When people ask me if I would go back in time and choose the US again for college, I say yes. I say yes because in the last decade I've built a beautiful life and community here. I don't say yes because it's been an easy road. When they ask me if I recommend the US for international students who are debating this question today, especially those from countries in Asia or Africa, I'm hesitant to say yes because I don't recommend it as a first choice. Today I'm going to focus on the immigration system but the ways in which you are racialized in the US also contribute to my recommendation, but I'll save that for another post.
The US immigration system is not designed to retain and advance international students into residents and ultimately citizens. You know this from the moment they issue you an F1 'non-immigrant' visa. This means there is no direct path to permanent residency, there is no guaranteed transition to a work visa (outside of a 1-3 year work permit called OPT), and there is an expectation that after you finish your studies, you will depart. For a lot of people that works out just fine. However, once you've been in a country for 4 years, maybe 6 years if you also do a master's or maybe 10+ if you add on a PhD... it's not always so easy to say goodbye.
You might have formed personal connections & strong professional networks. You might have an internship that you love and want to advance into a full-time position. Most importantly, you might decide that you would like to stay and continue to contribute to your field. In the US, the choices you have are very limited. Maybe you'll win the coveted H-1B lottery, maybe you'll find an employer willing to sponsor you, but more often than not, you don't have a choice.
For every Sundar Pichai who ends up getting a job and eventually becoming the CEO of Google, and for every Pramila Jayapal who ends up becoming a Congresswoman, there's thousands (maybe millions?) of students who weren't able to stay and who had to leave to go back to their home countries.
Is it worth it then to take the risk? I'm not so sure. I know it's different in other countries. A friend of mine is wrapping up their education in Canada and told me that they would be receiving a 3 year work permit with a path to permanent residency. I know of another friend in the EU who also has residency there, although I'm not as clear on the pathway. My point is that in some other countries you might be given a choice on what you want to do, and in my opinion having a choice is a game changer.
Not having a choice is disempowering. Seeing the look on employers' faces when you tell them you need visa sponsorship and realizing you're not going to get the job is disheartening. Watching your legal status expiration date approach without having any control over it is terrifying. Listening to the constant anti-immigrant rhetoric is exhausting. Knowing that you are not wanted is painful. And trust me, they will make it clear that you are not wanted. Get your education and get out is the sense I always got. Maybe things will change with the incoming Biden-Harris administration but I'm not holding my breath for any drastic changes overnight.
For me personally it's my marriage that has opened up a pathway to residency for me, and honestly that makes me sad. It makes me sad because I've invested a lot of time in this country. I've worked in research that benefits American populations, taught primarily American college students, collaborated with American state and public agencies, and overall have made contributions to American society that I believe should warrant residency outside of my family situation. I'm not alone, I know of many others in the same boat... And it makes me reflect on whether I would have had a less stressful experience, spent less nights worrying about my legal status, in a country where my talents and skills were valued and sought after.
Every country will have it's own set of challenges, I'm not saying that Canada or the EU are perfect. They probably have lots of challenges that I don't know about. But what I am saying, is to consider your options more carefully. I didn't even apply to colleges in other countries because I was so fixated on the US. I would encourage students at all levels, undergraduate and graduate, to look into all of your options before you make your decision. Do your research, you won't regret it!
Questions? Thoughts? Let me know in the comments!
I use this space to share my thoughts on a variety of academic and non-academic topics! Happy reading!