When seeking valuable advice, there is nothing quite like getting it from someone who has ‘been there, done that’.
STILT spoke with Pradyuma Shembekar, one of our borrowers on F-1 visa, to share his tips and insights as an international student in the U.S., including how to manage your finances and preparing yourself for your studies.
Pradyuma is originally from Baroda, India where he completed his Bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Telecommunications. He moved to the U.S. in March 2014 for further education.
In June 2016 Pradyuma graduated with a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering (Computer Networks and System Engineering) from California State University in Long Beach.
Expenses and Finances
Q: What were some of your biggest expenses here?
A: My biggest expenses were rent, car, and bills. I had to live far away from campus and commuted everyday by bus because of safety and affordable rent. After getting an on-campus job I had to travel to school everyday, so I decided to get a second hand car since that would ease my commute and be more affordable. So then I had to start paying for the used car and car insurance. There are also utility bills (for electricity and gas). My friends and I tried to save a bit on phone bills so the five of us signed up for a family plan.
Q: What were some of the mistakes you made when you first came to the U.S.?
A: I didn’t bring enough cash for all the expenses in the beginning and tried to pay most of my expenses with my travel card. But when I opened a bank account here, they couldn’t give me cash advance for the type of card that I had.
What I should have done was to bring enough cash to cover my basic expenses then open an account here in the U.S. and transfer the money from India to pay for fees and other expenses.
Q: Any tips on how to save money?
A: If you are trying to save on rent, please always remember that safety is still the most important thing. If you have to pay more initially, that’s fine. Pick an area that is safe and this will give you time to get to know about other safe but cheaper areas.
For meals, you should pack lunches. Of course you can still eat out, but know what is within your budget. Using coupons for grocery stores can save you quite a bit. Find local markets rather than going to expensive and popular stores.
Find a job. As soon as you get here, start applying for jobs and you shouldn’t stop until you find a job somewhere. Otherwise, find an industry internship and start applying for those as soon as you can.
Q: What are some of your tips to find a job?
A: I did a few things that helped me in my job search. The first is networking. You can search online and look at the company careers section, but this is not the only way. The second is contacting recruiters. Contact people directly through whatever means you can and you will have a higher chance of hearing back.
Classes and Culture
Q: What’s the best way to adjust to cultural differences here?
A: Make more local friends rather than just sticking to fellow Indians and people within your comfort zones. These friends can show you the local side of the city you are in.
Q: What about navigating your classes?
A: Once you come here, you should start working on your LinkedIn account and start networking with people with the same major. Find a mentor who’s already working here and can guide you through the classes and when to apply and what to apply for. Instead of asking your seniors, ask someone from the industry. If you are a Computer Science major, then you must have a github account.
Q: How did you make the most out of your courses?
A: Find a professor in the subject that you want to advance your career in. Find a mentor in industry and for those in CS majors, participate in hackathons and online coding competitions. Even if you don’t win, you will learn pair programming and many other skills through the experience. And you will grow your network.
Also, don’t take too many classes. While you can save some money by taking more classes in a semester, you shouldn’t have your schedule packed the whole time. It is also important to have time to explore opportunities and doing professional academic activities.
Taking a loan (home country and the U.S.)
Q: Did you take out a loan for your education?
A: Yes, I took out a loan from HDFC (Credila) back home. It was a non collateral loan with an interest rate of 13.75%. My dad then sent the money over periodically to cover my expenses.
Q: How was your experience with getting a loan from your home country?
A: I went through a 2-week application process with Credila. My father had taken loans from HDFC previously and he knew the people there. I still needed to submit documentations.
The main downside of it was that I had to deal with currency fluctuation risks and pay conversion fees both ways — when converting INR to USD and vice versa.
Q: How did you navigate credit scores and credit history in the U.S.?
A: I had an uncle here who introduced me to the concept of Social Security Number and that was when I found out about credit scores. I realized that I needed to build a credit history as soon as possible otherwise I would not be able to access many services needed in the future.
Q: How did you start building it?
A: I got a credit card initially — that was the advice given by my boss on how to start building my credit history. It has been really useful for me since I applied for another credit card after a few months and it got approved.
Q: How did STILT help you?
A: Even though I had no co-signer or collateral, I could still borrow money here in the U.S. through STILT.
With that money, I could pay off my car insurance, credit card and other fees in lump sum. My parents didn’t have to send as much money from India since I can pay off the debts myself. We saved on currency conversion fees and other currency fluctuation risks. It is also a great way for me to build my credit history.
Overall, STILT has made my life much easier and straightforward as I had to deal only in US dollars.