Currency crisis hits Iranian students in the U.S.

U.S. tuition triples for Iranians

By Nicholas Nehamas

Iranian rial (R) and U.S. dollars are seen as a money changer counts Iraqi dinars at his shop in Baghdad. (Reuters)

In Iran, a rial doesn’t buy what it used to.

Thanks to Western sanctions and internal economic mismanagement, the value of Iran’s currency has plummeted. As panicked Iranians rush to change their money into foreign currency, the rial lost a third of its value against the dollar during one ten-day stretch in September and October.

That’s led to food shortages and violent protests against the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But the currency crisis isn’t just contained to Iran: its effects are also rippling out into the rest 0f the world. The BBC and Reuters both report that Iranians students at foreign universities now find themselves struggling to pay their tuition.

And it’s a problem in the U.S. too, where a survey counted 5,626 Iranians studying at American schools in 2011. That number will probably drop if the rial doesn’t recover.

Zahra Asgari, a master’s student in engineering management at Duke University, tells Latitude News the cost of her tuition has tripled since she enrolled last December.

“Duke is a very expensive university anyway,” Zahra says, “so it’s become a huge stress on my family, how they are going to provide this money for me. They have to buy really expensive dollars, and you can’t ever predict what will happen in Iran. Every day the exchange rates change.”

Zahra came to study in America because the quality of education here is so high. “It’s a great opportunity for us [in Iran] to gain some experience of a different place and live abroad,” she explains.

Making ends meet

Zahra now works 20 hours a week — the maximum allowable on her student visa — splitting time between a job at the campus library and a gig as a teaching assistant for an online class.

“My family is kind enough not to put the stress on me, but I know they’re having a really hard time,” she says. “I’m just trying to help my family lessen this burden.”

Zahra Asgari, a graduate student at Duke University from Tehran.

Because of U.S. restrictions on Iranian banks, Zahra’s father or a family friend must travel to North Carolina to bring her the $5,000, approximately 61 million rials, she needs to pay for every class. With eight classes a year on her schedule, that’s a whopping 488 million rials.

And, to make matters worse, last month Iran’s government announced it was ending a popular subsidy that allowed students at foreign universities to buy dollars for around 40 percent of their cost on the open market.

“We have the capacity to educate students inside the country, and except when it is urgent, there is no need for our foreign exchange to exit the country,” Iran’s finance minister explained on state television in September.

After a public outcry, Zahra says the government is considering bringing the subsidy back. “But in Iran,” she adds, “you just can’t predict what will happen tomorrow.”

Zahra’s brother, Mohammad, also studies in the U.S., where he’s enrolled in a Ph.D program in electrical engineering at Columbia University. The university covers the costs of his education but, beside his sister, Mohammad knows many Iranian students struggling to pay their tuition.

“The [Persian] community is very tight,” he tells Latitude News, “and the whole currency plunge was all over the news, but no one is covering the effect on students.”

“I know that students here are mostly from Iran’s upper class,” Mohammad says, “and poorer people are suffering more: they’re having difficulty buying basic things like medicine and foodstuffs. But the effect on students is still sad. Many of us just can’t afford it anymore.”

And Mohammad says a lack of cross-cultural exhacnge could contribute to tensions between Iran and the U.S., tensions he blames on our governments, not our people.

Iranian students in the U.S., he argues, “provide a different voice and face for Iran in the U.S., a face that is different from what Americans see on their TV screens. Perhaps when politicians in both countries refuse to engage in constructive dialogue, the students living here in the U.S. can be the voice of  Iran.”

“Education,” Mohammad continues, “is the key to tolerance and understanding.”