A kidney for a PhD: graduate students consider extreme measures to study abroad
International students from low-income countries such as Iran are turning to extreme measures – such as selling their kidneys and homes – to access graduate study abroad.
Former graduate students have told The PIE News that expenses such as application fees, language tests along with flights and their first month’s rent are preventing talented scholars from studying abroad.
In a recent piece for Science, Ali Khaledi-Nasab, a former graduate of a US PhD program, said that he had almost sold his kidney to pursue his education.
Khaledi-Nasab, who is from Iran, was able to earn enough money to pay for language tests and application fees, securing him a place at a US institution.
However, the cost of flights, rent and a fee to bypass Iran’s two years of compulsory military service meant reaching the US was not possible.
“Iran always had issues with the world. The price of the dollar kept increasing and I had little money and I was a student, I couldn’t really work as much,” Khaledi-Nasab told The PIE.
“You can work for a whole year as a teacher, and still you can’t afford to pay for all of those fees. It’s enormous when compared to the local currencies.
“You can give up on education or take desperate measures”
“So what do you do? You can give up on education or take desperate measures.”
He put out an advertisement for his kidney (which is legal in Iran) and found a buyer. Fortunately a friend intervened before the operation could go ahead.
Mohammad Rezaee, who goes by the name Mostafa, is currently doing a PhD in data science at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. He helped Khaledi-Nasab reach the US and get set up.
He told The PIE that others have considered kidney transfers. “I know another student, who wanted to sell his kidney. I got to know him in a library in our city,” he told The PIE.
Mostafa has had to make his own sacrifices. He and his wife decided not to have children so they could pursue their academic careers – they also sold their home.
Mostafa and his wife had worked hard to buy a small apartment which they sold to pay for the costs of studying abroad.
The property fetched them about $15,000. But just after the sale went through, sanctions from the US doubled the price of the dollar in Iran, leaving them with $7,500.
“With $15,000 we could afford for both of us, but not with the $7,500,” Mostafa told The PIE. So they went back to saving again.
“An experienced teacher makes $200 a month. Saving $250 for a language test is very difficult. You also need to save for the application fee, money for the first month.
“Many people don’t start, because at first you need to take care of this amount of money, and it can take several years, and you have to sacrifice many things,” he said.
The upshot is that talented scholars are often unable to continue to pursue their studies and fulfil their potential, according to Khaledi-Nasab.
“I know for sure that people are not going and pursuing their PhD. There are tons of people who forgo higher education, just because of these costs. Think about it. You have to shell out three or four thousand dollars, to go through the whole thing. How can you do it?,” he told The PIE.
“It’s almost impossible. You have to be somebody like me, who will go to extreme measures…
“I know for a fact there are a whole lot of people who would have made it to the US or UK, if it wasn’t for all of these upfront costs. And it gets even trickier if the person has a child. If you have a family of any sort, your problems are multiplied.”
“I know for sure that people are not going and pursuing their PhD”
Mostafa told The PIE that he has friends who, like him, have sacrificed having children as a result of this sort of pressure. However for some, a family is too much to give up in the pursuit of their education.
“Many people cannot sacrifice that much. They want a normal life, despite being talented,” he told The PIE.
“But when people are talented and they cannot find the way to continue their dreams, it makes them really depressed.”
These scholars are often of the highest calibre, according to Mostafa. Back home they might be doing work far below their ability.
“I know many students, who are much more talented and hard working than us, but they couldn’t afford it, and they are living in very bad conditions in rural areas.
“One of my friends came to the US this year. He is from a very poor rural area in Iran. I saved some money during these years and supported him and now he has started his PhD in physics. Without this support he could not have afforded it.
“He needed to work in a rural area as a shepherd.”
The graduate student was taking care of his parents who are very old.
“He is brilliant, extraordinarily good,” Mostafa said.
“But he could barely make enough money just for food for himself and his parents. So I believe universities in the US, Canada, and Europe can easily solve this problem… The best students are amongst very poor families, they cannot even think about applying.”
Ali Khaledi-Nasab spoke of the sense of hopelessness he experienced when he was unable to afford to start a PhD program.
“I was in a situation that was not of my making. I’d been trying my best, I had got a masters degree, I published a few papers.
“I did a lot of good work in Iran despite all of the difficulties. Then you reach a point where the problem is only money.”
He contacted universities to discuss support, but in some instances was told that his financial situation was his problem.
“That was really demoralising… at the same university you would go on their website, and they would have ‘diversity and inclusion and equal opportunity’. But this is not equal. I was from Iran.”
Khaledi-Nasab argued that for institutions to truly be diverse, these issues need to be addressed.
“I really was struggling back then. And honestly, still today, a lot of people are struggling. Women particularly… In countries like Afghanistan, Nigeria, for example, women have a lot of difficulties, and on top of that they have to shell out so much money, to begin to be considered for a graduate school,” he said.
“We talk about diversity and inclusion. You see these statements on every university website that you go to. Diversity means getting people from all over the world, and from different economic backgrounds… If you want to have more women in science, you have to make it easier for them.
“It’s harming the economic environment, much more than you think… not only do you not get the talent, but you don’t get people who have experienced, say, an African science environment.”
Khaledi-Nasab believes that institutions need to build more equity into the system to support students from low-income countries.
He argued this can be done by the lowering of application fees, the offering of more waivers, or the elimination of fees entirely for applicants from economically disadvantaged countries with weak currencies.
He also said that institutions should accept more affordable English proficiency tests and provide assistance with expenses such as travel and living costs for when students first arrive.
“There is a missed opportunity when students from diverse backgrounds are unable to access US higher education; both for the student and for US campus communities who benefit greatly from interacting with and learning from students from around the world,” Courtney Temple, IIE executive vice president and chief administrative officer told The PIE.
“Increasing access to education for students from low-income countries and backgrounds is critical”
“Increasing access to education for students from low-income countries and backgrounds is critical, and reducing economic or other barriers plays a key role there.”
IIE said it advocates for access and equity in higher education to provide global learning opportunities for all.
“With this in mind, IIE launched in March 2023 the Center for Access and Equity. Through the Center, IIE’s mission is to develop equitable practices in the higher education community to address these types of challenges, and enrich and expand international education, exchange, and opportunity.”
The Center for Access and Equity is set to leverage programs and partnerships that examine the intersection of international education with diversity, equity, inclusion and access.
According to IIE, it will also cultivate global learning to support engagement and understanding of individuals and communities and support access for underrepresented communities by examining and addressing structural inequities.
Joann Ng Hartmann, senior impact officer at NAFSA, told The PIE that US colleges and universities increasingly waive application fees for economically disadvantaged students that would include international students and that more affordable English proficiency test options are increasingly accepted.
“Many English proficiency test providers also provide waivers for test takers which would help alleviate the upfront financial cost of applying to US institutions,” Hartmann said.
“The State department offers the Opportunity Funds grants to students who are likely to receive financial aid from US schools but then lack funds to cover up-front costs.
“As we know, cost of education in the US is a barrier. And international students have signalled this as a concern. US institutions are cognisant of the costs of a higher education degree and have looked for ways to alleviate these costs with more scholarships for international students.
“Graduate students have the opportunity to receive assistantships which help defray costs once they enrol in their programs,” Hartmann added.
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