We need more tax resources for international students

Many international students struggle with obtaining requirements and paperwork to receive compensation for their work.

(Audrey Schreck / Daily Trojan)

It took me eight months of jumping through hoops and having a breakdown on a call with an employee from the Payroll Office for me to receive adequate help and clearer instructions on how to obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. At that point, I was ready to forgo my meager pay (we, at the Daily Trojan, are severely underpaid) because it wasn’t worth the stress and poor mental health.

While I hoped my traumatizing experience was a one-off incident and was just a me problem, I was saddened to know it wasn’t. I spoke to some of my fellow staffers at the Daily Trojan who are international students, and they revealed they also had trouble obtaining the correct paperwork from USC. Other international students receiving stipends have had mixed experiences.

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“There were a lot of issues and I had to keep emailing Payroll back and forth and be like, ‘Can I get more advice on this?’” said Rudra Saigal, a junior majoring in economics and international relations from India. “But they were, for the most part, receptive to my emails.”

On the other hand, Saigal faced difficulties with submitting documents to the Payroll Office because he was confused about the documents needed and had to pay them multiple visits. 

Despite the varying spectrum of experiences, one aspect is common in all — dealing with tax numbers is an isolating process. 

“It was a confusing time because you are a full-time college student and you still have to deal with all these other hurdles,” Saigal said.

Even as I wrote countless emails trying to obtain the documents and coordinate with four different departments, I felt as if no one understood what I was going through. And the people who were supposed to be helping me — whether it was the Payroll Office, the Office of the Provost, Daily Trojan or the Office of International Services — were just as confused as me. I had no one to turn to and as a timid 18-year-old in a foreign country, the prospect of accidentally committing tax fraud for a mere $15 was scary. 

With more than 49,000 international students hailing from over 150 different countries, USC has an extremely diverse student population but still, we sometimes don’t feel as if we are receiving adequate help and resources. 

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, the Office of International Services wrote, “OIS works closely with the university payroll office and the Social Security Administration (SSA) to ensure students have correct and up to date information about the ITIN and SSN eligibility requirements and the application process.”

Students can contact OIS via email, Zoom sessions or drop by in person. However, while OIS has these resources, there are two problems with them. Firstly, there is a lack of awareness about the availability of these resources among international students. 

“I personally don’t see a lot of students using [resources] and that’s one of the problems,” said Claire Li, a junior majoring in business administration as well as cognitive science from Hong Kong and the co-executive director of the International Student Assembly. “We’re trying to increase student outreach so that people can actually know what resources are available to them.”

Secondly, along with greater awareness about the resources at our disposal, I believe OIS needs to take more proactive measures. I was aware of the resources available and used them, and yes, after three emails and a drop-in session, OIS did intervene. But instead of waiting for students to run into a problem and then providing a solution, why not make a greater effort to standardize the process proactively? 

OIS can host orientation sessions for international students where they learn the precise steps for applying for these tax numbers, create online tutorials and hold mandatory one-on-one sessions with international students receiving employment to clarify requirements. 

There is so much scope for improvement but I don’t blame USC for not realizing it — it’s hard to place yourself in someone else’s shoes at times. But I’m hoping that now that this issue has been brought to their attention, they will make a change. Take care of us, please – with a limited support system here, USC owes it to their international students to help. 

Edhita Singhal is a sophomore from India writing about her experiences as an international student in her column, “Foreign Footprints,” which runs every other Tuesday.


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