Under a global pandemic, it is time to redefine UC Berkeley’s ‘global education’

Text on black background of a quote by Rex Zhang, UC Berkeley ASUC Senator-Elect

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Even after seeing Sather Gate thousands of times in movies and in the news, I couldn’t imagine walking through this beautiful entrance to a world-class institution as a student until it became my reality. Like many who wish to thrive through UC Berkeley’s globally renowned education, I’ve hoped that my college experience can reshape my understanding of the “global citizen” that I’ve been taught about since elementary school.

I am an international student, and I come from a working-class family. Choosing to pursue a college education in the United States was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made because of the huge financial costs. Today, the financial burden is still a challenge for my family and me, and I am sure I am not alone in this.

When I go to career fairs, I see that most of the jobs don’t sponsor H1Bs or offer curricular practical training or optional practical training, which are the only ways for international students to obtain jobs or internships in the United States. People have constantly told other international students and me that getting into prestigious clubs and fraternities is difficult and nearly impossible. Student organizations in my community are often underfunded, despite hosting many events and serving a large number of community members, many of whom pay out-of-state tuition.

Rhetoric has contributed to this disparity — there is a stereotype that international students are always rich, so it is OK for them to pay more. This rhetoric is flawed. Students like myself do exist! Moreover, the presence of high tuition has blocked the way of many working-class international students, even if they are excellent students who deserve opportunities as much as the rest of us to attend leading institutions such as UC Berkeley.

I often wonder whether we truly belong on campus. This notion is strengthened when we international students commit to our education and engage in the campus community as much as any other student group does. This is especially true when we are paying a higher tuition to support others who are in need.

The global pandemic has brought clarity to these thoughts. Despite Berkeley being one of the most liberal cities in the country, the unfortunate post from the Tang Center proclaiming “xenophobia” as a “normal reaction” brought the reality of the widespread discrimination against Asian Americans directly to my community. In addition to the rhetoric of the “Chinese virus” and blaming China for everything that has happened, this reaction itself is extremely racist and xenophobic. China and other Asian countries are actually doing a good job regarding this disease, and it is now under control in many of those countries.

As our campus has switched to online instruction, Chancellor Carol Christ has stated that  tuition will not be decreased, despite the fact that residence no longer matters if we are all staying at home watching our screens.

Let’s make this clear: The UC system used to be free for California residents and cost $75 per semester for nonresidents. But year after year, California has decided to decrease its investments in higher education, thinking that the UC Board of Regents would always be able to increase charges on students to fix the UC system’s budget issues.

And they were correct. UC tuition is now $14,254 for California residents and $44,008 for non-California residents (including the international students, out-of-state students and undocumented students who are not eligible for AB 540).

Moreover, because of threats from the potential economic recession under this pandemic, higher education will be at the front line of budget cuts. While I understand the university’s motivation to charge international students and out-of-state students more and more to create a stable budget, nonresidents should not have to wholly carry the financial burden.

UC Berkeley prides itself on its diversity, and that includes the diversity of its global community — faculty, staff, students, researchers and scholars who enrich the educational experience at this university. It is a goal of global education and access that has driven UC Berkeley to come this far in terms of expanding its global community, not just to pad the campus budget with these students’ high tuition rates.

So can we go back? Back to the time when we all had access to education and received unconditional support from our institution? Not likely. But can we ensure that our institution and the country as a whole does a better job in supporting our international community? You bet.

2020 gives us a unique opportunity to repeal part of Proposition 13 and reinvest in the public school system. Prop. 13 has played a detrimental role: This law protects wealthy corporations from paying their fair share of taxes, and our entire public education system has suffered. Campus advocates, with the ASUC External Affairs Vice President’s office as the leading voice, have been calling for more investments in higher education for years. Broader campus and city support of this initiative would greatly improve the situation of the international community.

Former U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.” International students and scholars have contributed to this campus through their diverse opinions, intercultural exchanges, research and so much more. From all walks of life, we have a wealth of life stories just like the rest of you. I hope we can truly come together as a community to reflect on our principles of diversity and inclusion, to secure access for the global community and to build allyships to tackle our campus issues in solidarity. After all, this is what UC Berkeley has always committed itself to.

When I ran to become an ASUC senator, I wasn’t running a campaign for myself. I was running to engage international students into the census for more resources for the community; to engage the international community in campus life inclusively; and to push back against systemic xenophobia.

Every time I walk under Sather Gate, I think about what “fiat lux” means to those around the world. They, just like myself, have dreamed of obtaining the excellence of a UC Berkeley education. I am determined to help the international community obtain a relationship that bears mutual prosperity and ensure that our campus is truly ready for the next generation of global citizens.

Rex Zhang is a UC Berkeley junior and incoming ASUC senator.