Being an international student at Tech in 2020

Flags hung inside the Smithgall Student Services Building represent the home countries of international students. // Photo by Kirsten Reynolds Student Publications

As we progress further into what seems to be a never-ending pandemic and a particularly brutal election cycle, it gets tougher and tougher for us international Jackets to guess what the future holds for us.

Furthermore, even more than before, the seemingly unimportant decisions we have previously made come back to bite us more than we could have anticipated.

Ineligibility for scholarships, low employment prospects (especially as an Aerospace Engineering major) and an overwhelmingly uncertain future is nothing new for me as an international student. In fact, I think most, if not all, international students were completely aware of it when we became part of the Tech community.

Nevertheless, nothing could have prepared us for 2020. I would like to review the rollercoaster that I have been trapped on for six months to give you some familiarity with my struggles as an international student.

It was Thursday, March 12, 2020, when we first learned that the rest of the semester would be held fully online, the campus would be closed and everyone would be asked to return to their homes. Anticipating such a decision, I had already packed almost everything I owned into two bags and tried to make sense of the huge dilemma that faced me.

My first choice was to try to make a return back to Turkey, where my unreliable internet connection meant I might reach four megabits per second on a good day. For comparison, Tech’s eduroam network consistently stays at over 60 megabits per second. This disparity meant there would be a very high chance that I wouldn’t be able to connect to online lectures and exams, not only failing the semester but still costing a full semester’s worth of tuition that I can barely afford anyway. Traveling home also involved the risk of contracting the virus in transit and transferring it to my parents and grandparents. These two fears, along with the possibility that I might not even be able to return to Tech in the fall, made my confidence in a trip home shaky at best.

The second option was to apply to stay on the campus. Not only was there the possibility of flat out denial, but also the risk that I might not be able to return home when summer came. This meant I would still be on campus and must pay for campus housing. At a time when my wallet was desperately clutching at every dollar it could save, and in an environment where I could be removed from housing at any point without the safety net of returning to Turkey. I wasn’t too excited about this alternative either.

The appeal of both options was slim to none, but I chose to stay because it would be both safer for myself and my family and cheaper to pay for housing with no fear of losing a semester’s worth of money and learning. So, I unpacked my belongings and settled back in. One might think that when you finally make a decision, no matter how risky it is, you get relief as you settle on a choice and don’t look back, but for me that period of relief was a fleeting 24 hours.

The next morning, I received a message from a Housing representative that I “will receive a denied status on my request to stay on campus,” sending me into a panicked frenzy to buy an astronomically priced ticket for a flight home. While thankfully, this email was supposed to be predictive and not the finalized decision which allowed me to stay on campus, this email also single-handedly cost me several thousand dollars for a non-refundable, now-cancelled plane ticket. I was incredulous at how a person can click a wrong button and instantly imperil my future with no repercussions nor apology whatsoever when it turned out they misled me.

Then came the start of May. Extreme stress, insufficient adjustment to online classes and USG’s refusal to switch to the pass/fail system tarnished my GPA. Moreover, no flights were opened to Turkey, meaning I would have to spend summer here. Instead of earning a job back home, I would sink deeper into debt, and my dashed hopes of catching a flight to Turkey quickly turned into the realization that I wouldn’t see my family until December. To say my outlook was bleak would be an understatement of the highest order.

Fortunately, after this mental nosedive, things started looking up. I entered a research position in the Aerospace System Design Laboratory, and I used that to develop good study and research habits while also distracting me from the whirlwind of literally everything else.

With summer classes going well and participation in one of my dream research positions, I thought the worst was behind me.

But, as you might have guessed, 2020 had other plans.

July 6 was the date the first ICE regulation was released concerning international students, and I remember my panic like yesterday.

Frightening thoughts raced through my mind: If Tech stays totally online for the fall, which at the time was Tech’s plan, what would I do? I would lose my international student status, and with no flights back home, where would I go? Would I be placed in an ICE detainment camp, which has had continuous reports of human rights violations? Thankfully, Tech chose to have hybrid classes for the fall, but that did not stop me from living in utter fear for several weeks.

Throughout the summer, I encountered another dilemma I have as an international student. It is hard for me to stand up and speak out about the things I do not agree with, since my legal status here depends on the sole designation that I am an international student. As much as I wanted to join the conversations and protests this summer, I forced myself to stay inside due to the fear of being disliked by the authorities that literally choose whether I leave.

Being unable to share my thoughts and speak my truths ate me up inside; I felt that not standing up for others meant personally condoning the injustices that were taking place. Even now, as my legal status in the US remains ever so fragile, I still feel anxious even about sharing my experiences and opinions in a newspaper article. Above all, I do not want to lose my chance to raise my voice.

All this turmoil in my life was based off of the one decision that I made months ago to stay in the US. I am quite sure that even if I had left for Turkey, there would still be a myriad of international student-related stressors haunting my decision. With the fall semester starting and things (relatively) calming down, there are still reminders of my legal volatility that pop up every so often. For example, three weeks after the start of the semester, I received a returned deposit payment for a study abroad program. This caused the Bursar’s Office to interpret this as unpaid fall tuition and unenroll me from all my classes, which would have resulted in me losing my international student designation and subsequently getting deported. This time, I was able to catch this molehill before it became another mountain in the Himalayas of my international student experience.

And now back to present day, for those of you keeping score, I’m left with all of the aforementioned hallmarks of international study, such as low eligibility for scholarships and employment, along with a lower GPA, a wrecked financial plan due partly to a cancelled plane ticket and a full summer cost, homesickness from not being able to see my family for almost a year, and ridiculous amounts of stress. With the rollercoaster of these 6 months slowing down, though, I am left gearing up for another loop-de-loop in the November elections. I used to easily be able to answer questions about my future, but with the COVID-19 crisis and the ICE regulations pointing to an overall trend of policies that are, to put it lightly, increasingly unfriendly towards international students, I can’t really take anything as certain anymore.

However, these past few months have shed light on some lessons I would like to share with you. First of all, even though it may not seem like it, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it takes what seems like forever to find it. At its most basic level, I have not been deported, so that is definitely a win. Second, use your voice to speak up about what you think is wrong, whether it affects you or not; looking back on Instagram stories from non-international students denouncing the ICE policies over the summer, I can honestly say it felt amazing to have people at my side. Third, value your time with friends and family. I know that I will not want to let go when I hug my parents for the first time in December. And finally, look out for your friends, international or not.

We all have our own issues that not everyone can relate to, such as the vast majority of Tech students not being international, but just being there for one another is more than enough.

As we cross the halfway point of this semester, I want to encourage everyone to have each other’s backs, regardless of differences in hometown or home country. Sticking it out together is so much better than braving it out alone.