Home » Uncategorized » Being an International Student

Being an International Student

A free morning leaves me able to make the explanatory post for yesterday’s image. Long time followers of this blog have probably noticed I do not comment upon politics very often. There are a variety of reasons for this. Recent political machinations being made by those in control of the US Executive Branch of government mean that I’m breaking a very painful silence, one I do in the hopes that in some small way it will help prepare people. I’ll stress now that these views, like all statements on this blog, are ultimately my opinion, but one based in a very real series of experiences. First a bit of context for those who have only met me online.

I left UC Berkeley in 2004, after receiving my BA in Anthropology. I wanted to become a medieval archaeologist specializing in the Viking world. I had 2 years of translation experience with Old Norse and unsuccessfully tried to apply to programs in the US that would allow me to combine translation work with archaeology with a medieval topic. After a few years of trying I looked abroad, ending up at a British institution for my MA in Medieval Archaeology in 2006. I continued, beginning my doctoral studies in 2007. I was introduced to like-minded medievalists, organized an international conference, began to speak at other conferences. In short a fairly typical graduate school experience.

One which ended in 2010. I had just been accepted to two prestigious conferences back in the US. My student visa, already extended once without issue when I transitioned from the MA to PhD program was due for renewal. I was part way through my third year of data collection, working part time as a student support worker to help pay the bills not covered by my student loan payouts. Again, for many this is a typical grad school experience. My passport and my husband’s were sent off receive the new visa paper with current stamps, we went to have our biometrics collected. During processing the UK legislation changed with regards to the Immigration Tier system and the material was considered under the new parameters. Our visas, in spite of being submitted legally with the requirements necessary at the time of submission, were now no longer valid. We were no longer Tier 4 student and dependent, we were reclassified as Tier 1 refugee asylum seekers. I learned this fact in a letter telling me I had 7 days to leave the UK or be forcefully deported. Our passports were held and not immediately returned.

That’s right- if you think you don’t actually know someone who has faced deportation, you do. Me. If you happen to know my husband you know at least two.

This began a cycle of appeal paperwork and ultimately two Immigration Tribunal hearings, all of which occurred while I had to maintain full time student status so my student loans would not go into collections and exacerbate the distressful situation further. After the first Tribunal hearing I received another immediate deportion letter. I changed advisors part-way through, ending up with one who attended the court hearings, made certain that I had no restrictions to materials as best he could, who passed on my promise to contact the Associated Press and a hungry young lawyer fresh out of Boalt School of Law if I was deported to the various portions of uni who were slow in responding to requests of assistance. My household made just enough money to not qualify for free legal advice. The US Embassy refused to talk to me when I approached them. That’s the official side of things.

The impact of this is a bit hard for me to quantify. Ultimately, the focus of my research- largely culture contact in the north Atlantic- expanded to what I study now- medieval identity development. As it was hard to hide the continual worry many of my fellow grad students in department had no clue how to talk to me. I developed two stomach ulcers, began to suffer from depression that impacted diet, sleep, my ability to interact normally with my peers. I no longer had dreams- literally. As time in a series of catch 22s progressed, I watched my hard won grad school experiences and networks begin to break down. If I stopped my regular student routine during the day for a reason that left me free for more than an hour I would race my bike back to my flat to sit on my floor with my guinea pig crying so I that I wouldn’t make my fellow students and those I worked for upset by seeing me that way.

As time passed the need for a trip back to the US was becoming increasingly necessary as medical situations arose in my family. The urge to just give up grew daily, particularly as people began to look at my case, giving me the sad smile and head shake that meant they had been told the only result would be deportation and they didn’t have the heart to say the words.

Here is where I discovered a saving grace- I happen to study a region also covered by some very strong female researchers with very understanding  grad students. When it felt like the real world was going to hell in a proverbial hand basket and the cosmic kick-me sign was firmly on my back, my fellow Viking specialists made certain I was included. Made certain even if I didn’t feel up to going that I still knew I was invited. Held mini-trips to the sites I could still go to in country without a passport. Were able to discuss medieval texts and approaches in such an engaging manner it was possible for short stretches to remember why I had come abroad for graduate school in the first place. Even now I consider them to be some of my closer friends.

They don’t realize it [I guess the cat is out of the bag on that now] but they gave me hope when I was unable to create it for myself. Hope in humanity, hope that even if I was ultimately deported I would not slip away into the darkness, forgotten, just another bit of leftover flotsam from an attempt at grad school. Hope that my ever-present imposter syndrome was not correct- that my ideas in research, in spite of being produced under duress, were still sound, were interesting even.

Ultimately my husband and I won our appeal in the second Immigration Tribunal after 45 minutes of deliberation, the Tribunal Judge verbally chastising the Home Office lawyer and my not really registering that I wasn’t going to be deported until I was walking out of the court room to see my advisor waiting in the waiting room. EU Human Rights law and a Tribunal judge who recognized the situation was wrong won out. We still ended up having to wait months to receive all paperwork to be able to travel internationally again. I’m part of a select group of people who have felt it necessary to thank an Immigration Tribunal Judge in their doctoral thesis acknowledgements when the time actually came though.

Part of how I’ve been able to reconcile the fact that all of this occurred with my day-to-day is to do what I can to make certain that other students would never have to feel that draining tornado of immigration fear while trying to improve their lives with education. I’d hoped to eventually teach at uni level to be in a position to help- to be the one provided the hope to those who were unable to make it for themselves. I am no longer certain I’ll ever be able to get to that stage- in an era where the alt-right have made moves on my beloved early medieval world once more independent scholars like me trying to break into US academia is increasingly difficult. Creating the Viking Coloring Book Project has allowed me to not feel that hurt quite so keenly. With it I can at least battle stereotypes about Vikings while getting kids interested in the real medieval world. When I fly internationally I still have to bring the court decision with me just in case.

If you are a grad student being impacted by immigration bans here is my advice to reduce some of the extended hurt and despair current events are bringing.

Talk– get the word out about what is happening. Document it with dates- you may need it to prove the impact all this is having. If you regularly journal online, or by hand, make certain to include how things are impacting you. You can use this to make slow universities and departments respond in a more timely fashion. Reach out- people can only help if they know there is a problem that needs solving.

Reinforce your network– do not listen to that inside voice that given time will tell you that you have no right to talk to your peers. Develop your village as they will sustain you when you feel inadequate. Sometimes that means just refocusing your eyes to see they are there waiting to help you.

Remember what drove you to undertake grad school in the first place. Don’t let the bullshit of immigration negotiations take that away from you. It will sustain you when the world seems the darkest.

The Executive Branch declarations do not represent the feelings of a great many Americans. Our protests, donations, online discussions all reflect this. One of the things I fought the hardest with during 2010 was to separate the anger I felt over immigration to being able to deal with people in the day to day. To not blame individual people for a system-wide problem.

If you are a grad level mentor, instructor, professor adjunct- in short anybody with students who are affected by these current events my advice is this.

Talk– even if you don’t really have much advice beyond being a sympathetic ear that is incredibly important. Doing that will help to remind your students that they are still worthy of listening to [and yes that can be a concern]. It might also you to think of other ways to help.

Create opportunities that still foster grad-level network interactions. Have your lunchtime lectures or course field trips been relevant to this situation? Do your impacted students attend? If they do not, politely, ask why. If they do feel up to it make sure they still know they are invited.

Be their champion even if the situation is not easily resolved. When you undergo immigration issues as a grad student you are torn between trying to be an adult and not needing help and being in a situation where essentially you are out of your depth [unless you are doing a program in international immigration law]. Many advisors do not need this reminder- you already are doing this to the best of your ability. My own advisor is an excellent example of this. Even though his efforts didn’t always connect to a resolution he kept trying and that, in its own way, reminded me that I shouldn’t give up either.

Imposter Syndrome will occur in your student(s), even if they were not prone to it before. From the student point of view the universe has basically decided that they don’t get to play in the game of life when they worked awful damn hard for opportunity. Do what you can to remind them they are worthy of the education they are trying to earn in spite of current events. Don’t be silly about it and don’t ignore the problem. The post-grad school mental health of your advisees may rest on it.


I think that’s probably enough for now. Well, other than this. An alternate name for the Statue of Liberty is “Mother of Exiles”, shining her torch as a beacon to those in need. Although the Executive Branch is currently doing everything possible to blow that great flame out all it takes are the hopes and ideals resting in people coming together to relight it. Stand. We are all human.


I wish I could say that I could make everything better, having been chewed up by this system myself. I won’t lie, I can’t. But I can, and hopefully have, given a few more people the information they need to keep students from experiencing the pain and despair I did.

1 Comment

  1. CG Olsen says:

    Reblogged this on Vikings, Books, etc. and commented:
    Dayanna has been a dear friend since our time at Berkeley, over a decade ago now. I really appreciate her willingness to be vulnerable and share her experience as a way of fostering sympathy for those affected by the current administration’s actions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: