Every morning, I woke up to the same email. “We regret to inform you that the U.S. Department of State Consulate in Istanbul was unable to approve your request for an expedited Visa application appointment.”
I was not alone. Thousands of international students received the same message over and over again during the summer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only transformed the way the world looks today, but also the way we conceive of it. For me, the pandemic shattered my illusion about life in the U.S. Soon after I received my admissions letter, the hard reality hit.
I come from Istanbul, Turkey. As cliche as it might sound, the U.S. is still seen as the land of freedom and opportunity in a lot of countries around the world. I was no stranger to this concept. I’ve dreamed of going to an American university since I was nine years old. I could receive a well-rounded liberal arts education at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, and become the hero of one of the success stories I had heard so frequently growing up.
However, starting in March, my dream of America began to disappear. As the pandemic escalated and the number of cases started to increase rapidly, U.S. embassies all around the world stopped their visa services. New York became the deathbed of more than 20,000 people. The world was in shock. The superpower everyone looked up to was caught off guard and simply lacked the mature leadership to properly respond to the 21st century’s biggest crisis.
As international students, we faced one serious question: “Should we go?” We asked ourselves: Would it be safe to travel to and stay in the U.S.? Was it financially and mentally worth going there? Would we receive adequate health care in a system that discriminated even against its own citizens of color? These questions were filled with false assumptions and unrealistic expectations, but worst of all, panic, fear and disappointment.
In the midst of this uncertainty, the Trump administration passed another ruling. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on July 6 that the U.S. Department of State would not issue visas to students enrolled in schools that were fully online for the fall 2020 semester.
This was the final blow. I had spent my whole life working to get into a renowned American college and now I wouldn’t even be able to enter the country to receive the education I had worked so hard for. It was then I realized that I had always missed one significant component of those inspiring success stories: They were one in a million. Those stories didn’t tell us about the thousands of immigrants that had to leave the U.S. — many of whom I know back home — because of hostility and discrimination or how much they had struggled in this land of supposed freedom and opportunity.
Even after I received my visa and arrived at JFK Airport, I grew more and more critical of my original illusion. I was worried, but not about my health or well-being — even though I had spent 11 hours with my mask on in a cramped plane full of people. I was worried because one immigration officer alone could still find a way to not let me in. My voice was shaking as I answered his questions. Why was I coming to the U.S.? Would Yale offer in-person classes? Could I provide any evidence for this? I was very careful while choosing my words. One minor mistake or misunderstanding could cost me everything.
As I was being interrogated, American people and even officers throughout the airport were taking their masks off. This was frustrating not only because they were breaking the simplest rule of the pandemic, but also because the Trump administration — claiming to protect the U.S. from the virus — had instilled so much fear and anxiety into international students’ lives.
The idealized American life that is advertised in books, movies and inspirational stories is deceitful. The line between America’s glory and its ugliness is very thin. Your race, ethnicity and religion determine which side of that line you fall on before you even have a chance to display your talents and intelligence. The lie of the American Dream might sound obvious to Americans, but to foreigners, it still can come as a surprise.
It is ironic that one of the main elements of a successful college application is our contribution to society. Especially for international students, the society we strive to become a part of is not even ready or willing to accept us. While Yale tries to foster an inclusive and diverse environment, the American society around it makes it seem like that’s not even possible. In a country that was built by immigrants, this simply should not be the case.
This is not just about the Trump administration — it’s about the America he represents. Donald Trump is undeniably the embodiment of everything wrong in American society. However, racism, greed, discrimination and violence existed long before him and will continue to do so even after him.
If Joe Biden is elected, maybe I won’t have to take in-person classes just to stay in the country. But this is not and should not be about one man. I now can only wonder: Will I be the one that “makes it” or will I fail and go home? And is going home even a failure at all?
SUDE YENILMEZ is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .