Kim LeVert, international student coordinator at Columbia Theological Seminary, stands at top right with new international students at fall 2017 orientation.

Credit: Columbia Theological Seminary 


When Richard Johnson arrived at New York’s JFK airport in 2017, he had $50 in his wallet. But that money was gone by the time he reached Decatur, Georgia, where he was about to start classes at Columbia Theological Seminary. A Good Samaritan affiliated with his church back in Liberia had offered room and board, but when Johnson arrived on campus, he discovered that his lodgings were more than an hour’s drive away.

Without a car or the means to get one, Johnson found help from Kim LeVert, Columbia’s international student coordinator. She secured him a more convenient place to stay through members of a local church.

LeVert witnesses a lot of such cautionary tales. Students from Africa and East Asia come to study in North America because schools in the United States and Canada offer top-quality education. However, immigration and financing systems don’t always prepare these students for the hurdles they inevitably encounter. 

This means that administrators who serve international students must draw on two distinct skill sets. First, they must keep up with complicated and sometimes shifting regulations. Second, they must develop deep cultural competence in order to navigate the varied perspectives of international students.

While the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) does not track the countries of origin of students in its member schools, ATS does track the number of students enrolled under nonresident visas. ATS data from fall 2017 show a head count of 8,082 visa students out of a total of 72,896 students in 270 schools. (This figure includes 7,720 visa students out of 67,628 total students in the United States and 362 visa students out of 5,268 total students in Canada.) This number has been relatively stable since 2012. Of the 8,082 total visa students, 2,118 are enrolled in M.Div. programs, 1,663 in “advanced ministerial” programs like the D.Min., and 1,084 in “advanced research” programs like the Ph.D. The remainder are enrolled in other courses of study like M.A. programs in theology, music, or specialized ministries.

Financial prerequisites for international students

Financial screening plays a role in the international admission application process in both Canada and the United States. Anita Fast, registrar at Vancouver School of Theology (VST), says that her school relies partly on the Canadian immigration system to ensure that students have the means to support their stay in the country. “The assumption for a visa requirement is that the student has sufficient funds and will leave the country [when studies are complete],” she says. Therefore, VST asks for a breakdown of applicants’ budgets but not for documents such as bank statements.

Anita Fast, registrar at Vancouver School of Theology, says that visa students in Canada can apply for temporary work permits that allow them to work for up to 20 hours a week while school is in session.

Credit: Shannon Lythgoe

In contrast, Columbia Theological Seminary does not leave financial vetting to U.S. immigration officials. Columbia requires students to demonstrate their financial means to the school directly. Single applicants must document they have $25,000 in available funds per year, while applicants with dependents must show they have $45,000 per year. An applicant’s bank statement can serve as documentation, or students may submit a sponsor’s bank statement backed by an affidavit stating the person agrees to contribute. This system works most of the time, but it isn’t perfect. Kim LeVert says that some U.S. financial officers have received fraudulent financial documents procured from the internet. She also cited a case in which a bishop in Tanzania promised financial support but did not come through with the money. Moreover, some countries impose restrictions on how much money a citizen can take out of the country at one time, leaving students from those countries at the mercy of the timing of installments. To mitigate this, she says she would like to see a policy that asks sponsors to make regular deposits to students’ accounts.


Easing the financial burden

Not only are financial requirements different on either side of the U.S./Canadian border, but so are financial aid packages. The Canadian government does not subsidize tuition for international students as it does for Canadian citizens, but international students can participate in universal health care, which is governed by the provinces. (In British Columbia, for example, international students pay about $80 per month for basic coverage, while $250 buys expanded coverage for dental and prescription expenses.)

To help with costs, international students studying in Canada can apply for temporary work permits that allow them to work for up to 20 hours a week while school is in session and full time during winter and summer breaks. In addition, Anita Fast describes the country’s policies for granting spousal work permits as “very generous.”

Barbara Jenkins is registrar at Wycliffe College, a member of the Toronto School of Theology, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto. American students make up the bulk of the college’s international student population, she says. Although tuition is higher for American students than it is for Canadians, the relative strength of the American dollar makes it an attractive prospect. South Korea is also strongly represented in Wycliffe’s student body. Its strong economy allows significant numbers of South Koreans to pay their own way in both Canada and the United States.

But for students who are less financially capable, paying international tuition rates can be a hardship. Beginning with the 2018 academic year, the University of Toronto’s Academic Council eliminated international tuition fees for most academic doctoral programs in order to attract global talent and elevate its status as a research university. Theological degrees, however, were excluded. Thus Wycliffe students who are not citizens of Canada will continue to pay annual tuition of about $22,000 (in Canadian dollars), compared to $8,000 for Canadian students.

Jenkins offers an example of the uncertainty that even the most privileged international students face. Sixteen students from the United States lost their right to defer Stafford Loan payments when the U.S. Department of Education changed its policies. The students were left to fend for themselves in negotiating new payment terms with private lenders. A letter from Wycliffe’s registrar office was enough to convince some lenders to postpone their efforts to collect. One student was able to negotiate low monthly repayments, and another student’s parents stepped in to make the unexpected payments.

Financial aid offered in the United States to international students differs from school to school. For example, Katherine Smith, assistant dean of admissions, vocation, and stewardship at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, says the school offers only merit-based scholarships. While 65 to 70 percent of domestic students make use of loan programs, private loans are uncommon among international students. A small grant from the Association of Theological Schools, through its Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers initiative, has supported financial coaching, seminars, and alumni panels open to all students.

Columbia Theological Seminary has numerous scholarships, most of which are available to all students. The Columbia Scholarship, awarded on the basis of academic and leadership abilities, covers full tuition, meals, and housing. Support from the Adrienne M. and Charles Shelby Rooks fund, a fellowship that benefits students of color, is available to many international students. LeVert adds that international students are also eligible for need-based scholarships.

Columbia students often need help navigating the American health care system. Students and families can buy medical coverage through a broker affiliated with the school, but LeVert finds herself giving informal support that ranges from driving people to medical appointments to explaining unexpected bills.

Felix Theonugraha, vice president of student life and university ministries at Trinity International University, agrees that the U.S. health care system causes confusion. His school used to offer insurance coverage but stopped doing so, a decision he attributes in part to the Affordable Care Act. Students seeking coverage through state exchanges have gotten different answers about their eligibility “depending on who they talk to,” he says. Because of this, Trinity points students to a broker who specializes in policies for international students.


Heeding the call to study abroad

Considering the challenges that international students face, why would a student choose to study in the United States or Canada?

Richard Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree at Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary, but his home country had no path to the advanced education he sought. In his country, he says, people who are called to ministry “think you can just read the Bible and preach the Bible.” Bivocational pastors are rare, and “church groups rely on donations and good will.” There is little urgency to prepare formally for the ministry, as there would be for banking, engineering, or politics. Johnson believes this is a common dilemma in the developing world.

Loan Nguyen, a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, considers Kim LeVert her role model for being "mama" to homesick and distressed students.

Credit: Columbia Theological Seminary 

Loan Nguyen, who had been a businesswoman in Vietnam, graduated from Columbia last year with an M.Div. in practical theology and a master of arts in Christian leadership and education. For her, credentialing takes second place to a greater purpose for coming to the United States: actualizing the promise of Christianity as a world religion. “America is blessed with all nations,” she says. While in the United States, Nguyen has discovered a new calling: helping other international students, not all of whom complete their studies.

Nguyen now leads a student ministry at Emory University under the auspices of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. She believes that international students need a place to come together to pray, cry, and speak freely, and she considers LeVert her role model for being “mama” to homesick and distressed students.

At Vanderbilt, Katherine Smith says that many students hope to reap the benefits of strong networks that transcend national boundaries. Historically, Vanderbilt attracted a steady stream of Scandinavian students, but lately, the Caribbean has supplied more students — largely through connections maintained by Forrest E. Harris, assistant dean of black church studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and president of American Baptist College in Nashville.

Not all visa students cross the sea. Smith says that Vanderbilt has made a commitment to welcome undocumented students from Mexico, Central America, and South America, including some covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Undocumented students receive services like immigration counseling through the Office of International Student and Scholar Services, even though many of them call the United States home.


Humanizing the data

As important as data collection is, numbers can never capture the stories of students’ experiences. “We have students who have sold all their belongings in places like Nigeria,” says Felix Theonugraha of Trinity International. “We have students who face danger and persecution in countries like China. We have students who leave their families behind, for a time, and engage in studies here because, as a family, this is where they believe God wants them to be.”

That leaves school administrators to troubleshoot student problems on a case-by-case basis. More detailed analysis by country or region, and of the range of third-party funding sources available, could help schools to implement specific measures to help their international students thrive.

And that will help students like Richard Johnson, who plans to return to Liberia as a teacher, helping pastors there to understand how God speaks in and through the “lived theology” of everyday people. 

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