International student struggles with medical school tuition

Gilmar Gutierrez seeks crowdfunding to pay for final year of medical school

Gutierrez has until Jan. 31 to raise $91,000.
Credit: 
Supplied by Gilmar Gurtierrez

Gilmar Gutierrez, Meds ’22, first came to Canada from Ecuador to attend the University of British Columbia. After he graduated, he went on to attend medical school at Queen’s with hopes of becoming a psychiatrist in the future.

When the pandemic hit, Gutierrez’s family back home found themselves unable to afford the $91,000 in tuition he needed to graduate with the rest of his class this year.

“I was accepted to Queen’s as pretty much the only international medical student in the program, and it is interesting because there actually has not been any other international students for at least ten or probably more years of the program,” Gutierrez said in an interview with The Journal.

“Right now, because of that, there actually aren't that many pathways or many specific programs to help students like me.”

Without citizenship or a permanent residency, Gutierrez is unable to access resources like government financial assistance or lines of credit, and his status as an international student limits his options for scholarships and bursaries. He also won’t be matched to a Canadian medical school to complete his residency after he graduates.

When he first came to Queen’s, Gutierrez asked the University what supports were available for international students looking to achieve permanent residency or match into a residency program.

The University told him they had none because they had never dealt with students like him before.

“A huge part of being an international student is being comfortable with Canadian immigration law because year after year, you have to be on top of all of your documents, you have to make sure that you have the right permits, you have to make sure that your visa is up to date, and all of those things that your parents cannot help you with,” he said.

“My parents don't speak any English, so they don't know how to help me other than just providing some financial support.”

Not every country has the stability that allows international students to ensure they can afford four years of medical school, Gutierrez said. Additionally, tuition for international medical students can often be two to three times higher than domestic tuition, and that’s before even considering the cost of living abroad.

Nikhil Menda, Sci ’23, is an international student from India who is similarly frustrated by the lack of transparency around tuition prices for international students. He doesn’t understand why the cost of studying has gone up for international students during the pandemic.

According to the University, the cost of international tuition at Queen’s has risen steadily each year.

In an email sent to The Journal, Mark Erdman, Queen’s manager of community relations and issues, said the University assures international students that “the maximum annual tuition increase will be 5 [per cent] through the normal length of their degree programs.”

International students are also eligible for Queen’s grade-based admission scholarships.

However, Queen’s only lets students know about next year’s tuition costs on May 1 of the preceding year, meaning students like Menda are often left in the dark.

“I wish there was a way of knowing exactly how much it would [cost] for four years, and I've just been surprised every year by a certain amount of increase,” Menda said in an interview with The Journal.

Like Gutierrez, Menda has struggled with finding grants and research opportunities and found the school sometimes refused to accommodate for time zone differences as he studies from home in India.

“It's taxpayers’ money [that] goes to Queen’s, so people who pay taxes obviously should have an advantage by paying tuition, so I'm okay with the discrepancy in the fields, but I'm not okay with the constant increase in tuition because I'm not sure how far this is going to go, and that's kind of annoying.”

Gutierrez decided to turn to crowdfunding to pay for his final year of medical school.

“Since childhood, I have always wanted to help others, especially those who are vulnerable, underrepresented, and stigmatized,” he wrote on his fundraising page.

“My hope is to eventually become a psychiatrist, and I aspire to make great contributions to mental health research to benefit the health of Ecuadorians, Canadians and people around the world.”

Since November, Gutierrez has raised more than two-thirds of the cost of his tuition but still needs an additional $28,140 by Jan. 31 to graduate on time.

While he was overwhelmed by the support he received, he also admitted it was difficult to have to turn to GoFundMe to raise so much money.

“Before this campaign, people [weren’t] thinking so much about me and my financial problems […] All of a sudden, I have revealed this very personal matter to everyone,” he said.

“Just pressing that button to release my story to the world was probably one of the most terrifying moments I've ever gone through.”

For the first two hours after posting his fundraiser, Gutierrez had zero replies.

“It just filled me with so much terror because I'm like, ‘What if either people are reading it and not caring about it, or no one's reading it and nothing is going to happen?’ And of course, I needed $91,000, so it was a really difficult point to be in.”

Soon enough, support started rolling in. Gutierrez’s friends and even strangers offered him everything from donations to a place to stay if need be.

With their help, Gutierrez was able to pay $7,000 to cover his first term—an experience he described as “incredible.”

“I needed so much money, and even going through GoFundMe, I was expecting to make maybe $10,000. But within three or four hours, one of my friends just donated $1,000,” he said.

“When I got that first big donation, I just got very emotional, and I knew that I was in a better position.”

Although Gutierrez is still collecting donations, he wants to emphasize the importance of supporting other international students in their endeavours—financially or otherwise.

“One of the things that I want to emphasize is [that this is] not an isolated problem. Oftentimes, the international student doesn't know who they can access or the information that they have valuable to them,” he said.

“[International students are] not just students who need more support. There are so many dreams that come to these countries to fulfill [their] goals."

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