Over the past three years that I’ve spent as an international student at Princeton University, I’ve found that having an F-1 visa is like holding onto a promise.
Sitting in the folds of my South Korean passport, my visa promises me that, for a set length of time, I will be granted a second home. In this second home, I will meet people who will change me. I will learn things I would not be able to learn elsewhere, explore new places, find new families, maybe even fall in love.
On the morning of July 7, I woke up in Seoul to discover that this promise had been broken as I slept.
Ever since U.S. colleges and universities shut down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, we international students have faced heartbreak after heartbreak: Visa programs have been suspended, many consulates are closed, and President Donald Trump declared in April — through Twitter, no less — that our presence was harming the economy of a country many of us consider a second home.
When the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on July 6 that international students could be deported or barred from entering the country if they do not meet a strict set of conditions for the fall semester, the outrage felt familiar.
Like before, questions abounded but remained unanswered: Why would the government mandate in-person classes during a pandemic? What about the students in time zones that differ drastically from where they study? How would transfers work when details for the fall semester are so unclear, consulates remain shuttered, and there is simply no time?
Petitions were shared, students created class-swap initiatives to allow their international friends to take their in-person classes, and messages of support flooded into my inbox from all over the world.
Throughout it all, I’ve been exhausted.
Like many international students who have been granted a brief spell in this country, I’ve been exhausted since the spring. Back then, many of us were unable to return home when our schools closed down due to fears of spreading COVID-19. Every day, alone in my dorm room, I wondered what I was missing by having sacrificed my family life for an education in the U.S.
But contrary to what I believed, returning home, which I eventually did in early May, was no easier.
Even in Korea I am yearning for a lost home, my mind wandering in the empty space between two distant time zones. I am up in the summer evenings, attempting to meet my friends halfway as they wake up on the East Coast; I’ve followed each protest demanding justice for Black lives closely, my heart clenching because in each face I can see my roommates and my classmates.
And now I have been hit with a double trauma: First unable to go to my home of origin in the spring, now I may be unable to go to my second home in the fall.
The dissonance this displacement causes is draining. And although holding an academic visa is a privilege that I will always be grateful for, it is exhausting to uphold the weight of two distant lives at once.
Princeton University — which announced its decision to partially re-open on the same day as the ICE announcement — is still figuring out details for the fall. If I am barred from traveling to the U.S. in August, I wonder how I will continue to live my double life for a semester. I simply cannot imagine doing it for a year. Add in the 13 hours that separate Seoul and New Jersey, and my education, my aspirations, and my sense of self will not be the same.
Institutionally speaking, there have always been rules and markers that have distinguished international students from their domestic peers: the long immigration lines at the airport, I-20 forms stashed into passports, tax season, finding on-campus and post-graduation jobs within strict visa restrictions.
Yet it is easy to forget that the country considers you a “non-immigrant alien” once you pass immigration to enter a familiar Arrivals Hall; when you’re washing dishes in the dining hall listening to “High School Musical” and messing around with your fellow student co-workers; when you’re at a birthday party, a dance show, an a cappella performance, and you can’t tell who had to fly there and whose home is just a drive away.
The only thing that matters then is that everyone is together and in a place where they feel they belong.
That, in my opinion, has always been the beauty of the U.S. education system: its openness to difference, and all the things that you can learn when your classmates are from incredibly diverse places and walks of life.
That is why I went to the United States to begin with.
These days, I wonder what campuses will look like without their international students. I think about my friend Ysa from the Philippines, and the Filipino potluck she helped organize our sophomore year. I think about my friends Arjun and Mahishan, from Singapore and New Jersey respectively, and how they shared their chai recipes at my co-op just weeks before the coronavirus hit. I think about my friend Conor from Ireland, who, when Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” was released on Hulu, explained how it perfectly captured his experiences in high school. I think of these events and conversations gone. And without them, the Princeton I know — and have grown to love — will not be the same.
As schools roll out their plans for the fall semester, I know that administrators across the nation are fighting to avoid this alternate future. To those thinking about international students, thank you. My hope is that the government will soon realize, too, that this alternate future is one less favorable to us all.