Why did you come here ?
Every immigrant is asked this question and it mostly isn’t meant to be rude. Mostly. People are curious about why immigrants leave everything they’ve known and move to a completely unknown place with strange traditions and customs and an accent that is difficult to comprehend. They say America is the land of opportunity and anyone can come here and live the American dream. They can live the dream of a 9-5 job with a family with two kids and a dog in a house with a white picket fence. People from all over the world come to America fascinated by exceptionalism, eager to get their share of it.
Immigrants come to the U.S for a lot of different reasons. Students from all over the world look at America as the beacon of hope and place to get a quality education. But, who were these international students? Young, capable minds from around the world come to the United States to get the education of their dreams, trying to get access to the privilege that most people in their home country don’t have or aren’t allowed to have.
Education is what brought Darain to the United States and Muhlenberg College. Indian education, according to Raja Darain Khan, limited the number of options he had. It was more rigorous and stringent and you had to get used to society comparing you to other people all the time. From a society of engineers, doctors, business people and lawyers, Darain, a psychology major, stood out like a sore thumb. Psychology is a newer science and people from India have a rough time believing it. When you go to a therapist in India, people already assume that you are crazy. In the United States, the study of psychology and the acceptance of mental health is what drew him to this country. Well one of the reasons anyway.
Darain is from Kashmir, a particularly political part of India. It is a place where politics affects every aspect of your life. There have been times where Darain and his brother have tried to hang out with friends but couldn’t because of riots. He despised the willing ignorance of the government over the plight of the middle class. Anyone who has a brain knows what’s wrong, sees what’s wrong, but can’t do anything. He studied in Kashmir till the fifth grade. After that, there is no quality education.
Yujin Kim, an international student from Seoul, Korea, has similar views on American education to Darain. Yujin wants to major in physics and computer science but hasn’t declared yet because she wants to push the decision back as far as possible. Yujin has traveled all over the world in search of a good education. She studied in Seoul until seventh grade and for eighth and ninth grade, she studied in international schools in the Philippines and China respectively. International schools provide an education for students from all over the world so the curriculum is taught in English and the subjects are not country focused. She then came to the U.S. to complete the rest of her high school experience in Harrisburg, Pa. Yujin came to Pennsylvania to be with her sister, but because her sister was a college student they could not live together. She instead lived with a host family.
Koreans put a substantial amount of pressure on students in terms of education. The town Yujin is from was primarily upper middle class and would send all their kids to get a private education. She always felt that if she didn’t get a private education she would fall behind in class. In Korea, private education means after-school tutoring centers, or academies, that would help students master the content that they learned in school. Yujin hated math at this point in her life because she did not feel that she could match up the expectations set on her by society, parents and teachers. But after she came to America, she got into the STEM fields and started really enjoying it so she decided to stay in the United States to pursue her undergraduate education.
For Alejandra Cepeda Batiz, an international student from Mexico city, she came to the U.S. because of her dad and her disdain for theater from anywhere in the world except the U.S.
Alejandra, or Ale, always loved theater. She watched her 12-year-old cousin perform in a stage production of “The Lion King.” Ever since she saw how happy her cousin was when performing she decided that she wanted to be on stage. She always felt that no one really understood the power of live theater in connecting to its audience. Currently she is a theater major with a double minor in creative writing and Latin American studies — this allows her to learn and write plays about her heritage and to act in plays she writes. Some of her favorite shows are political pieces like “La Maestra” and “En el tiempo de las mariposas,” which examined the political unrest in Latin America because of U.S involvement. This is what brought out her love of political theater.
Ale’s dad however had different ideas. He is a business man who worships logic and facts and did not see the value in anything creative. For Ale, he wanted her to be a lawyer and like many parents, thought that theater was just a phase. He was against theater in general and only agreed to theater as her major if she studied in the U.S. This led to Ale beginning her search for top theater schools in the U.S and made her way to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. But now she always wonders if she made the right decision. She doesn’t regret her decision but sometimes she thinks about how hard it is to be alone.
For international students, the America they were sold on doesn’t really hold up. Back in 2016, things were changing. The country was saying farewell to one of the most loved presidents and was heading into a glorious battle between two individuals to win the office. Much of the world saw this as the last glory days of America. That year, as Donald Trump was installed as president, almost 1.2 million people immigrated to the United States and almost 30% were students. International students come to the U.S with excitement in their hearts and hopes and dreams in their minds but soon got hit with the reality that is life alone in another country and life in the United States. A study done in 2016 by scholars from Texas A&M University, Kingsville notes that 97% of international students experience stress when attending college or university in the United States.
Ale’s experience in the U.S really speaks to the international student experience at large. “El mexicano nunca es más mexicano que cuando está fuera de México,” she explained. This means that the Mexican is never more Mexican than when they are outside of Mexico. Being away from home has made her embrace her heritage but this is also because she has had to defend her country or culture from the devil’s advocates in her classes.
In a recent article published in The Conversation, Dr. Di Maria, the Associate Vice Provost for International Education at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County suggested that the loss of international students post-Trump and post-COVID is problematic because of the skills that international students bring to the table and also the loss of most STEM funding.
But international students are not just variables that boost the U.S economy and this objectification of them is incredibly harmful. It makes them feel alienated (more than already they do). But when international students come to the U.S. they are giving up a lot.
According to Ale, when you come to America, you’re sold on the American dream and the joyous wonders of capitalism and you look at your home country and are “so critical of it. It’s not safe here. The streets are so loud. The government is crap, like a bunch of things. And then like you’re not there for like the big parades and the big family reunions and the big things and the food and the speaking Spanish every day that like all those things that you take for granted.”
Ale asks herself all the time if she still wants to be in the U.S. She asks herself ”what am I doing here?” But then she remembers that she gets to do theater. “That matters, and getting opportunities to do plays like La Maestra and to write about things that I care about. And to have a platform to do all these things and meet all the people I have met, not just people in the U.S., but all the international friends that I’ve made.”
“I wouldn’t have been in a lot of the things that I have lived, I wouldn’t have lived. So it’s like this balance thing.”