Sophia DeSchiffart

When Awuor Onguru ’24, an international first year from Kenya, got an email from Ozan Say — the OISS senior advisor — she added the in-person course HUMS 116 to her schedule and did not think twice. Say was recommending that she take the class for immigration purposes due to the “ICE document.” Onguru took the advice, just as many on-campus international first years did as they finalized their schedules back in August.

The ICE document published back in July 2020 mandated that all international students on an initial F1 visa, which meant only first years and sophomores who took a gap semester, have to take an in-person class in order to be eligible to remain in the U.S. While some international Yalies worked in a lab and some were in an in-person arts class, a series of two classes called HUMS 115 and HUMS 116 were the easiest options to fulfill the requirement for many. For instance, as a DS student with a difficult essay workload, Onguru thought that this half-credit course which required only three single pages to write per term didn’t seem like a big deal.

The classes turned out to be more than an obligation for most international students. They became sources of social normalcy in an otherwise disrupted year. Attending class became a social event: Everyone dressed up, walked together and sometimes got food or ice cream after the class. 

“The class has become a way for me to find a community in an unexpected way, ” Onguru said. She added that her favorite part of the class was learning that Yale students invented the Frisbee. “I thought it was such a Yale thing,” she said.

Even beyond fun facts about the college, the content of the course series — which focuses on the history of academia as well as Yale’s specific history — piqued many students’ interest. Some sophomores and American students even took the class out of sheer curiosity. They got to listen to speeches by prominent Yale faculty, such as Dean Chun, about how much Yale costs and why. In the weekly discussion sections, Chun’s lectures sparked personal discussions about why one might go to college. 

Wei-Ting Shih ’24, an international student from Taiwan and Nicaragua, also took the class for immigration purposes, but ended up thoroughly enjoying its format.

“Professor Lewis is amazing and he has so much passion for the course and so much expertise. And that passion he has and the expertise he has makes the class so engaging. It’s very evident that he puts a lot of dedication into this course, so that’s very admirable,” Shih said.

Shih enjoyed seeing her peers face-to-face and becoming more comfortable with the international community as they discussed Yale’s beginnings, its hierarchies, its cultural role and its diversity. 

Ultimately, however, the point was not necessarily to enjoy the class. The point was to be eligible to stay in the United States and at Yale. Michael Gabashvili ’24, an international first year from Georgia, felt “kinda icky” about the regulation. “It’s just [ICE] trying to make our lives harder,” he said.

Still, Gabashvili is very thankful for the Yale faculty who made it possible for the internationals to attend college as first years. Otherwise, he thought he would be “doomed” with an eight-hour time difference and would consider a leave of absence. Although Gabashvili thinks that the regulation should not exist because it hinders international students’  ability to enjoy the first year experience, he appreciates the way that Yale has dealt with it by constructing this as a pass/fail course with only two weekly components.

Nonetheless, the class posed problems for some international students’ schedules. For instance, as a prospective history and EP&E major, Shih would probably not have taken the class if it was not required, since balancing majors was already challenging enough. Both Onguru and Elifnaz Onder ’24, an international first year from Turkey, had to sacrifice classes they wanted badly to take.

“The general opposition among the students wasn’t because of how the class format was, but because we had to do this class on a basis that is unfair,” Onder said.

Another discouraging fact was the time and location of the class: 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights at Science Hill, which was particularly exhausting after a long day of office hours, seminars and extracurricular meetings.

Communication and socialization amid pandemic regulations was another difficulty. As the students and the faculty tried to keep to social distancing regulations, class discussions became more burdensome. For Onder, English was not her first language, so it was already hard to understand people when they spoke quickly. With masks on and social distancing in place, discussing the philosophical content of the course usually meant trying to catch a few words and make meaning out of what she couldn’t hear on the other side of the room. From what Onder observed, English was many people’s second language, so they were all struggling to translate from their first language and try to hear people through their masks and social distancing. 

When the COVID-19 risk was especially high, the class switched to an online format on Zoom. Both the students and the professor missed the opportunity to interact beyond the screen. For professor Lewis, this class had been an unusual opportunity to learn about international students’ experiences and to build on his ongoing book about college education.

“One of the reasons why I thought this would be a good class for students is to think about ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘Why am I in college?’ It might seem obvious to people, they probably have been applying to college for the large time of their lives, or maybe their parents assumed that they would go to college. But why does it exist this way, why learn this way instead of some other way, like fully online or learning in your hometown? What are the advantages and possibly the disadvantages of the college system?” Lewis said.

While the class was perhaps the best way out of the ICE document, it also served as a reminder to many international Yalies about how different their world was from the American students. 

“American students never have to think about ‘If I’m not taking this class, I’m going to get deported’ or getting a driver’s license, getting in a car with someone, taking a class, literally anything,” Onguru said. “And this class is just a reminder that going to school in the U.S. is a very different experience for international students. It’s like, you’re here, but we can put you out by literally anything.”

Gamze Kazakoglu | gamze.kazakoglu@yale.edu