Gabriela Mocanu and other international students in Arizona

ARIZONA | GABRIELA MOCANU | I am a 36 years old Romanian doctoral student in Arizona. My PhD is in Curriculum and Instruction. I have moved here in the summer of 2018, having previously lived in several Middle Eastern and Gulf countries teaching in international schools for over 10 years. I had a great teaching career, a wonderful job which provided me with a steady and fabulous income. As part of my career and service to my profession, I serve as a team member for an agency which organizes visits to international schools around the world that seek accreditation.

I decided to leave that all behind and pursue a doctoral degree in the United States when I was offered a full scholarship in Arizona. I was under a lot of scrutiny while applying for my F1 visa, in spite of already having a tourist visa, and in spite of the fact that for the last ten years I have been coming to the U.S. as a tourist every year. The visa process was grueling, having to provide all kinds of paperwork, proof of vaccinations and dates of every single previous entry into the U.S. Stoically, I pushed through all of that, even though the process continued even after I arrived, but I tried to settle in and get acquainted to my new life as soon as possible.

I have just finished all of my coursework this spring semester and worked on my comprehensive exams this summer, which represent an important milestone in the life of a PhD student. I am supposed to start working on my doctoral dissertation this fall semester. I was so proud to call myself a PhD candidate after my oral defense last Friday. The news outlining that international students who are not taking in person classes during the fall semester must leave the country took me by surprise and added to my already existing anxiety. Any trace of enthusiasm I was feeling upon the successful completion of my exams is now gone.

As international students we struggle every day to live on the stipend the university gives us. Living in the United States as a student (particularly a doctoral student) is not an easy task. As part of my scholarship, I work for the university 20 hours a week. This work translates in teaching classes to undergraduate or/and graduate students, supervising practicum or serve as an assistant to a professor doing research work, all while taking five doctoral classes at once, which, as most of my professors told me, is too much. However, I wanted to go through the program as quickly as possible, so I can move on with my career. 

As part of my F1 visa status, I am not allowed to work more than my 20 hours allocation. Throughout the summer we do not receive a stipend, and if we want to work, we are only allowed to work on campus. When the pandemic started all international students were advised not to leave the country, as we might face problems upon re-entry, so I was forced to stay here. While trying to find a job on campus this summer, as a doctoral student I was seen as too qualified for most positions I applied for. Life has taught me resilience and in spite of all hurdles, I still made it work.

However, the news that I might have to leave the country took me by surprise. I did not plan for this possibility. I did not have a contingency plan for such events, and I am very anxious regarding my future. Also, I am not sure how leaving the country for an extended period of time will impact my visa status when coming back (if that possibility even exists). Moreover, I am bound to an apartment lease for the next year, all of my belongings are here with me because I did not come here with a suitcase, but I shipped ten boxes of personal things. I have not lived in my home country for over a decade, and I struggled with finding my identity as an expatriate, then as an international student trying to fit in the American culture. 

On top of everything, it is just inhumane to spring this news on us and making us leave the country on such short notice, especially when there are not many flights available at this time. Furthermore, the flights that are available have ridiculous prices. I am saying this is inhumane, because as an international student, I am already struggling financially and the prospect of having to leave the country on a limb does not imply just the cost of a plane ticket. One of my main worry is that I do not have a place that I call home; I have not lived in my own country for most of my adult life, and home is wherever I find myself at a certain point in time. 

Going home to my mom’s house would seem first of all as a failure, because all I can think of is the fact that I might be losing everything that I have worked for in the last two years. If I am not here, I cannot have a scholarship, therefore tuition costs will be on me, which I cannot afford. The only reason I accepted the offer of being in this program was because I was given a full scholarship. I am still unsure of the thought process that went into this decision of literally kicking international students out of the country. 

Gabriela Mocanu, PhD student in Arizona

The pandemic seems an unreasonable excuse, since we have all been here since the beginning of the pandemic; we were not allowed to travel outside the country and risk bringing the virus in. From my conversations with my fellow international colleagues, we have all been very diligent in staying in the house and not going outside unless absolutely necessary. I do not understand how we are a risk to the virus expansion, or a burden on the national economy, when actually we bring in a revenue of $45 billion annually.

Universities usually are very proud of promoting diversity on campus by taking in international students, so us leaving would damage the overall image of diversity that universities try to convey. This decision does nothing more than add to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of this administration, which will eventually lead to less international students trying to pursue a degree

in the United States since the overall feeling at this time is that we are not welcome in this country. As doctoral students, we are already trying to deal with the imposter syndrome in academia, and these new visa rules don’t do anything but add to the internalized fear we experience every day.

I have not officially heard anything from my university on how they will try and support us considering the circumstances, and I look forward to seeing how they will fulfill their claim of commitment to helping international students succeed. The sad part is that we do not actually have a voice in these matters. Who will be our voice?