Understanding how visas work can be tricky. Visas are basically permission slips from governments that allow you to enter their country. So I guess it’s more of an international hall pass.
I’ve traveled a lot before I came to the States for college, but I never really gave visas much thought. My parents usually helped me obtain all my travel visas, or we just carefully picked travel destinations where visas weren’t required based on our nationalities.
The process for obtaining my U.S. student visa for Penn State was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever dealt with. It took about a month to get an insane amount of official documents to prove that I was eligible for the visa status, and I had to wait another few weeks to get called to a U.S. Consulate for an interview.
I had so many questions – what do you wear to a visa interview? What if they don’t like my reason for going to the States? What if they ask me what my academic plans are? What if I don’t know what my major is yet? I felt nauseous as I waited for the visa officer to call me in for my interview.
The officer first asked me why I chose the U.S. out of all places for college. I gave him a generic answer saying how an American education held great value. He then immediately asked me where I wanted to live after graduation. I said I would come back to Asia.
He looked relieved and said that that’s what he wanted to hear. He became a little friendlier for the remainder of my interview. I felt guilty. I was only 18. What the hell did I know? I didn’t even know what my major was going to be, and here I was telling this guy my “five year plan”. What if I wanted to stay in America after graduation?
The whole process took two months, and once I got the student visa status, I was able to leave for my international student orientation at Penn State. Our orientation was earlier than the regular new student orientations because international students have to learn to transition into life in the USA before even worrying about fitting in at school.
This is where we were guided through more information about our visas, and what we needed to do to maintain that status. For example, we were to always remain on a full-time course load or risk getting kicked out of school and get deported. Also, we learned that if we didn’t get our travel documents stamped before leaving for home, we wouldn’t be allowed to come back into the country and therefore not be able to get back in time for the new semester.
And the list went on.
I loved everything about my college experience and ended up graduating early. I had a great job lined up, so I was excited to go back home to be with my family before I started working. But I was crushed when I found out that my visa status prevented me from leaving the country.
I already had an employment permit pending, but that was going to take 3 months. And according to the law, leaving the country with a pending work permit meant that I would be jeopardizing my chances of coming back.
This might not sound like a huge deal to some people. “You have a job lined up, you’re done with school, so why can’t you just wait three months in the U.S. and chill?” Well, for starters, you’re not allowed to work on a student visa (like, not even tutoring). I’ve heard of so many international kids getting deported by not taking this rule seriously, so there was no way I was going to work illegally to support myself.
I was so disappointed that I had no other options. I was so excited about finally being able to support myself with a job. But my visa status meant I had to stay behind after graduation, unable to work, with no home, no family and no friends.
I tried to plead with immigration on the phone, asking them if there was any way I could just go home and still make sure I could come back to work. They said no – that the minute I left the U.S. they would see it as me going home for good and I wouldn’t be allowed back in the States for work.
My family was devastated that they couldn’t have me back home, but assured me that they would at least take care of my living costs. So for three months, I lived alone, in a strange new city, without a driver’s license (made the stupid mistake of putting it off). It was also freezing cold that winter, so I stayed home huddled in layers of clothes and blankets, rarely leaving my apartment.
If I had a car, I probably would have been able to do more stuff, but since that wasn’t the case, I had to stick to walking and using public transportation. I started checking out local event venues to keep myself entertained, and even joined a pottery class. I went to trivia nights by myself at the local bar, and tried eating at every restaurant that was within walking distance from my apartment.
I kept myself busy not just because I was bored, but because I feared that I would start questioning my decision to stay and work in the States if I had too much time on my hands.
I wanted to prove to myself more than anything that I could make huge decisions on my own.
I learned to be completely independent during that time, and I’m glad I got so much out of it. Don’t get me wrong, it sucked that I was banned from leaving the country – but at least I came out learning to be comfortable with my independence.