Photo by Bambi Corro on Unsplash
Culture,  International Student

The Politics of Being an International Student in 2020

International students occupy a unique space — privileged enough to come to the United States for a college education, but with challenges rarely mentioned in mainstream media.

Until recently.

On June 22nd, the President Trump signed an executive order that suspended the issuance of various work visas, triggering concerns from the tech and business community who rely on foreign talent to fill key roles in many of the country’s largest companies.

This includes the H1B visa, which has enabled some of the best and brightest foreign students to work and pursue careers in the United States — including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Such leaders have since become U.S. citizens, serving as philanthropic members of society and wealth creators for thousands of Americans.

And with the growing levels of income inequality over the past few decades, international students and foreign workers have now become part of mainstream politics — though it wasn’t always that way.

When I first came to the United States in 2015, I brought with me a suitcase full of dreams and ambitions. Finally, I was coming into a country known as the melting pot of cultures— where I could have an American brunch, go to a dim sum restaurant for lunch, and end the day eating Filipino barbecue for dinner without feeling like I didn’t belong in the country.

After a year of adjusting to U.S. culture and university life, I worked hard to chase my dreams of becoming an active civic leader and professional. I studied hard, led a student organization, worked in local government, and made lifelong friends and mentors along the way.

And while I always harbored doubts of never ‘truly fitting in’ as a local, I largely felt that I was part of this great society that benefited from the diverse array of young talent that came from all corners of the world.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella came to the U.S. an international student at the University of Wisconsin. Photo by Elaine Thompson

But since 2017, I’ve become scared. While working in college, I would often wonder if other young people felt like I was a foreigner stealing their jobs; if they saw me as part of the reason why local jobs have been outsourced abroad, or if I was one of those looking to take opportunities meant for those who were born here. But then I would think, maybe some day I could be an employer that creates jobs for others? What if I contributed as a community organizer or writer trying to engage communities?

Though the current administration says they welcome legal immigrants, the global pandemic has given them further reason to suspend immigration services.

It’s made us feel more discouraged in our journeys. We avoid complaining because we don’t want to be seen as ungrateful. We don’t want to talk about our home countries because we want to be seen as part of this country. We feel lonely because we rarely read or hear about fellow foreign students on the news. We simply put our heads down, and move forward in the day-to-day grind of work, visa worries, and FaceTime calls with family back home.

On the bright side, the administration’s recent immigration moves has caused many to put a spotlight on the contributions of international students and foreign workers in this country.

Educational leaders are speaking up about the foreign students who lead scientific breakthroughs in their labs, Republican members of congress have urged Secretary of State Pompeo to preserve Optional Practical Training (OPT) to spur economic activity, and immigration experts continue to highlight the entrepreneurial and economic output of immigrant students — citing that we have contributed nearly “$41 billion and created or supported 458,290 jobs in the U.S. economy during the 2018–19 academic year.”

Just as support for DACA has led to many breakthroughs, maybe the same can happen for international students.

What we can do is create solutions by encouraging dialogue that erases misconceptions that arise from polarizing cable news and media. We can look into the history books and educate everyone about the immigrant spirit that has shaped the country. We can lobby for congress to draft improved laws that benefit both skilled foreign students and homegrown talent through comprehensive immigration reform.

At of the day, politics is about the human condition.

And my hope is that we all remind ourselves that most of us want the same things you want in life. A better future, a healthy family, and an opportunity to chase our dreams made possible by the generations of entrepreneurs and civic leaders before us.

That’s the type of politics we want to be part of.


Marjon is the Creator of Third-Culture Thoughts. A political nerd and basketball enthusiast at heart, he writes about everything related to culture and the international experience.