According to the Institute of International Education, in 2019, the number of international students in the United States reached an all-time high, with more than a million students contributing over $44.7 billion to the economy. These students come from all over the world, aiming to attain the level of education advertised in America. However, there are a number of differences between international students and local students, some that international students sometimes aren’t even aware of prior to beginning our studies.
Over the summer, I, along with many of my fellow international peers, faced the back-and-forth ICE visa mandate, which had made us unsure of our visa stability. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on my time as an international student to see how my college experience has differed from that of my American counterparts. While many of our peers were preoccupied with choosing dorm decorations and finding roommates, we were frantically applying for visas, crossing our fingers that the officer on duty was in a good mood and that we’d be approved. Maybe that should’ve been my first indication that, as an international student, things would always be different for me.
During our time in the United States, there is little opportunity for international students to earn their own income. I first realized this when my lifelong dream of opening an Etsy shop was demolished when I discovered that I couldn’t earn an independent self-employed income as an international student, despite paying American taxes. There is often the misconception that ‘international students are all rich,’ but that isn’t the case. Many rely on savings, sponsors and scholarships, and, as a result, do not have the luxury of constant travel, making spending years away from families a common occurrence. Even if one does have the means to fly home, regulations prevent international students who are seeking a more permanent visa status from leaving the United States. I’ve had friends unable to attend weddings, funerals and Christmases for the sake of keeping their immigration status retention.
With COVID-19 raging rampant, international students not only face the fear of not being able to remain healthy in this country, but escalated racism and xenophobia as well. To this day, hearing people refer to it as the “China virus” (or plague, as stated by the President) makes me feel afraid, pained and insulted. While many students were able to return to their home states, international students like Lisa* spent weeks couch hopping through different states due to the travel bans imposed. As put by Nadine*, a senior at a New York City university, “...international students have no permanent home in this country.” Most of the time, the only ones we have to rely on are ourselves.
When you move to a new country, you are always told to expect “culture shock,” but international students are never told to expect intense discrimination. Rose*, another senior based in New York, reflects that she’s been an international student her whole life, but never felt like one until coming to the United States. She constantly encounters the age-old question that every international student is constantly asked: “Wow, how is your English so good?” She realized that there’s an expectation to assimilate to American culture seamlessly, and if you don’t, you’re immediately seen as an “other.” One gets used to the funny looks received from saying a word differently or not knowing about an aspect of American culture, but can never get used to the uncomfortable microaggressions and problematic push for the model minority. I’ve had catcalls directed towards my ethnicity and been confused one too many times with the only other Asian in the room. Mitch*, a student who graduated from a Brooklyn college in 2019, says that despite never feeling out of place due to surrounding himself with international students, he still encountered microaggressions, such as being as asked if elephants walked the streets of his home country of India. He points out that while he has been asked this question many times, not once has it been by a fellow international student.
Nadine also says that her “experience of being an international student in the United States oftentimes ties in with feeling anxious.” Throughout our time here in the Big Apple, there are countdowns looming over our heads: a countdown to when our visa ends, when the government decides to halt our statuses, when we don’t find a job, when we face the next microaggression, when we are approached by ICE and it goes wrong. Many of these things are inevitable and out of our control. Most of the time, we’re at the hands of the government, with no say in who sits on that government.
It isn’t all doom and gloom for international students, though. Most of us don’t regret our choice to come to the United States. In New York, there are restaurants that remind us of home and cultural events, like art galleries and parties, that create community. Most people are welcoming and love to learn about our cultures. Most empathize, understand and do what they can to ease our struggles. We are able to attain a Social Security Number, get involved in different organizations and be awarded scholarships throughout our time here. We have access to a multitude of untapped resources, professional opportunities and high-class education that we were promised. We have the support of the Office of International Affairs and fellow international students who are always willing to provide advice and aid when we’re lost.
We’re also able to cultivate our talents and represent our country to the best of our abilities. I love introducing my culture to people by teaching them phrases in my language and cooking our national dishes for them. I’ve grown to be strong and confident in my abilities to persevere for what I want to achieve. Going through these experiences has given me a more holistic and universal perspective on global issues, and being in the United States has made me more socially aware, while also finding comfort and pride in my own identity. These are all things that I wouldn’t trade, and I’m sure many of us feel the same way.
This piece isn’t meant to be a stream of complaints or requests for pity. I understand that many of these laws are present for a reason and are part of what we sign up for. I also recognize that, as someone who can speak English fluently and often with a Western accent, my experiences are not equivalent to those of all international students. Sometimes, I do start to believe that I should just shut up, be grateful to even be let into this country or just go back to where I came from. But when I;m being publicly shamed by an immigration officer after a 30-hour flight, or when I’m in tears at the airport because no one would process my visa, making me miss my flight to see my family, I’d like to propose that sometimes, it’s important to tell the often unheard stories of students like me. It’s important to show empathy and consideration for those who have different circumstances than you.
If the past four years have shown me anything, it’s that international students are a fierce and resilient group of people, who have been dealt cards that often work against them, but nonetheless, have learned to find strength, be independent and carve their own path through the rubble.
*All names have been changed.
Illustration by Isha Pandya