The International Student Bait-and-Switch

Come for the schools, be used as pawns for politics.

Hi! Can here. Today, we talk about the new “international student ban”

American Colleges are Good, They Said

People sometimes ask me why and how I came to the United States. There are multiple reasons. The first is, it was easier for me to come here than go to college in Turkey. Even though I was always a good student, I always hated standardized testing, especially the stress that came with it. Back in my day in Turkey, the way you entered college was taking a test offered only once a year, and hoping to score good enough to get into a good school. There were essays, no recommendation letters, and definitely no extra-curricular, except for the cram schools you had to go to after regular school.

So when I realized that I could instead hedge some of the risk of not doing well on SATs and APs by also doing well in classes, and generally being active with extra-curricular stuff, it was an easy decision. I made the call in around 9th grade, much to my parents’ chagrin, that I would apply to colleges in the US, and not take the university entrance exam.

Of course, I wasn’t just trying to hack my way out of testing. I also wanted to get a good education. A lot of countries have really good colleges, but not many countries have a lot of colleges like the US does. Other than its nauseating optimism and the entrepreneurial spirit that comes with it, I’d put the congregation of world-class higher-education institutions as one of America’s qualitative competitive advantages.

Well, at least it was back then.

This past week, I read in horror how the US government has decided that the international students who are attending schools that have switched to full-on virtual classes will be losing their immigration status. The only two options students had, the administration said, was either to transfer to a school that still offered courses on campus or leave the country.

It’s hard for me to maintain my decorum when I think about this stuff, but I’ll do my best.

Like many others, my first impression was that this new policy was a new entry in what has now become a Stephen Miller specialty where the cruelty is the point. The administration, I thought, was trying to inflict pain and suffering on tens of thousands of students and their families because either it’d play with the electorate, that it’d help them distract their befuddling response to the coronavirus, that they took some perverse glee in others’ suffering or something that has a bit of all that.

You’ll Be Respected, They Said

But, soon enough, it became clear to me it was even more sinister than that. The administration wanted to force the colleges to open back up and the millions of international students were being used as pawns in this game of realpolitik.

It’s an open secret that for many colleges in the US, the international students are where colleges get a big chunk of their revenues. People rightfully make fun of colleges that have 4-year sticker prices in the low half-millions that now will be offering courses on Zoom, but the reality is more complicated. Most American students never, ever pay the full price. Most of the elite schools have generous scholarship programs. And when those aren’t available, there are often low-interest loans that you can get from many different governments, both state and federal. This is not to say those colleges are cheap, or that getting in doesn’t rely mostly on privilege, rather than merit.

International students, however, by and large, pay the full ride in most schools in undergrad and in master’s programs. Very few schools offer any scholarship to international students, and of those that do, the terms are often not as comparable. Even schools that are officially “need-blind,” that is, they do not consider student’s ability to pay into account in admission decisions, are thought to be more like “need-will-peek”, and many students do not apply for scholarships when they could probably benefit from them. Often it’s the international students that end up subsidizing the education for many of their American peers.

This is the point of leverage the US government is exploiting; for many schools, even those with billions in endowments, not having international students that pay up the wazoo is non financially feasible.

It is easy to paint a caricature of International students who come here to party all night and sleep all day, only to get a degree from a diploma mill with daddy’s money. I know my fair share of those people.

Life is Good, They Said

But, as I mentioned before, the main reason people come to the US is simply the life here is supposed to be better than we had back “home”. Money is the biggest reason for most people, but, it’s not the only reason. Life in the US is supposed to be quiet, and free from the daily stress that is endemic to many other countries. It can be as simple as knowing that you could show up at a government office without wondering if you have enough cash for a bribe or something more existential like wondering if that’s the day the military will finally call a coup.

Most fundamentally, I’ve always thought that the United States had a more profound respect for human dignity. That I could be a productive member of this society, my work would be respected and judged on its merits, and then in return, I’d get at least a baseline of sanity, a quiet place that I could live my life in.

Again, I don’t want to go all woe-is-me here, but sometimes I wish I could tell people the sacrifices that people like me make to form a new life. Living separated from your friends and family back home is hard enough as it is, but does anyone tell you how hard it is to do all that while trying to fit in? Trying to navigate the social minefield that is making friends in college in a new country whose customs you primarily know from watching dated TV shows, dealing with people that treat you like kids because you speak with a different accent even though you are their TA, parents of girlfriends who wonder if you can actually speak English (what did they think we do all day, I wonder?), the stress of dealing with a police officer in a country where you know cops have guns, and knowing you can be deported for saying the wrong thing.

I’ve never heard anyone complain about any of that because that’s the price we decided that we’d pay to come here. We all thought, rightfully, that this was a good bargain, that we’d take some early hits on our quality of life so that we’d have a much better later on. And for many, it was a good deal.

However, it’s hard not to look at the current state of the United States and wonder if the bargain holds anymore. I’ve said, on record to a national paper, much to my then immigrant attorney’s dismay, that seeing Trump get elected was like a punch in the gut. A short few years after, seeing the United States fall so hard on its face on dealing with a pandemic made me wonder if this country was even able to muster the most feeble effort to help its people survive. And now, seeing the current administration use millions of people as pawns in their misguided attempt to open back the economy, I wonder if the sanctity of life argument even holds anymore. It’s been a humbling few months for America, and it’s been particularly embarrassing for people like me. I’ve come here for a better life, and for the lack of a better word, all I can feel sometimes is that I’ve bet on the wrong horse.

There are still millions of people who’d do anything to come to this country for a tiny bit of chance of providing a better life for themselves and their families. Yet, it’s also hard to deny that for many others who are now watching their friends’ livelihoods being thrown around as a political gambit, they are probably reevaluating their options. The whole point of moving to the developed world is to not have to deal with developing world problems. Being thrown out of the country in the midst of a global pandemic isn’t how things are supposed to work here.

For me, personally, the decision is a bit simpler. While things have been rougher here than I’d have liked, I’ve made this place my home. And maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel after all. In a few months, I’ll be eligible to apply for my US citizenship, and I’ll have lived more of my life in the US than in Turkey a few months after. Hopefully, by then, America will have rubbed off on me enough to instill me with nauseating optimism, that wide-eyed belief that the arc of history bends towards justice.