On Being an International Student, “Home,” and Human Capital

A little over 48 hours ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued “temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online classes due to the pandemic for the fall 2020 semester.” I found out by friends texting me screenshots of tweets, sending me Instagram stories asking me to verify, “Is this true?” “Does this affect you?” “Will you really have to leave if we go online?” And my personal favorite, “Are you getting deported? Lol.”

Let me start by saying I know things often get misconstrued. What shouldn’t be politicized gets politicized instantaneously as it morphs into a sound-bite we’re all fed via whatever echo-chambered social media platforms we choose to use most. I try not to generalize, so I’m not going to paint broad brushstrokes. What I can, and am going to do, is share a little bit about my time in the U.S. as an international student.

A necessary disclaimer: I am a very lucky immigrant. Although I have never lived in either country, I hold both Canadian and Australian passports. I am deeply aware that this comes with a certain level of international “clout” if you will.

Realistically, I’ve been juggling multiple identities my whole life — but there’s been a specific duality since I arrived on American soil. Unless I tell people I’m an international student, they have no idea. I don’t have an accent — I’ve been told I sound American — I’m “westernized,” whatever that means. Every few months, I’ll hear friends exclaim: “Wait, you can’t vote?!” with the most incredulous look on their faces as they realize that we don’t have access to and can’t do the same things, because I’m not a U.S. citizen. Still, I’m usually not foreign until I bring it up.

I moved across the globe to pursue my undergraduate studies when I was 17. I packed two suitcases and flew to Canada a week after I graduated high school to see my grandparents (and also because U.S. entry was easier this way) before moving to Boston on an F-1 nonimmigrant student visa. My mom flew with me, probably constantly doubting her decision to let me move away from my family in Israel to a foreign city in a foreign country where I didn’t know anyone. I have a very clear memory of her crying as we said goodbye after she helped move me in — how I was a little embarrassed, more scared, but also ready. The U.S. was foreign to me before I was foreign in it.

For whatever reason, most of my closest friends in college were other international students. In some ways, the only people we had were each other. I guess this is part of why I’m sharing this — I’d wager most international students don’t talk about a lot of what they go through with their non-international, U.S. citizen friends.

We know people have no idea what we’re talking about, and we’ve seen too many pairs of eyes glaze over when we try and walk others through what F-1s, I-20s, I-9s, I-94s, CPTs, OPTs, and EAD cards are. We knew that no one else got why it was important to do all your schoolwork in advance so you could capitalize on that one free afternoon that popped up after the rare canceled class, so you could take two buses to the Social Security Office on the other side of town, wait in line for two hours, and get your very own SSN. It was important to start working, and the risk of not doing it properly comes with potential deportation. We all had bills to pay; some had their parents’ too.

My first college job was halfway through my first semester. Our options were limited to campus jobs (there are very few exceptions to this rule if I’m not mistaken), and we knew that if we wanted a real shot at getting hired, we had to apply early. Only, applying early is difficult when you need to get additional documentation others are born with. It’s why I was a waitress at an on-campus diner for 3/4 of the year (FYI, tipping with meal-plan points isn’t a thing). All the office jobs where you could potentially sneak in some studying while getting paid maybe a dollar or two over minimum wage were already taken.

Throughout my four years at undergrad, I worked every single semester. I bounced between waiting tables, tutoring, researching for different labs, and routinely giving 1–2 hours of my time to random psych studies for the very lucrative price of $10/hour (Massachusetts’s minimum wage hadn’t risen just yet).

There being no alternative to young financial independence requires a bit of a hustle. We made do, though. We would always laugh at how crazy it was, maxing out on our eligible 20 hours of work, looking at our almost comically low pay stubs at the end of an exhausting two weeks joking “I get why people say as soon as you make money you’re suddenly fiscally conservative” and “how is this it?!” Turns out even teenage international students don’t love paying taxes. But we did. We do. I have filed taxes for every single one of the eight years I’ve lived in the U.S.

I was so terrified of graduating without having a job lined up that during my last semester, on top of taking five classes, working three part-time jobs, interning, and co-founding a non-profit, I was also applying to ~10 jobs a week. Most (as always) didn’t respond. Some, I landed cool interviews, got through a few rounds, then heard a version of: “Oh, you’re not a U.S. citizen? This role requires work authorization” which kills the conversation faster than I can explain that I actually don’t need sponsorship for the first year (OPT), that I don’t have to go on an employer-sponsored visa (H-1B), that I’m lucky enough where I have easier options like the TN, or the E-3 (some of which I didn’t even know of, at that time). It got to the point where I would interrupt recruiters and lead every conversation with some version of:

“Respectfully, I’d just like to first point out that I’m an international student. *insert summarized basic explanation that I have easier visa options, but that yes, I will still need a visa after the first year* I completely understand if that’s an issue, but I wanted to share that now in case that changes anything. I don’t want to waste your time.”

After what felt like a miracle, I got my first honest-to-God full-time job offer — as a contractor. It was pitched as a “real, salaried job with the same benefits, just different on paper,” but I didn’t have any sick days, paid time off, and I got paid an hourly rate instead of salaried like my coworkers.

The shortest version of this is that I have lost count of the number of times I’ve walked employers through what they need to do to legally employ me (I went from contractor to full-fledged employee in about seven months). I have learned the hard way that you always have to start the process months before they say you need to because whatever they assure you won’t happen always does. Something always goes wrong.

I’ve paid summer tuition to legally be an unpaid summer intern. I’ve paid extra for e-Ship Global because I was paranoid about my I-20 being sent through regular mail and still had FedEx lose the one document I need to enter the country legally, literal days before my flight departed. I’ve had job start dates pushed back because recruiters didn’t communicate my visa concerns to the employer like they said they would. I’ve been misinformed on what visa I can be on during law school. I’ve been questioned by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers every single time I’ve re-entered the U.S. I’ve had a CBP officer forget to sign and date my I-94 stamp (part of what authorizes my legal stay here) and only realize — to my complete horror — it was missing as I was scanning my passport for the standard start of the semester International Student Check-In, then skip my afternoon classes, sit on three buses to Logan Airport and panic-explain to a confused CBP officer why this was so important and why he had to sign it. I’ve had to walk other CBP officers through my law school I-20 not being the same as my undergraduate I-20 and that yes, it is valid for me to go to two different U.S. schools and work a job in between.

I’ve also seen what can happen when my duality breaks. I’ve heard a million different versions of “you’re so exotic!” and “your English is so good!” I’ve been asked why I’m getting an American legal education if I’m not an American because aren’t I “studying American law?” and “how is that useful?”

The reality is that the regulation can say that we have to “go back” to our home countries, but what about those of us who have built our homes here?

This is a long-winded way of my trying to say that sending international students “home,” is, for starters, complicated. Some of us have built our entire young adult lives here and can’t just “go back to where [we] came from.” There are other considerations. My grandfather died in April and I didn’t fly for his funeral because I didn’t want to jeopardize my visa status mid-Coronavirus border closures. If this order is enforced, and my school happens to go fully online, I won’t be “moving back” to Canada. I’d be moving, again, to a whole new country. My entire life is here. I’m a third of the way through my law school education. My next summer internship is here. My future job is here. My friends who are my family — all here.

If that’s not enough, the fact that I have a valid student visa, training to become an attorney, volunteer, and pay taxes should be, no? Isn’t that what usually works, the economic argument?

I’ve seen a lot of articles in the last 24 hours that paint the broad brushstrokes, that focus on numbers, and even pitch that an American education is simply a product — one that international students willingly pay for. They focus on how there’s approximately 1.2 million of us in the U.S., how our presence subsidizes higher education for domestic Americans, how we’ve contributed $32.8 billion and over 400,000 jobs to the U.S. economy. This is all well and true.

International student tuition rates are often higher than ones for domestic students. We don’t qualify for FAFSA, only private loans, with almost criminally higher interest rates. We can’t work off-campus, and campus jobs — at best — are a few bucks over minimum wage (I felt like an absolute queen making $11.50 tutoring for two hours a week in undergrad). We have twelve months from graduation day to find a job with an employer that will sponsor us (really, shorter than that to account for visa processing times). STEM students can extend that period, but still. What we can do freely is spend money. And we do because we are human beings that live and breathe and have families and travel plans and hopes and aspirations just like everybody else. We sign leases, invest in cars, buy plants. We’re also skilled. Companies pay more to hire us, to sponsor our visas. Ipso facto we directly contribute to the economy.

But do we always have to resort to the economic argument? I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of human capital — precisely how and how much we contribute to all the spaces we’re in. We may not have metrics to calculate these other contributions the way we do with monetary investment, but don’t they arguably matter just as much, if not more? I know we don’t often talk about this type of impact, but every perspective we share, in any environment, is inherently diverse. We see the world differently, and every classroom is better for it. After all: “The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.”

I think human connection, being a part of something — that doesn’t come from a passport or having the right visa. A true sense of belonging comes from the bonds we make with others and the lasting connections we build with the people around us. I don’t mean this in the abstract but in the compilation of the daily interactions we all have.

International students are some of the best advocates, listeners, communicators, and contributors I’ve met. I think we grow into those roles because being an international student necessitates becoming those very things. Universities’ International Student Offices do their best, but every international student I’ve come across knows more about their visa process than sometimes the entire office combined. We’ve seen what happens to our forms when we try our best to communicate as clearly as possible and shudder at the thought of not being proactive, not calling to check in on their progress.

By our very existence and necessary interactions with our surroundings, our local communities, and our friends that become our families — generations of culture change. Classroom discussions mature, academic discourse evolves, and casual conversations are elevated. Our friends feel comfortable asking us questions they maybe wouldn’t otherwise — and every single one of these moments moves progress forward. This collective widening vista that we contribute to is important, even if it can’t be calculated in dollar symbols.

Ultimately, perhaps the most significant difference between human capital and monetary capital is that the former is infinite. There is no cap on the organic growth of our contributions as human beings. We should want to encourage that. We should keep us here.

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