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  • June

What I Wish I knew Before Moving to the US for Grad School - Finances

My dream school was Cornell Tech. See, I knew from years back that I was gonna do a Masters in Laws focused on IP and Tech, where was open for discussion, but the dream, Cornell Tech's LLM in Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship.


See, this programme was a law school programme but based in the tech school! You'd work with techies and entrepreneurs while learning the law, for years I knew that was it. As a matter of fact, I ordered Cornell Tech merch for my 25th birthday. I applied and actually got in. But I realized, financially, the math wasn't mathing and so there went the dream school.

I quickly switched tact upon realizing that finances were a make or break and rather than search based on passion, search based on funding. Find schools with generous endowment funds or scholarship opportunities set up, then find a suitable programme.


So here is,


What I wish I knew about finances, loans and cost of living before moving to the US for Grad School


Funding and Student Loans

  • It helps to do some research before applying to grad schools. Find schools that offer scholarships, or some form of financial aid. Plenty of schools in the US do so. Keenly review their fees and costs of attendance while considering the location.

For LLMs, I found this helpful resource that had a list of all LLM programmes in the US, cost of attendance and which ones offer support.


  • Also, make a very strong Masters application in order to increase your chances for financial aid (in form of grants or loans). Plus don’t apply to one school - apply to 3 or more - spread the risks!

Be very clear on what you intend to achieve or obtain from your higher learning experience in the US.
  • Applying to grad school is expensive! There are several preliminary and administrative costs that no one tells you about. For instance, while making your application there’s an application fee, you may be required to send your application physically to the US via DHL/courier, some programmes have language or proficiency and grad school tests to pay for, once accepted there’s a SEVIS fee, etc. Just the application process can easily set you back about 500$ on the lower end.

  • Given the cost of grad school and living expenses, unless you’re on scholarship (preferably full) or come from old money, I would not recommend it. However, it can be managed if you save well in advance and get a generous partial scholarship, for instance, 60% upwards. (I still partially adamantly disagree, because me I’d saved, had worked for about 5 years at this point, was considered a high earner and lived way below my means back home but my life’s savings in KES fizzled out real fast!)

  • If you have a stable and solid career at home, a sense of community and stability, think twice before uprooting your whole life. You could either apply for a sabbatical from work or sign up for summer programme Master programmes that meet several weeks in the year.

  • If your work is also flexible and can allow you to work remotely, perfect. Do it. Because then you don’t have to worry about your basics and while you may have to work while studying and that could be difficult, it definitely puts you in a better position.

  • Some employers are also willing to fund further studies and may require you to stay with the company once you’re back and completed, highly consider such options.

  • It is hard to get loan funding as an international student without family/close friends living in the US who can cosign your loans.

  • You can get unsecured loans from MPower, Prodigy Finance etc as an international student. However, the interest rates are potentially high and the loan application process might be a bit tedious and demanding. Be patient and determined if you opt to go with this route. Apply early to avoid any delays. It’s advisable to apply for the loan upon arrival in the US but you still have the option of applying for it while in your home country. Feel free to always contact the loan institution’s customer service if you need any clarification or guidance regarding your application.

  • When faced with the option of deciding between Prodigy and Mpower, consider the pros and cons first. If you opt for Prodigy, you only start paying the loan sum 6 months after graduation. However, if you opt for Mpower, you start paying a minimal loan sum as a student with the possibility of a reduction in the interest rate and are not penalized for early repayment. Choose wisely!

  • Negotiate for increased funding. When your school offers you some funding, feel free to negotiate it - ask for more. You never know what response you could get. Also check and find out if there are grants you may be eligible for that your school or department offers.

  • Once admitted, the schools sometimes have additional funding and scholarships available to admitted students, APPLY, APPLY, APPLY!

  • Some schools have partnerships with Kenyan universities and offer partial tuition waivers to various alumni as long as you’ve qualified for admission. It helps to reach out to your alma mater to find out if there are any universities that they have such arrangements with.

  • Find on-campus jobs - at the library, at the mail room etc. Ask around for what type of student jobs exist. You could make some money to aid your living costs. Actively search for available on-campus jobs.A shared family phone plan sounds like a good idea, but the bigger the group, even with Africans, the more exposed you are to people with un-societal behaviors like needing to be reminded to pay their bills. When it comes to finances, try to be as independent as possible. Otherwise it only adds to the existing school stress. Do not get a family shared phone plan.

  • I recommend getting the Mint phone plan. They have rates from as low as $15 per month and are quite affordable especially if you pay for various months in advance.


Taxes

  • File your taxes early even if you’re a non resident! It’s absolutely important! The IRS never forgets, trust me! File them early and file them accurately. Get professional help if you have to. The cost will be less compared to any penalty you may incur for false or incorrectly filed returns. The “NIL Returns” concept does not apply here (Hi, Kenyans.)


Building credit

  • Yes, building credit. In order to get a house, water bill, gas bill, phone simcard or anything, you need to have a good credit score. Get a credit card with your bank as soon as you can. Depending on how long you have operated your bank account, you might be eligible for a credit card from your bank. Discover is usually better for students because of it’s flexible package (no APR and annual fee). You even get cash backs on purchases. As long as you don't miss payments, the credit card actually works for you. Some credit cards (like Amex) give you some money back when using uber, dining out, etc. Watch out for Credit Cards that have annual fees on them. You want to stay as far away from those as possible. So build your credit as soon as you can because you will need it for literally anything in this country.

  • Some banks don’t issue credit cards without Social Security Numbers (SSNs). Most F1 students don’t necessarily have SSNs. There are a few institutions that offer credit cards to such students like Deserve/Sable. Apply and get one.

  • Use worldremit for sending money back home, I find their rates reasonably good. Surprisingly, the chase bank rates are also good, or even better than these other non traditional banking apps. So for large amounts, use international wire transfer from your chase bank to your home bank.

  • Chase bank has a $200 student award for when you use a referral link and use them for direct deposit. A nice $200 wouldn’t hurt. Always ask around for referral links before signing up for anything and you can get bonuses.

  • This thread may be helpful


Cost of Living and Day to Day Finances

  • Learn your money personality.

  • The cost of living in the US is much higher than Kenya and Africa in general and varies from state to state. The cost of living in some states is quite high as opposed to other states that may be much cheaper in comparison. For instance, California might be more expensive to live and study in as opposed to Georgia.

  • Eating out will drain your account, avoid it. And please remember to tip, you can read more about the American tipping culture online. Tip within your limit so you don’t go broke. Check for African stores close to you and buy local foodstuff. Cooking will help you save money.

  • Always ensure that you have at least $2,000 in your savings just in case things go south.

  • Some of the basics you were accustomed to will cost several times more and will take some adjusting to. For example, Self Care routines that involved getting nails done for <15$ every few weeks, pedicures on a regular, monthly massages, waxing and threading, don’t even get me started on hair. This is a baby gurl cry for help, can you tell? ;-)

  • Identify people who you can fully rely on to help out when in need. Some bills are too high to pay off at once, and you may need some help.

  • When shopping remember that most places have very flexible return policies so don’t get stuck with expensive items that you don’t like, you can take them back and get a refund.

Live below your means
  • Use applications like Splitwise (https://www.splitwise.com/) for group spending. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you’re not comfortable paying for anything or you would rather just pay for what you had(in the case of shared meals). Adding expenses on this app especially with roommates or with a group of friends you find yourself doing a lot of activities together, makes it very clear who is paying what and reduces the need for back and forth.

  • As a student you get discounts and benefits, some schools will give you stationery or have some costs included in your fees such as printing, others have several events where they give away freebies and free meals at times, most have accessible gym and facilities that you have already paid for in your fee so you don’t have to get a private membership, you can also get free or cheap stuff from students who have graduated and are leaving, you can also pool together with other students and crowdsource for things if possible to reduce the cost.

  • Remember that there are different types of wealth. While financial wealth is most definitely important, also think strategically about building your social credit score. Attend those dinners, reach out to people and have those coffees even with people you wouldn’t particularly think are ‘your kind of people’. Attend the class dinners and other networking events too and be curious about the people you meet.




The film Look Both Ways on Netflix that features Kenyan musician Blinky Bill and is directed by Kenyan Director Wanuri Kahiu. Really good RomCom, and it's still at No. 1 on the Charts! Yes! From KE to the world :)



Because you are going to be successful and create the life of your dreams, you have to believe you can do it - even if you can't see the whole picture of how exactly it will happen.

Jack Canfield


We've gotten such great feedback from readers and appreciate each and every one of you. This is the second of four pieces, the next two will be on academic rigor with a strong bias to Masters in Laws programmes and the last on career and work options.


Happy New Week!

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