Students who bring their families to the United States will encounter issues ranging from finding suitable family housing, child care, and schools to coping with additional financial responsibilities. Despite the complexities, your family can be your best source of support and comfort in a new country.
Finding and furnishing a new home for your family will probably be the first of many adventures you will encounter. Apartments and houses (on or off campus) are usually rented "unfurnished," which usually means they are equipped with only a stove and refrigerator. "Furnished" apartments usually have - in addition to the stove and refrigerator - basic furniture such as a couch, chest of drawers, chairs, tables, and beds. Dishes, cooking utensils, bed sheets, and towels are not provided.
Buying new household furnishings can be very expensive, as can shipping all of the necessary belongings from home. A less expensive alternative is to buy used furnishings. Check the classified section of the newspaper and the notice boards at your school for used furniture sales and shop at thrift stores like the Salvation Army. The least expensive way to furnish your home is to buy items at a "garage sale," "moving sale," or "yard sale." Americans hold such sales in their yard or garage to clear their home of unwanted items. In university communities, many students sell their goods when they finish their studies and move away. Look for advertisements in the newspapers or notices posted at street corners. Come early to get the best buy, and yes, it is OK to barter over the price!
Shopping and Cooking
Shopping is one of America's most popular pastimes. In all but the most isolated locations, you will find a large selection of new goods with tremendous variations in price. In retail stores, the prices displayed are firm and not negotiable. The following are some useful tips for shopping on a student budget:
- Learn to be a good "comparison shopper;" that is, check prices at several locations before you buy.
- Unless good service is very important to you, shop at discount stores rather than department stores.
- Wait for items to go "on sale;" watch for advertisements in the newspaper, in store windows, and on television.
- Use coupons distributed in the mail and newspaper. Sunday's newspaper is filled with extra flyers for store sales and booklets of coupons for grocery items.
- Talk with friends about where to shop.
- Use the internet to research prices of items or to shop online. Check out price comparison sites like www.mysimon.com and internet auction sites where you can sometimes get a good deal like www.ebay.com.
- Be aware that the "sales tax" on an item is not included in the displayed price but applied by the store clerk when you buy the item. In Missouri, sales tax is about 6.725%.
- If you buy new appliances or other large items, keep the store receipts, read the instruction booklets, and fill out the "warranty card" that comes with the product. Most products are guaranteed from defects by the manufacturer for a period of time.
Cooking in a new country can be an exciting experience because there are new foods and techniques to try. You may also have to adjust to new cooking equipment. Americans use cups and teaspoons instead of weight for measuring ingredients, and, unlike the rest of the world, we express temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit instead of centigrade. You can find a cooking measurement conversion chart on the web:
If you cannot find the ingredients you need to fix that special dish from home, ask fellow international students who have been on campus for some time.
Americans are very interested in food from other countries. Inviting someone to come to your home to learn to cook a special dish from your home country is a wonderful way to make a friend.
Once you are settled in your new home, you may need to find appropriate child care. While the University does have a child care center (130 South Campus Classroom Building, tel. 516-5658) on campus, there are long waiting lists. You will also find a listing of nursery schools or day-care facilities in the yellow pages of the telephone book. Child-care facilities must be licensed by the state. They are inspected for cleanliness and safety and are authorized to accept a maximum number of children. However, centers affiliated with churches may not be carefully regulated.
If you require after-school care for children in elementary school, look for a facility that can transport your child from school to the facility. Inquire about discounts. Some child-care centers offer discounts for enrolling two or more children or prepaying several months' tuition at one time. Fees may be reduced if your family income is below a certain level.
If you would prefer a more "homey" atmosphere, you might wish to find someone who provides child care in his or her home. Look for a trusted friend or a licensed child-care provider. The license means that the provider's home has been inspected by a state licensing agency for cleanliness and safety. It also means that the provider has passed a state background check. If you choose to hire a private "babysitter" to care for your child, check references carefully as few states license babysitters. Should you choose to employ a babysitter, verify his or her employment authorization. It is illegal to employ someone who is not a citizen or permanent resident of the United States or who is not authorized by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services to accept employment.
In the United States, children between the ages of 5 and 16 are required to attend school. You may enroll your children in public schools free of charge. The school your children will attend is determined by where you live, unless you choose to enroll them in a private school. To start your children in school you will need their birth certificates, school records or transcripts, and documented proof of immunizations from a physician noting the day, month, and year of each immunization. Each state has its own requirements for immunizations.
Your child will want to take a look at his or her new school before school starts. This simple step can be very important in helping your child make an adjustment to a new school. You can arrange an appointment at your child's school by simply calling or going to the school.
Elementary school includes kindergarten (age 5) and usually grades 1 through 6. This is followed by junior high school, or middle school, which usually includes grades 7 and 8 or grades 6 through 8. High school covers grades 9 through 12. The school year generally begins in September and ends in June. To alleviate overcrowding, some school districts have initiated a year-long program in which classes are held for periods of 45, 60, or 90 days, with each period of classes followed by a long vacation break.
Private schools are common in the United States. Because they receive no financial support from the government, tuition and fees can be very expensive. Private schools are listed in the yellow pages of the telephone book and in directories available from libraries.
Parents are expected to participate in the affairs of their child's school. Most schools have a Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) that meets regularly during the school year to discuss school matters ranging from curriculum to budgets. Parent-teacher conferences held several times a year offer parents an opportunity to meet privately with teachers to discuss their child's progress. Finally, volunteering at your child's school to help in the classroom or with after-school activities is a good way to become involved in your child's school and to meet people in the area.
Three Public School Districts closest to campus are: Normandy School District 389-8005, Ferguson-Florissant School District 831-4411, Hazelwood School District 839-9400.
Employment of Your Spouse
It is often the case that the spouse of a international student will want to work while in the United States. Sometimes this is possible and sometimes it is not. Persons in F-2 status cannot work in the United States; but if they have an opportunity to take a temporary professional job while in the United States, it may be possible to change status. Persons in J-2 status may accept employment in the United States only if they have been granted employment authorization by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. You can get more information about employment authorization from an international student advisor.
Academic and family responsibilities in unfamiliar surroundings far from friends and family often cause strains within the families of international students. Sometimes that strain can lead to domestic violence, or spousal abuse. Domestic violence ranges from mildly abusive actions to severely violent, life-threatening behavior. In the United States, such occurrences are no longer sanctioned as private family matters. Temporary shelters are available in most communities for victims of family violence. To obtain immediate assistance or a referral to a local support agency call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Obtaining help in cases of domestic violence will not compromise your nonimmigrant status under the "public charge" provisions discussed below.
What Is a "Public Charge"?
International students with families often experience financial difficulties that are no different from those experienced by American students with families. Although the U.S. government has benefit programs designed to assist low-income families living in the United States, most such programs are available only to U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. Nonimmigrants on F, M, and J visas are generally not eligible. Unfortunately, administrators of many public assistance programs rarely have the expertise to assess eligibility based on immigration status. Overlapping government regulations and eligibility standards-particularly when benefits are requested on behalf of children who are U.S. citizens-compound the confusion.
Remember that when you applied for your nonimmigrant visas you had to demonstrate to the consular officer that you had the means to support not only yourself but your dependents as well. Acceptance of public assistance can be a violation of your immigration status under the "public charge" ground of exclusion. "Public charge" is a term used by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) and the State Department to classify persons who have become dependent on federal or state assistance programs. If the BCIS finds that you have become a "public charge" because you have accepted public assistance, you could be denied reentry to the United States after a trip home. Your nonimmigrant visa could even be canceled. Such a finding is extremely difficult to overcome or reverse, so be careful. Examples of public-assistance programs not open to nonimmigrants are: Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC); Medicaid, which provides reimbursement for medical care to low-income persons; Food Stamps, which provide low-income families with coupons to buy food; and some federally-funded housing programs.
Remember that even if the administrator of a benefit finds you eligible for support and encourages you to apply for benefits, he or she may not understand that acceptance could affect your immigration status!
The importance of adequate medical insurance for the international student's family cannot be overstated. Please read the pertinent paragraphs in the section on Health Insurance very carefully. Your family's health depends on it.