I’m an International Student at Dickinson College—Now I’m Anxious About My Future

The future of many international students was thrown into flux when the Trump administration changed its visa policies—then flip-flopped back again.

In early July, the Trump administration barred all international college students from living in the United States if their classes were being held online only as a response to the pandemic. That rule was rescinded on July 14 after Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a challenge to the ruling. Currently, it’s the administration’s policy that any new international students whose college classes are online only may not enter the country. The situation has made life unsettled for international students living and attending schools in the United States.

We spoke to Kat Pham, a 20-year-old student from Vietnam, who is entering her senior year at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for her perspective.

In March when the coronavirus started to hit Europe and the United States, I was studying in France in a semester study abroad program. Then, my in-person classes were canceled in mid-March and I had to return to the United States. Not only did I have to fly back to campus quickly, which was stressful in and of itself, but I had to self-quarantine for two weeks when I arrived back on campus. Now, I’m living on campus in an apartment assigned to me by my school.

I’m from Hanoi, Vietnam—and that city is my entire life, but at this moment I’m living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where I attend Dickinson College. I’m the only person in my family, including my parents and my siblings, who is not in Hanoi right now. I first came to the United States in 2017 to attend college.

A few weeks after my return to campus, I hit rock bottom, uncertain of what my future looked like. I was mainly afraid of three things: contracting the virus, being unable to find a job in the United States, and being unable to go home after graduating in spring 2021.

International students are so often overlooked

When ICE instituted its policy, I felt very hopeless because you can have lobbyists for almost anything related to Americans’ life, but international students are apparently not related to Americans’ life, so who is going to stand up for us? For days, I felt like we were being bullied defenselessly and I was extremely happy that Harvard and MIT stood up with a legal case. However, now as the discussion on the policy by ICE dies down, once again international students will become anonymous and head back to the casual struggle of keeping themselves physically, financially, and mentally in shape without any notice from the society at large.

When you look into the discussion on whether a university should be open for in-person classes in the fall—or not—you hardly see any mention of international students who cannot go home, who cannot work outside of their school, who most likely have no relatives in the United States, who still have to pay rent and buy food with the little to no money that they have, who live in fear every day because if they contract the virus, they may not be treated well because of not having the proper insurance. The truth is that international students are often not considered as a core component of U.S. society. We are “international,” not American, so society doesn’t have to be responsible for us even though we pay taxes just like every American.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, international students have suffered from misleading media portraits. We suffer from racist stereotypes on social media by our peers; people think that we are the rich kids; people think that we are trying to stay in the United States and take jobs away from young Americans. We are always “them” to the general American population, never “one of us.” I always think that the media are the voices of people, and if the media doesn’t understand us, our backgrounds, circumstances, and our true selves, the rest of the world will get it wrong too. Inspired to help? Start with these 14 ways you can fight racism every day.

I fear that my job prospects as an international student look dim

To be honest, I have no idea what to plan after graduation. Before COVID-19, my initial plan for the future was to find a job in the field of actuarial sciences (which I’m pursuing) in the United States within the 12 months duration of my Optional Practical Training, then to move back to Vietnam to work permanently and be with my family. Even then, I was not certain about this plan either because, to be frank, I fear that the majority of companies will eliminate my application just because I’m not a U.S. citizen. I was traumatized by a phone interview last October which ended within three minutes when the HR person learned that I’m not a U.S. citizen.

With the rising unemployment rate and an increasing sentiment of xenophobia in the United States, I see little chance of my finding a job upon graduation. I was very fortunate that I got my internship offer for this summer in November last year. My internship was supposed to be in Charlotte, South Carolina, but it transitioned to a remote position. I’m grateful they didn’t cancel it outright.

I’m scared I won’t get to go back home

Vietnam is still banning visitors from the United States; as long as the United States remains the pandemic epicenter—which it may still be upon my graduation next spring—I may not be able to go home. There aren’t any commercial flights to Vietnam. I have to wait for the next plane that Vietnam sends to rescue its citizens. The cost is around $1,000 one way; typically, you get a roundtrip flight for that price—I don’t currently have the money for that. Plus, it’s risky to travel so far since the flights home only go from big airports like Washington Dulles and New York City’s JFK.

With things changing so rapidly, I’ve decided the best solution is to have no plan and be flexible—there is no point in having a plan when situations can change dramatically and your plan no longer make sense in the new situation. I try not to be stressed as much as possible, but I don’t know whether I can keep it up until my graduation approaches next May.

Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].

For more on this developing situation, including how life might be different post-lockdown, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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