roommate, Shradha Chaturvedi, share one of the bedrooms upstairs. It’s even more crowded than the living room downstairs.

two female students cooking in the kitchen
Shradha Chaturvedi and Priyanka Sharma prepare a vegan dish for dinner using a recipe they found on Instagram in their apartment kitchen in San Jose, California.Madi Bolaños/The World

“We thought of getting bed frames, but since the room is too small, we thought we’re okay doing without them,” Chaturvedi said. 

Instead, there are mattresses on the floor stacked on top of each other. At night, they pull them apart to sleep.

“We get a lot of walking space [this way],” she said. “ If you put two mattresses in this room, you will not be able to walk.”

The women each pay about $900 in rent and utilities a month. Most of them are from the same state, Maharashtra, in western India.

All five will graduate with master’s degrees in science and engineering from San Jose State University this spring.

In 2023, the United States consular team in India issued over 140,000 student visas, setting a record for the third year in a row. This came after universities across the region saw record-low admissions during the pandemic.

Since then, the number of international students arriving in the US has continued to increase each academic year, according to a report by the Institute of International Education.

However, getting accepted into a university is just one step on the long road to higher education for these students.

None of the young women come from wealthy families. Sharma took out a loan for $20,000 in India to cover the initial costs, and Chaturvedi borrowed $15,000. International students at San Jose State pay about $30,000 for tuition and other fees a year, which is $10,000 more than in-state students pay. 

a woman kneeling and adjusting food in pots
Priyanka Sharma kneels down to scoop a cup of rice from a larger bag stored near her roommate’s bed in their living room, which is a makeshift room for two other students.Madi Bolaños/The World

Then, they had to factor in the exchange rate. The value of the rupee in India has plummeted, making school even more expensive.

“Like, a chocolate, maybe a Kit-Kat, which costs around $0.90, is up to approximately 70-80 [Indian] rupees for me,” she said. “It was too much for me.”  

With F1 visas, all the young women are able to work. But in most cases, that visa limits them to 20 hours per week during the school term. 

Sharma makes $17 an hour working at the International Students front desk, helping other people sign up for classes or meet with advisors. Chaturvedi was able to get an internship at Tesla, off-campus, under a special training program available to F1 visa holders. 

“I’m a software engineer,” she said. “They [Tesla] basically write the manufacturing line of how the cars are being built. So, the software behind it. 

The internship pays well at $50 an hour, but Chaturvedi is always thinking about her student loans. This living arrangement helps her spend less money and save to pay them off. And it helps that she’s become best friends with her roommate. 

With graduation just around the corner, Sharma said she feels anxious about landing a job in the United States. Her visa allows her to stay in the country for two years after graduation.

“Surviving alone in a different country where you don’t know anybody is kind of hard,” she said. “But I’m glad that we found each other. Everybody’s like family, so we stick together in the good times and the bad times.” 

Chaturvedi said they all plan to stay in the US if they get jobs here. Regardless of where they end up, she says they are bonded for life.

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