The true value of education: If Mia’s finances runout, so will her visa

Originally published in The Spectator. Chelsea Nehler contributed reporting to this story.

Mia as a child with one of her caretakers. Photo courtesy of Mia Dang.

When her host family e-mailed her to tell her they could only support her until the end of winter quarter, Miao Miao “Mia” Dang worried she would have to end her education at Seattle University and leave the country that has been her home for nearly five years.

Mia, a junior social work major, is an international student from China who came to America without the support of her birth family, sponsored instead by a Seattle family whom she met in 2005 while they were visiting a Chinese orphanage. The family supported her while she attended Shoreline Community College, where she developed her English speaking skills. In 2007, her host family suggested she further her education at Seattle University when Mia expressed a desire to find a stronger academic and social community.

Mia thrives at Seattle U, where she is a dedicated student and organizer for a small dinner group that meets each week to eat ethnic foods and foster multicultural relations.

She has settled into the campus community, and she has no desire to leave.

Without the support of her host family, Mia turned to the university for help but found none.

Asking for help in her second language

“My counselor said, ‘Oh I am very sorry. I hate to say sorry, but I have to tell you we can’t help you,'” Mia says.

Student visas are only valid as long as students are enrolled. Student Financial Services recently ended its grant program for international students because they are now eligible for scholarships previously inaccessible to them.

“No longer are there barriers with [merit scholarships],” says Janet Cantelon, director of Student Financial Services. “Many [international students] will qualify where they didn’t before.”

A small emergency fund was created for student retention, but sometimes needs of students exceed what the university can provide for them.

“The concern for international students is that sometimes their needs are so great,” Cantelon says.

The emergency fund is meant to provide temporary aid and is not designed to help students with extraordinary circumstances like Mia’s.

The Department of Homeland Security allows international students to apply for federal hardship assistance, but the aid is limited. Under this program, students can apply for a work permit, but they may only work 20 hours per week.

“Their primary job is to study, not work,” says Dale Watanabe, interim director of International Student Services. “They [the government] don’t make it easy for a student to get extra funding.”

Private banks may offer loans to international students, but according to Cantelon, loans are difficult to come by without the sponsorship of a U.S. national with good credit.

Under her student visa, Mia cannot apply for off-campus jobs. She says she hasn’t considered applying for a work visa because of her disability and because she wants to commit all her energy to her studies.

Mia has been in America for nearly five years and is an articulate, clear speaker in conversation, but she says she still has trouble with comprehension when entering new classes, especially when taking classes outside of her major.

“I feel like all the biology terms are another foreign language,” she says.

Sharing her story online

Mia spent much of her spring break scrambling for financial support with few breakthroughs when a friend suggested she start a blog to share her story.

She began her blog, “Help Me Complete My Degree at Seattle University,” March 1 and has already received more than 10 comments from readers—most of them from outside of the Seattle area—voicing support and asking how they can help her.

On her blog, Mia explains she never knew her birth parents and was left in an orphanage shortly after her birth. Many female children are sent to orphanages because of China’s one-child policy and the desire among Chinese parents to have male children.

Mia grew up in an orphanage in LuoYang, China and was never adopted by a family.

“Most of the people in China tended to want boys,” Mia says on her blog. “Not only I was a female, but also I was born with a physical defect called scoliosis.”

Mia is a strong woman living in a child-sized body, but she has never limited herself because of her disability. She applied herself in school despite receiving little encouragement from adults in her life. Growing up, she saw many of her peers, other orphans, leave school before high school or college to learn trades because they lacked self-determination.

Hope for now

On the first day of spring quarter, Mia says she was scared. But that same day, a family from South Carolina who had read her blog contacted her to let her know they would be paying her tuition for both spring and fall quarter. They encouraged her to continue her search for scholarships.

After she completes her degree, Mia plans to return to China as a social worker. Her personal experience has made her empathetic toward minority populations and children.

“I observed what life is like being an orphan, being without parents in institutionalized care,” she says.

When she returns to China, she wants to help “people just like [her]” as an example of just how far a person can go despite limited resources.

Readers on Mia’s blog already see her as an inspiration.

“We adopted a 6-yr [sic] old with severe scoliosis. She is now 8 years old,” says Karin from Minnesota. “I am so impressed with your spirit and determination! You are a great role model for our daughter.”

Mia and her friends are currently working on setting up an account with Wells Fargo Bank where people would be able to donate money to pay Mia’s educational costs. Mia is continuing her search for scholarships and hopes to network with students who might know about programs she would be eligible for.

“I want to finish my degree. That is my goal,” Mia says. “I have come too far just to give up.”

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