Visa Restrictions and Out-of-Reach Education Benefits of F-1 Students

Ian Koh from Singapore explains while international students studying in liberal arts or humanities may learn and explore new, exciting ideas, they may not be able to actually bring those ideas to life due to the reality of actually being an international student in the United States.

The following article was submitted by Ian Koh, a graduate from Biola University. Ion earned a B.A. in English. If you would like to submit your own story, please click here. 

Every once in awhile, I get the idea it would be healthy to cast aside my garbs of humility and silence to speak my feelings.

While international students may pride themselves just for completing a liberal arts or humanities degree, they often suffer to articulate the insurmountable obstacles. Although colleges offer benefits and a future for degree seekers, F-1 students experience the liberal arts with a different approach that may not be recognized by educational institutions.

The bureaucracy surrounding the F-1 visa status can place a tremendous amount of undue stress on certain types of education experiences. That is not to say all F-1 visa students experience this stress equally. I do believe some are spared if they have solid support for their studies or can learn transferable skills. However, the very restriction of the visa lends itself only to a 4 year vision of undergrad education with the option of a fifth year should students chose to seek training in a subject related to their majors. Learning however, especially in the language and literature arts, and humanities thrives only through a system meant to resist that confinement.

To state the obvious, the F-1 visas are regulatory, meant to keep students from overstaying after their studies in the US. An unfortunate outcome, for those of us who have to gain an education under the stipulated conditions, is that education gradually becomes an increasingly superficial experience the closer our visas reach the expiration date. While local students enhance their learning experience at the prospect of influencing society and joining the economy, the F-1 visa student, under certain education models have to answer more questions of a difficulty they become increasingly less comfortable with: Will the knowledge they pick up serve them both back home and in the US? For the F-1 student, life may not always move on. It can disintegrate.

For example:

I opted to learn using a classical education model during my college years. The rigorous nature of the program was design to build advance critical thinking skills through deeply involved participation. The underlying reason was to hold soul-searching questions regarding humanity, the good life, and the community. I experienced some of the best discussions during class and talked more about beauty and truth more than I ever had—two topics that were worth sacrificing time and effort to explore over many other lesser things in life. Yet despite the indisputably objective value of what I was learning, I could not learn as well or be encouraged as my American peers could. One of the reasons were that although the beauty and truth talked about could be applied practically within American society and values, beyond the bounds of suburbia, more work needed to be done if it were to be useful. While the critical thinking skills could be greatly desired, and would be a great example of the value an “experienced” education can bring to an international student, the ideas themselves became less and less meaningful, less tangible, even though they posted lots of challenges for life. My relationship to the academic and teaching staff became less of an opportunity to feed my curiosity and more about being a system to beat.

Although the visa grants international students the support of an academic institution, with only four years, an F-1 student’s learning lacks the grounding to grow roots into serious career choice: at least not until dealing with lots of bureaucracy and waiting for more years. This often makes the particular placement of an institution of lesser significance to long-term challenges.What the F-1 student depends on is a very basic and fundamental love of these ideas to motivate their studies in such areas.

My intuitive energies, which were once spent seeking new connections in literature, connected any the academic assessments received to the idea that my ability to excel was being doubted. Why? Because my visa was an obstacle that would deny me cause to apply the ideas I was learning to life and my advantage. My strong intuition, which sadly cannot distinguish system from personal intent, kept telling me the system and college wanted me gone after 4 years. Time played a factor too. The closer my visa gets to expiring, the less my intuition was able to respond in a beneficial way. By the later semesters, I was less able to muster the motivation to participate on a rigorous level.

F-1 students’ academic success depends on their rewarding the discovery of meaning when a vacuum is filled. Unorthodox and experimental, and probably without serious recognition from society, the success of these perspectives depend on the students’ imaginations. Local students may have a sense of duty to give back and preserve the integrity of their community’s thought. However, F-1 students struggle to push aside fears of rejection. Back home, overseas studies might be perceived as a luxury—one that is not really essential and therefore has to end with no real purpose. For local students, participation and involvement in a subject shows healthy independent thinking, one that is sought after in America for originality. But for the F-1 student, they need a soul unfazed by difficulties and a belief that curiosity brings the world closer together.

This is not to say all educational experiences of F-1 students result in such poverty. Neither am I saying that this is an impossible problem to overcome. In fact, I think that a student who has a solid education funding, or can accept being in debt is in a better position to ignore the pressures of the bureaucracy, but this divests into a class and social status discussion. There are only a few up-sides to studying abroad. Along the way, F-1 students benefit from an increase in critical thinking skills and ability to cope under pressure. These are highly useful transferable skills. Also, by studying STEM subjects, there is much less pressure to make sense of overseas studies due to the number of transferable skills that can be picked up.

I only have good things to say about my college. I know I made the right choice going to a small private Christian college in Southern California. Some of the most encouraging faculty and students are there, plus the size makes it very easy to find my niche with little competitiveness. The circumstances of my education experience, I would say, helped me deal with the pushbacks and pressures that can ruin an overseas study experience.

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