GUEST COLUMN: Himal Roka says CMU's required health insurance plan for international students is an 'unfair burden'

Himal Roka stands in front of an important quote to him Friday, Oct. 28 outside the Biosciences building.

“Curiosity is the mother of invention.”

This philosophy is central to my life. Simple curiosities can lead to great breakthroughs if one is curious and brave enough to test one’s ideas.

“Why does the apple fall from the tree?” was a simple question that led Newton to discover gravity.

“How do bacteria fight bacteria-killing viruses?” was a simple curiosity of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier that revolutionized genome editing.

Curious graduate students like Martin Jinek and others were the backbone of testing ideas that led to the discovery of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) for genome editing. I came to Central Michigan University chasing my own curiosity about the big questions of biology.

Growing up on the foothills of Mount Annapurna, Nepal, I had never imagined flying 7,000 miles across the globe chasing my curiosities. The feeling of being distant and detached from my homeland made me anxious in the beginning, yet the prospect of learning from the best kept me motivated.

On my first day at campus, I saw a quote, “From curiosity to testing ideas to breakthrough,” with a picture of an international student in front of the Bioscience building, and at that moment in time, I knew CMU would be my home for the next 5 years. At CMU, I feel welcomed and seen. This is my home away from home.

The United States is often viewed as the most viable choice for international students. Unmatched infrastructure, research, and funding opportunities, plus open-and-free market policies provide a level playing field for all. However, exploring these opportunities can be challenging for most international students as a result of the financial and emotional cost of pursuing the American dream.

The recent change in CMU’s health insurance policy for international students places an unfair burden on international students. The introduction of a mandatory health insurance policy for international students announced in June 2022 was initially welcomed and widely accepted by students. Unfortunately, the policy lost its popularity as soon as the cost of the insurance was announced. The annual cost of the insurance plan was $1532.16 (approx. $128/month), according to the health insurance plan.

Additionally, students were required to sign up for this insurance plan and pay in two installments. According to our survey of CMU’s international students, the majority of the international undergraduates self-fund their education, and the graduates get varying amounts of financial aid.

The annual stipend for a fully funded graduate assistant (GA) at the College of Science and Engineering is $21,609 and $26,964 for Master’s of Science and Ph.D students, respectively. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau show the median gross rent in Mt. Pleasant is $8,844 per year. This rental rate alone is 41% of M.S. and 33% of Ph.D students’ annual stipend. According to Rob Wile of NBC News, the cost of food has increased by over 10% and inflation has gone up by 8.2% in the U.S.

In addition to those day-to-day expenses, the current CMU insurance plan for international students takes away roughly 6% of the annual stipend for PhD students, and 7% for MS students. As a result, the mounting costs of living for international students at CMU make it hard for many of us to continue our educational journey. The existing research shows that international students are at increased risk for mental health challenges, including loneliness, depression and academic stress. These challenges often arise from financial and academic pressure, homesickness, and cultural and linguistic barriers.

Due to COVID-19, the health needs of international students have increased. The findings from the same study on international students reiterated the need for increased access to health services, including health insurance.

Although CMU's health insurance program is intended to protect the well-being of international students, the cost of this new insurance plan hurts us financially, mentally and emotionally. International students from low- and middle-income families find it challenging to maintain the standards of life given the increasing cost of tuition and additional costs of living in the U.S. 

Recently, a 19-year-old Spanish undergraduate student could not pay her tuition fees because her father lost his job at home. Without warning, she was asked to evacuate from the dorm and was forced to drop out of the classes. Fortunately, the student was able to save her enrollment through a GoFundMe campaign.

At moments like these, I see the noble slogans of higher education (such as the one that is inscribed on the Bioscience building) transform into “From economic burden to testing resilience to a mental breakdown”.

The financial strain of expensive health insurance creates immeasurable pain and anxiety for international students. This may cause them to stop chasing their interests and aspirations. Given these details, CMU should abandon the current health insurance plan that discourages students from pursuing their academic goals and find an alternative, affordable replacement for international students on campus. Because we, the students, are the future and we have the power to build a better, brighter, and more equal future for all, I am optimistic that CMU will not let these 1,121 inquisitive minds down but will instead encourage them as they test their intellectual ideas and deliver breakthroughs. As a result, we merit nurturing and treatment that is fair and equitable for our development.

Himal Roka is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Dr. Xantha Karp in the Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology program in the College of Science and Engineering. He is originally from Nepal.