Santa Clara Magazine

Casts a Shadow

Casts a Shadow

By Matt Morgan

Illustration by Emmanuel Polanco. View Full image
The impact of recent travel bans on international students isn’t clear—but it isn’t good. Four graduate students tell their stories. 

Margi Mehta M.S. ’18 is fascinated by data. “Online shopping—it’s all about data,” she says. “Email is all about data. I can learn about any business through data. If you can treat data well, it gives you a lot more than you expected.”

Mehta came to the United States from India in 2016 to dig deeper into data: learn patterns, formulate predictions. Where better than SCU, in the heart of Silicon Valley, to earn a master’s in information systems? She lives with her aunt and uncle locally and hopes to work in the Valley. But she’s preparing for other possibilities since the rollout of the first travel ban issued by the White House in January.

Her status has not been threatened by the executive order. But when her uncle visited India in February, he worried whether he could return. “Everybody was tense, including me,” Mehta says.

Illustration by Emmanuel Polanco
Illustration by Emmanuel Polanco

Having a plan B is a common theme among international students now. They want to stay but they wonder: How appealing a job candidate are they if their status is in flux? As Mehta says, “It’s always there in the back of your mind.”

Min Zhu MBA ’17 saved for three years in China to pay for her graduate education. The uncertainty of what comes after graduation is stressful, she says. She once was determined to work in the States, and she will apply for an H-1B. But also, she says, “I’ll just go with the flow.”

COUNSEL AND RISK

For Susan Popko, associate provost for International Programs, concern over the travel ban started a few days before the first one was announced. She knew that

immigration orders were coming, and she sent an email to international students to prepare. But when the order hit, like most of the country, she and her team had to scramble.

“We were just trying to read the actual text and get into it and figure out what this means to our students,” Popko says. “There was so much confusion.”

International Programs supports 1,300 current students and recent grads. The undergraduate population is geographically diverse. The majority of graduate students in business and engineering are from India. Popko immediately identified who was affected by the ban, including three current students from Iran. She and her staff determined everyone was safe, then they set out to combat confusion with information online and in person.

One international scholar was blocked from traveling to campus in January. The immigration orders since—including announced plans to drastically change the H-1B visa program—have taken an emotional toll on international students as they complete their coursework and plan for a life after graduation. The International Programs office has worked with hundreds of students in recent months; they’re anxious. Will they be able to stay? Can they travel safely? Can family visit? Popko tapped the School of Law, but rapid changes made it difficult to offer solid advice. Lawyers with expertise in immigration law were caught chasing ghosts: What’s true when you leave for spring break might not be true when you come back. The lesson? Every trip is a risk.

DON’T SLIP UP

Aya Masuo MBA ’18 hails from Japan. Her visa was put on probation once, as an undergrad. She got sick—a stomach illness—and missed weeks of class. If you’re no longer a student, you can’t use a student visa, right? Doctor notes cleared up the confusion, but it was a lesson in how quickly visas can unravel. With the travel ban, the threat of a simple slipup in paperwork has intensified. “If I got sick tomorrow I’d probably be really worried,” she says. “Maybe that doctor note isn’t effective anymore.”

The concern came home earlier this year when Masuo’s grandmother became gravely ill. Masuo was worried if she went to Japan, she couldn’t return. “What happens to my apartment or my car? What happens to my program and graduation?” Masuo asks. “My family understands that I can’t come back, but why does my family have to suffer with this situation?”

“AM I AN AMERICAN?”

In the beginning, every part of living in the United States was tough, says Meera Tanikella M.A. ’17, who moved here when she was 15. From clothes to her accent, she didn’t fit in. Classmates struggled to understand her speech. But she liked singing. She listened well. She would learn.

Eleven years later, she’s a graduate of UC Davis, and she just finished her master’s in counseling psychology in June. She will have a year to find a work sponsor and apply for an H-1B. Each year, 85,000 H-1B visas are awarded by lottery. She will have one shot. She worries that changes to H-1B will make her chances even slimmer.

“I wouldn’t fit in in India,” Tanikella says. “The life I know is here. My family is here. My partner is here. I can’t even think of how it would work. I dress like one, I talk like one—am I an American?”

MATT MORGAN is the associate editor of this magazine.

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