During his first few years of high school in Kigali, Rwanda, Julian Gakwaya spent most of his free time researching scholarships and financial aid within various United States educational institutions.
Gakwaya knew he wanted to receive an American education, specifically one from the University of Oregon, after a recruiting agent from UO visited his high school class.
It wasn’t until his junior year that he received a financial aid package to attend an international Christian boarding school in small-town Oregon. Without any hesitation, Gakwaya arrived at Canyonville Christian Academy, just south of Roseburg. He began his last two years of high school in America, restarting his junior year.
After spending a year at Mt. Hood Community College, Gakwaya is now a freshman at UO—his dream school—studying mathematics and computer science. His tuition is covered by various scholarships, but he still pays supplemental costs, which include health insurance.
The university has two forms of health insurance. One is available to domestic students, and the other for those with student visas. But, while domestic students have a choice of whether they want to sign up for insurance through the university, those holding student visas, like Gakwaya, are required to pay for it.
The alternative to not applying for UO’s insurance plan is proving coverage by an outside organization by submitting a waiver. If they don’t, a hold is placed on their student accounts, prohibiting them from registering for classes.
Since the 2014-2015 academic year, the enrollment process and insurance costs have changed, adding to students’ workloads and bills. International students are now required to apply for UO’s health insurance plan without the university’s help, instead of being automatically enrolled.
And the price has gone up.
Previously, international students paid $1,335 for coverage September through June, according to the University Health Center’s website. The cost of insurance has increased this year to $1,734.
Part of the reason for this increase in cost is that UO wanted to switch to a local insurance provider, PacificSource Health Plans. The quality of coverage was the deciding factor, according to Ayla Rosen, the university’s international student health promotion and outreach intern. Rosen, a senior in human physiology, works on increasing the number of international students enrolled in the new insurance plan.
“This new plan that the Health Center came up with is really for the benefit of the student,” Rosen said. “I think a lot of international students were hesitant to use our resources on campus because they didn’t want to get charged random fees. So now just about everything you can imagine within the Health Center is covered for them.”
The new insurance covers medical and prescription drugs, dental, physical therapy, urgent care visits and worldwide, 24-7 emergency medical care and assistance. For students similar to Gakwaya, this amount of coverage is necessary to have, and they are willing to accept the higher costs. But many others would like to see more options for international students and different levels of coverage they can choose from.
For Atsushi Hosaka, a student from Ibaraki, Japan and marketing executive for UO’s International Student Association, the price of insurance is more than he makes every month.
“When I keep asking my parents at home to pay my bills, they are always surprised and confused why they have to send more and more money,” Hosaka said. “I don’t argue that health insurance isn’t important and we shouldn’t have to pay for it, but I wish we would have more of a choice and more options to look at.”
Hosaka struggled to figure out which forms to fill out and which links to click in order to get enrolled.
“I didn’t even know that I had to do this for the insurance because last year the school did it for me,” Hosaka said. “My friend told me one day that I had to do it before school started, so I got really worried and stressed. He had to help me with the whole thing because I thought I had no time before the deadline.”
Hosaka was confused about the deadline to submit applications: It isn’t until Oct. 31, but Hosaka hadn’t received any information about it.
Gakwaya, along with many other students from abroad, was taken aback by how healthcare in the U.S. works, since there is universal coverage in Rwanda. However, he believes the benefits he now receives are worth the high costs.
“What Oregon offers me in health insurance is a lot better than what I got with the cheap plan I signed with back at Mt. Hood,” Gakwaya said. “A lot more is covered, which is really important for me since I get sick often and I have a pre-existing condition with my shoulder.”
Unlike Gakwaya, Hosaka’s education is solely paid for by his parents in Japan, who encouraged him to study in the U.S. after the earthquake and tsunami hit in 2011, when “life sort of stopped for [his] people.” Hosaka felt that learning English and studying business would give him an advantage in Japan, where he can eventually start a business or an organization that assists those who are affected by natural disasters.
“It’s frustrating,” Hosaka said. “Sometimes I feel tricked by the university with everything they say we have to pay for and they just want to suck our money. Maybe it will get better.”