Eight years ago, I was packing my home and entire life in Mexico to move to the US to pursue a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California-Irvine. Those were easier times, although it did not seem like it at the time. I spent a few months worth of income to pay for paperwork to apply for an F-1 student visa, and to pay for other documents to enroll as a graduate student. This was after I dedicated months to emailing professors everywhere in the US, hoping that one of them would reply to my email and would invite me to apply to join their lab. It was also after spending time and money paying for standardized tests, official document translations, and application fees. It was a one-and-a-half-year process but in July 2012, I was finally moving to the USA to pursue my PhD. It was a dream come true.
It was also a dream come true for the University of California because I had a full scholarship from my home country that paid for the entirety of my international tuition and fees, which were around $35,000 per year. My scholarship allowed me to pursue my PhD in the USA, and to UC Irvine it provided basically “free labor” as well as prestige.
I paid taxes and did all of the typical graduate student responsibilities. I also dedicated a lot of my time to doing outreach to bring science to underserved communities around Orange County and Southern California. By the time I graduated in 2017, I was a stellar student, with three publications with UC Irvine's name on them. I co-organized summer science camps for middle school girls that brought money and a good reputation to my university and program. I mentored students of all ages. I was a good “citizen” of my program, of my university, and of Orange County.
Like me, most international students leave their families and everything that they are comfortable with to pursue the dream of graduate school. They bring with them the hope of being welcomed and treated fairly by their American peers. I have experienced this, but I am one of the lucky ones.
It is no secret that international students and postdocs will withstand abuse and other injustices just so they can keep their visa, which is always tied to their university. Many universities receive international students without having a system to deal with the unique challenges that international students face, such as having no credit history, which complicates finding a place to live and leaves international students vulnerable to landlord abuse. Many international students are people of color, and universities, especially predominantly white institutions, do not have resources to ensure safety of these students within the university and in the community at large.
These challenges are further complicated due to a lack of community and support. Making friends in the US, especially if you are coming from Global South countries and/or non-Westernized countries, is extremely challenging. Many times, I have seen how western Europeans, Australians, and Canadians are rapidly accepted in the local community, while many Latinx, Asians, and Middle-Easterners are not.
There are over one million international students in the US. The ICE Student Ban may no longer be a threat, but universities still need to change how they handle international students. We are people too, but many universities have historically valued us only by the amount of money we bring. We improve higher education not only by the money that we bring, but by our unique perspectives, our research productivity, and our willingness to give back to American society.