International students discuss the challenges of F-1 visas in the post-Trump era

International students discuss the challenges of F-1 visas in the post-Trump era

Many challenges remain for international students at UC Davis amid the pandemic

International graduate students at UC Davis continue to face obstacles to conducting their research, and these problems are exacerbated by both the pandemic and the challenges of working under an F-1 visa. 

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the F-1 visa permits people from abroad to study in academic institutions in the U.S.. Students must be fluent in English and must support themselves financially for the duration of their course of study. They cannot work outside of their academic institution of choice, meaning that international graduate students at UC Davis are unable to pursue off-campus jobs or U.S.-based projects outside of the university, even if they are research-related. 

According to a fourth-year doctoral student who spoke to The California Aggie about his experiences on the condition of anonymity, the stringency of these visa guidelines, as well as the complexity of the U.S.’s relationship with his home country of Peru, has made conducting research difficult. 

He talked about the challenges of undertaking research with indigenous leaders in Peru, who were denied entry to the U.S.. 

“When [a visa] gets rejected, you never get any explanation,” he said. “It’s not even that they tell you that you’re missing something.” 

He noted that the rejection of his research collaborators occurred under the administration of former President Donald Trump.  

“This is me speculating, because there is no official record, but I assume they saw these indigenous leaders not as leaders working with a university, but just as poor people from a poor country,” he said. “Maybe [the government] thought they were at risk of staying illegally.”

Federal and state funding is also largely off-limits to international students. 

“By coming here and doing my Ph.D. here, I am promoting and I am benefiting U.S. academia in the same way that a student who is not international is,” the student said. “So why am I not eligible for that kind of funding? I pay taxes here like everyone else, and I don’t get the right to vote or anything like that. It’s taxation without representation, literally.” 

A doctoral student from China also spoke about a lack of access to federal funding in her field of cultural anthropology. 

“I feel like I’m in a weird position,” she said. “My home country doesn’t recognize me as someone foreign living in the U.S., and the U.S. doesn’t recognize me as a resident living here.”

She explained that non-U.S. citizens are ineligible for prestigious grants and fellowships like the Fulbright or the MacArthur Innovation Grant.
“I was thinking, since I’m here, I should contribute to society here, but it hasn’t included me so why should I even bother?” she said. 

COVID-19 has also complicated international students’ efforts to undertake research. Last year, the doctoral student from Peru was unable to conduct research at his field site since Peru’s borders were closed due to the pandemic. 

Because his research is based on performance practices there, the pandemic has delayed his degree progress. 

An eighth-year doctoral student in performance studies spoke about a similar experience. Her F-1 visa mandates that she be employed solely by the university, making it impossible for her to be a part of art initiatives happening outside of the UC, despite the fact that these initiatives are at the core of her research and artistic practice. 

“Even though I have invitations from people in the States to do art, legally I’m not supposed to,” she said. “I’m not supposed to get paid or be doing work outside of the umbrella of the UC. It’s hard to develop my art and my network of art practices here, which then hinders my visa.” 

The student’s spouse is under an F-2 visa, meaning that they are a dependent of someone with an F-1. According to the Department of Homeland Security, a dependent can enroll at an accredited institution in the United States provided that they aren’t pursuing a full course of study. 

Dependents are unable to work or apply for a social security number in the country. Because of this, the student’s spouse has been unable to work for five years.

Additionally, due to the collaborative nature of her work and the challenge of teaching performance classes online, the student has taken an extra year to complete her dissertation.

Having been diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of her doctoral studies, she is now one quarter over the time frame that UC Davis is able to fund, meaning that she can no longer benefit from the non-resident supplemental tuition fellowship (NRST) waiver which extends to the fourth and fifth years of doctoral studies post-candidacy.  

In a previous article by The California Aggie regarding the limitations of the NRST waiver, Performance Studies Chair Joe Dumit said that the waiver doesn’t account for complications like illness or family emergencies despite the extension it offers.

 Although the university has offered individual solutions to some graduate students regarding funding during COVID-19, visa-related issues mostly remain up to the federal government. 

“I don’t think the university can do something tangible other than filling the gaps of the federal government in the short run,” the doctoral student from Peru said, referring both to the limitations of his student visa and the complicated relationship the U.S. has with Latin American countries. “But in the long run, I think there should be an organized push towards integration rather than highlighting the differences between national and non-national students,” he said.

Though his department has supported his studies despite limited funding available in the humanities, federal regulations have proven to be quite different. 

“[The relationship between the U.S. and Latin America] has never been a collaborative space, the way I’ve seen it, in which everyone comes as an equal,” he said. “I think there’s this strong discrepancy between what my department is trying to put forward and create and what the federal government allows people to do.” 

Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — campus@theaggie.org