When civil engineering graduate student Binod Nepal, 26, died after being hit by a vehicle walking home last month, most of his family was unable to travel to the U.S. from their home in Nepal. Responsibilities for his funeral arrangements rested on Nepal’s friends in the Nepalese Student Association.
Agricultural economics graduate student Dependra Bhatta explained the situation was difficult since Nepal’s health insurance didn’t cover all expenses.
“It was hard for us, when our Nepalese colleague had passed,” Bhatta said. “We all had to come together to raise money for the funeral.”
Bhatta explained all graduate students receive a minimum stipend of $10,000 to cover various living expenses. The University covered 50% of students’ health insurance policies in previous years, but this practice ended in 2015.
Although the University grants the $10,000 stipend, Bhatta said the money is not enough to cover quality health insurance in addition to basic living expenses. The health insurance policy recommended by International Student Services costs $200 a month.
Nepal did not have the recommended health insurance when he died. He had a cheaper policy, one which only covered $14,000 of his funeral costs, leaving $4,000 for Nepal’s friends to pay out-of-pocket.
Nepal’s friends were not aware his insurance did not cover the costs until they arrived at the funeral. When the students tried to contact the University, they were told the University could not do anything to help their situation.
Agricultural economics and business graduate student Rajan Dhakal said time constraints made the situation urgent.
“His father was there, and he was already grieving in this situation,” Dhakal said. “He wanted to go home and cremate his son as soon as possible. Waiting was not an option for us.”
Fortunately, a friend attending the funeral originally from Nepal, but is now a U.S. citizen, was able to charge the remaining expenses on his credit card. After, members of the Nepalese Student Association started a GoFundMe to pay him back.
The GoFundMe raised over $25,000. Nepal’s father said he plans to use the excess money to start a scholarship fund for children in Nepal hoping to receive an education.
But the GoFundMe’s success does not erase the lack of University assistance in Bhatta’s mind.
“I want to bring these issues to the attention of the University,” Bhatta said. “It’s a major problem for the international students here.”
Dhakal argued the problem is greater for international graduate students. Sending and receiving money across borders is a more laborious task.
Additionally, graduate students are not permitted to work outside of their graduate assistantships or on-campus jobs, and even then, they are capped at working 20 hours a week. The problem, Dhakal said, lies in the restraints and not in the students’ work ethic.
“We want to work,” Dhakal said. “We would be more than willing to work because the money isn’t enough.”
Dhakal and other members of the Nepalese Student Association met with Dean of Students Mari Fuentes-Martin on Tuesday to discuss these issues.
“We went to them to ask how LSU could step up in these matters, and they told us it wasn’t their responsibility,” Dhakal said. “They told us the premiums went up and they couldn’t help pay our health insurance anymore. But honestly, I’m not satisfied with that answer.”
University Director of International Services Natalie Rigsby said she was aware of the issue and is sympathetic to students who began their studies before the subsidy was discontinued.
“Anytime you have a benefit and that’s taken away from you, it’s always a huge adjustment,” Rigsby said.
She agreed international graduate students have a disadvantage compared to American graduate students, but also said the regulations for on-campus work hours are designed to keep students focused on the primary objective of getting an education.
The regulations for off-campus work hours stem from an immigration services student visa policy. In the U.S., international students are only permitted to hold jobs outside a university setting if they applied for a work visa.
If a student does not receive their insurance through the University, they must choose from providers who meet the University’s minimum standards. Rigsby encouraged students to shop around for any kind of insurance and weigh whether the cheapest option will ultimately be the best option.
Rigby said it is important for international students to carefully consider their insurance plan, since an expensive, unexpected accident could mean returning home to pay medical bills.
“It’s a huge sacrifice to come to the United States,” Rigsby said. “It’s costly. But we’re really getting the best and the brightest.”
Rigsby said the health insurance subsidy elimination was caused by regulations outside International Student Services’ jurisdiction. She also had not heard of any plans to reinstate the subsidy, but said individual departments are finding alternate ways to assist international graduate students.
Rigsby said as a research school, it is important for the University to find ways to help these students and encourage them to finish their education.
Dhakal pointed out some positive aspects of international student programs. He said every time a new student from Nepal arrives, other Nepalese students gather together to help them move things into their apartment and get settled in.
Bhatta spoke highly of his experience, as well. He said International Student Services and the Office of Multicultural Affairs were integral to making the University his “home away from home.” In 2018, Bhatta served on the University’s homecoming court, something he considers a highlight of his college experience.
Although Baton Rouge may not offer the glamour of New York City or the national relevance of Washington D.C., it does provide the storied college experience Bhatta was looking for, complete with football, tailgating and good old-fashioned Southern friendliness.
“Getting on the homecoming court was an amazing experience,” Bhatta said. “My parents came, and it was the first time they had ever been to the U.S.”
But despite their love for LSU, Dhakal and Bhatta want to see the University do more for its international students.
“They should have an emergency fund,” Dhakal said. “Suppose a student dies and he has no community here. No student organizations to step up and help. It would be really harmful.”
Fuentes-Martin declined to comment on the issue.