January 27, 2020. Location: My dorm room, University of San Francisco main campus. I woke up early to make sure everything was in place. Ready, set….9:00 am….and go! I busily typed to press send on my registration. One of my heroes, world soccer champion Megan Rapinoe, would be speaking in March at USF, and I had to be there. Heart racing…fingers typing…9:04 am, registration complete. I secured my spot!
JANUARY 27, 9:06 AM. NEW NOTIFICATION: “REGISTRATION CONFIRMATION. USF SILK SPEAKER SERIES PRESENTS MEGAN RAPINOE”
March 7. Location: War Memorial Gym. USF Campus, 12:00 pm. I meet Maria Autrey. We are both Mexican international graduate students, and leaders of spring break immersion trips for USF undergraduates. We had gathered to secure our flight tickets and meet our groups. Maria was traveling to Peru, and I was traveling to the Dominican Republic.
Two feminists, two Rapinoe fans, but I was the only one lucky enough to get a seat for her presentation. Though it conflicted with my immersion trip, I could still see Rapinoe. It fell on the last day of the trip – my day off. I schemed to return a day early to the US so I could attend. But little did I know what lay ahead.
March 12. Location: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. I receive a call just before the bus was to leave with the 15 students and our Jesuit co-leader. On the line was my boss from the University of San Francisco.
“Be prepared to return earlier with the group,” she said. “Trump has just announced that the borders are being closed to enter the United States from Europe. Tell me how many international students are traveling with you. We need to make sure they are the first to return.”
Be prepared to return earlier with the group. Trump has just announced that the borders are being closed to enter the United States from Europe.
I finish the call and see the students and the priest smiling and talking with our host crew, all without imagining what would happen in the next few days.
I look at my list of study abroad participants and…surprise! Only the Indian Jesuit priest and I, the two group leaders, did not have US passports. But I was the one supposed to guide the trip and our students. How could I return early yet still lead the group?
My head was spinning. Will I be able to go back to San Francisco to get my things? Do I fly directly to Mexico, my home country? If I go back to Mexico, how will I pay for my studies? Wait. Breathe. Focus on the students first.
After long hours on the phone with the airlines, we took care of the students and their flights. Most of us would stop in Mexico City. We made sure the Jesuit priest left as soon as possible. Five students flew out afterward, and the rest flew out with me a day later.
My meeting with Rapinoe, alas, would have to wait. Her presentation had been postponed.
MARCH 15. MEXICO CITY AIRPORT. NEW NOTIFICATION: BBC NEWS – “CORONAVIRUS: CHAOS AT MAJOR US AIRPORTS OVER MEDICAL CHECKS”
As group leader, I had to be with the students at all hours, showing a positive and calm attitude. While they waited in the boarding area I decided to stretch my legs and call my mother. Hearing her voice, I broke down and began to cry from the stress and the anguish about the future.
“I don’t know if they are going to let me in,” I said to my mother. “I am not only Mexican, but I am also an international student trying to enter the United States”.
I don’t know if they are going to let me in [to the US].
After hearing my mom’s advice I breathed and came back calmly, with the confidence that I would be able to get back into the US and continue my graduate studies.
Finally, after hours of anguish, thinking about the virus, wondering if we were going to be able to stay in our dormitories, we landed in San Francisco. All the students went to the domestic travelers’ line, while I split off to go to the international visitors’ line.
Like most foreigners who arrive in the United States, I scanned the faces of the immigration agents to see if any of them seemed nice. Hopefully, I would be able to present my documents to them.
Back in the “normal days,” every time I arrive in the United States my heart beats faster. It does not matter that you have all the paperwork ready. In my head all the stories of discrimination spin out. I pull out and check my Visa so many times that sometimes I think I am going to lose the document.
I see the agents’ faces, and I start making stories about them: “She seems nice.” “Oh, he doesn’t.” “What if I don’t understand the questions they ask?” “I want that person to check my documents,” and so on.
But at this moment, the face masks didn’t allow me to assess their demeanor. I could only rely on hand gestures, which didn’t help to lower my anxiety levels. “Next,” a male agent said. I presented my visa, answered the questions, gave my fingerprints, and passed. I was relieved.
Now, I thought, it was only a matter of a couple of weeks to get back to normal life. How innocent!
Meanwhile, my friend Maria went through a similar tumultuous journey in Peru. But she decided to stay in Mexico City with her family and return to San Francisco months later.
Who would have thought at the time that this would put in jeopardy her ability to return to the US?
Maria struggled to return to the United States. Her student visa was still valid, but the airline canceled her flight three times on different dates due to the increase of the virus. She felt very anxious about her future.
On July 6th the Trump Administration banned entry to any foreign national on an F1 student visa taking only remote, rather than in-person classes. This further put Maria’s attempts to enter the US in jeopardy.
JULY 14. NEW NOTIFICATION: BUSINESS INSIDER – “THE ICE POLICY THAT WOULD EXPEL INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS TAKING ONLINE CLASSES IS BEING ROLLED BACK”
Finally, on July 14th, Maria was able to board a flight, which arrived in Los Angeles. She carried with her a letter from the University of San Francisco stating that her classes would be in a hybrid format, and therefore the university supported her return to the United States. This, however, did not seem to be enough for the immigration agents.
“When the executive order was announced, I did my best to return ASAP to the US, and I had one of the worst experiences in immigration control. I was questioned for a little over an hour about school policies and the teaching format,” Maria commented.
I had one of the worst experiences in immigration control.
Maria seemed to have been saved by a phone call to the immigration agent. After an hour, it seemed that they were giving some kind of indication to this agent. Finally, she got the stamp of approval and Maria boarded her flight to San Francisco.
Just after Maria left detention, I shared with her via text message the news that the US government had changed its policy – it was now going to allow international students to enter the country. Maria and I came to the conclusion that this must have been the information given to her detaining agent, which prompted him to let Maria enter.
JULY 25. NEW NOTIFICATION, NY TIMES “OFFICIALS PUSH U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS TOWARD POINT OF NO RETURN”
COVID-19 health protocols weren’t the only factor affecting international student visas. US-China policy also had a profound effect on my Chinese classmates.
“I felt nothing but despair”, said Shen Shen, one of my classmates and an international student from China when her visa was also jeopardized.
“The most difficult thing is the relationship between the U.S. and China. It is the worst in the recent 30 years, and Trump keeps calling COVID-19 a Chinese virus. This situation is especially bad for Chinese students.”
Trump keeps calling COVID-19 a Chinese virus. This situation is especially bad for Chinese students.
Trump’s insistence on calling COVID-19 the ‘china virus‘ has been especially dangerous for East Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, who experienced violence, threats, and harassment throughout the United States.
At the same time, Shen could not go back to China. The cost of the flight was unbelievably high- almost 10 times more expensive than before.
“I didn’t know how I could make it and what I would do if I went back home. I have limited resources as an international student, [and] that gives me enormous pressure.”
International students play an important role in U.S. universities, not only because of the plurality and diversity of ideas they represent but also because of their significant financial contributions to the United States.
Daniel Hurley, Chief Executive Officer of the Association of Michigan State Universities, explained to the New York Times that many universities rely on international students financially and worry if they cannot attend. He cited studies which show that international studies contributed over $1 biillion to Michigan’s economy in 2018 alone.
In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that international students contributed more than $35 billion to the economy, including more than $5 billion in California, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The measures were clear. The Trump administration wanted to pressure universities to reopen during the pandemic in hopes of reviving the economy. However, the universities joined forces and insisted students be able to attend online classes. And they won the battle. International students would be able to stay in the US, and programs would continue online or in a hybrid model.
SEPTEMBER 8. NEW NOTIFICATION: THE PIE NEWS – “INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS ‘PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE’
Many international students were unable or unwilling to continue their studies in the US. For others. like Maria and Shen, who were able to continue, many have struggled with financial problems, isolation, a lack of motivation, and time zone differences.
“There is still a feeling of uncertainty” said Maria, now returned from Mexico.
“I wish I could have taken this semester off, but that meant losing my visa. It is very restrictive in a moment when we all need flexibility.”
I wish I could have taken this semester off, but that meant losing my visa.
Maria explained that while living in a global pandemic, academic productivity isn’t her top priority. For her, it is a time to focus on community, family, and mental health. Financial difficulties don’t make it any easier.
“The tuition is too high in a moment when every penny matters and feels even higher because it is an online class. Tuition should have been lowered.”
The tuition is too high in a moment when every penny matters.
For Shen, the cost of isolation has been very high. “In August, my best friend moved to Canada because of a visa problem. My boyfriend is also working in another country. I live far away from the USF campus and I don’t have a car.”
“I feel lonelier than ever and I almost depend on Amazon and some other delivery apps to live.”
As international students we not only worry about our own situation here in the United States, but we also worry about our home countries, our families, and friends. What if one of them gets COVID-19? Would I be able to fly back and be with my family? Is this graduate program worth it to be away from my family during such a difficult time?
OCTOBER 8. CALENDAR NOTIFICATION: “CLASS STARTS IN ONE HOUR”
I do not feel motivated. I want my home, my family, my freedom. I want my normal life back. I want my experience in the US to be more than four walls. And, at the same time, I feel so privileged that I have everything to continue living like this, without worrying about meals, housing, or health insurance.
And, I think to myself: “Of course, you are living the struggle of the privileged in the midst of a life that is not as comfortable as it used to be. Think about the people who are really struggling.”
I open my computer and open Zoom. Class starts as usual. I see Shen connected. It feels good not to be alone.
Shen also hopes to go back to normality soon. “I hope I could go to the campus to meet the professors and classmates in person,” she says. “I miss the library. I even miss taking BART and the bus. I hope we can have our graduation ceremony in the church next May.”
OCTOBER 12. CALENDAR NOTIFICATION. “MEGAN RAPINOE”
It’s been exactly 7 months since I was going to see the world soccer champion in my university gymnasium.
On October 12, 2020, with my heart pounding just as it did when I registered, I saw Megan Rapinoe give her presentation to the University of San Francisco community.
I saw her from a distance and without human contact, of course. Just as I have seen my classmates, my friends, my professors, and my family, I viewed her presentation on my computer screen, via Zoom.
It’s bittersweet, but it’s becoming my new normal.