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Think Charlotte rents are high? Be glad you're not an international student

 International students comprise most of the visitors to UNC Charlotte’s Jamil Niner Food Pantry. Student volunteer Vivian Ojimadu at the pantry.
Kat Lawrence
International students comprise most of the visitors to UNC Charlotte’s Jamil Niner Food Pantry. Student volunteer Vivian Ojimadu at the pantry.

Recent increases in housing costs are creating financial struggles for international students in Charlotte, with some students facing a decision to cut short their education s and return to their home countr ie s .

Other students are turning to a university-run food pantry for help with tight monthly budgets and considering moves to less expensive housing in South Carolina. One thing that they can’t do is work longer hours, university advis ers say. Student visas typically allow them to work only on campus for no more than 20 hours weekly.

Challenges vary by home country

Financial challenges vary, sometimes based on what country students come from, said Tarek Elshayeb, director of the International Students and Scholars Office at UNC Charlotte. With 2,500 international students, UNC C harl otte ranks third in North Carolina, behind only North Carolina State and Duke. About 18,600 international students are in North Carolina, with roughly 4,000 in the Charlotte area.

Students from India — who comprise more than half of international students at UNC Charlotte — often finance their education with family resources and educational loans, Elshayeb said. Students from Africa and Latin America frequently have a tougher time.

Even students from the Persian Gulf feel the pinch

Students from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Qatar often arrive with scholarships paid by their home government. But they’re not immunized against higher rents.

Zahra Al-Masoud, 25, of Qatif, Saudi Arabia, is a single mom who started in UNC Charlotte’s nursing program in 2019. In May 2020, Al-Masoud cut short her education because of rent and daycare costs.

“Charlotte is a quiet and beautiful city, and I thought I could do it,” Al-Masoud said in an interview over Snapchat. But when rent increased from $890 to $990 in late 2019, and daycare increased from $570 to $760, she decided to leave.

Murtadah Abukallah, 23, of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, came to Charlotte in 2019 and lived in an affordable apartment near his school where he learned English. In 2020, when he began studying business at UNC Charlotte, his new apartment was $300 more. In July 2021, Abukallah and other students in the complex were hit with a monthly $100 rent increase.

“I know some students who already moved to South Carolina, but it is too expensive for me to move because I would have to apply for the school and find a place to live. Also moving itself would cost a lot of money,” Abukallah said.

Haider Al Matouq, 25, of Jubail, Saudi Arabia, is a new computer science student at UNC Charlotte, in the same apartment complex as Abukallah. Al Matouq said moving is a better option than a high-cost apartment or cutting short an education. He is thinking about Gaffney, South Carolina.

Challenges for Venezuelan students

Sidra Freeman, international education advis er at Queens University, said about 25% of Queens’ 200 international students are post-traditional, meaning that they’re in their late 20s or 30s, live off campus, and are not eligible for scholarships. Recently, economic instability and COVID-19 caused job losses for the parents of some of these students.

Paula Azuaje, 26, originally from Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, graduated with a degree in multimedia storytelling from Queens in December 2020. She is now on an extension of her study in a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program called OPT, optional practical training. Transportation is one of her biggest challenges. She commuted by bus for six years, which took two hours each way.

“If you see any international students from Venezuela, they are basically escaping the political and economic situation of their home country,” Azuaje said.

Maria Jimenez, 25, originally from Lecheria, Venezuela, graduated from Queens in December 2020 with a degree in communication. Until two years ago, Jim en ez's share of rent and utilities was about $450 for a two-bedroom apartment. She left when rent increases were justified solely on “market rates,” and now pays $900 monthly.

“Not having the privilege to take a week off to concentrate on finals because rent is due is a tremendous struggle for students like me,” Jim enez said.

International enrollment drops in the U.S.

A Nov. 15report from the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State showed the total number of international students at U.S. universities dropped by 15% from the 2019-20 academic year to 2020-21. They now total 914,095. New but incomplete data in the report point toward stabilization in the 2021-22 academic year.

Elshayeb said housing costs are a factor, but not necessarily the most important one. Students choose American universities for four reasons, he said. The first is the major field of study, with preference to fields that enable loans to be paid off quickly. The second is estimated total costs. The third is scholarships, and housing costs are fourth.

When UNC Charlotte learned that 60 to 70% of student visitors to the Jamil Niner Food Pantry were international students, Elshayeb said, they recognized the difficulties faced by these students and revised the products they offer.

Elshayeb explained that international students provide economic benefits to the U.S., which is by far the leading educator of international students worldwide. In North Carolina, the State Department/IIE report indicates international students spend almost half a billion dollars annually. And new reports from real estate firms CoStar and JLL indicate investors are optimistic about returns on student housing developments.

“We are all educators,” Elshayeb said. “We’re not after the money. We are focused on education, yes, but international education has become an export, because it brings hard currency to the country.”

Ahmed Alsaleh of Safwa, Saudi Arabia, is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Ahmed Alsaleh | Queens University News Service