“Yeah, I’ll have to look for overnight work when I get a real job. That’s just what I’m used to at this point.”
Drew Romero, 22, a junior and art major at the University of Houston sits behind the desk at the Cougar Place, the on-campus residential community where they work as an overnight desk assistant, the only job they’ve ever known. Well, past 2 a.m. on Friday, late for some but early for others, Drew is in their element, thriving, surrounded by friends and residents who have grown to depend on them and the other desk assistants, a staff made up of fellow students.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the hours. It’s all I’ve got at this point so I make the most of it, you know.” Drew said.
Where your run-of-the-mill college student would avoid being tethered to the front desk of a dormitory regardless of pay or perks, Drew had no other choice. The reason for this is Drew’s international student status, which restricts their options for legal employment to on-campus positions only, one of the many limitations felt by the millions of international students currently enrolled in universities across the United States.
Knowing their journey will be inherently more difficult than most, The University of Houston is ready, willing, and committed to helping international students navigate through the layers of red tape wrapped around the sanctity of higher education in this country.
But as the global student body on campus continues to grow, each with their own paperwork, fees, and deadlines to keep track of, there are bound to be those who stumble, left to deal with what is arguably this nation’s most tried and true export, good ol’ American Bureaucracy.
According to enrollment records, UH had a total of over 47,000 students in 2021, and 7.7% of that total, about 3,500, were international students. In the two years since, both numbers have likely increased given that most pandemic restrictions have been lifted in Texas and beyond, but also because Houston remains a cultural melting pot, attracting students from all corners of the world.
The University of Houston defines an international student as any student who isn’t a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident. So in order for them to legally live and study in this country, they must obtain and maintain a student visa. “I really don’t know how that process went,” Drew said, when asked about that time in their life, “Maybe I should know, but, you know, I was ten.”
Getting to know Drew
Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Drew and their family emigrated from their hometown to Texas over ten years ago. Their siblings and they soon started elementary school, an opportunity afforded by the F1 visas their parents had applied for and obtained for each of them. Fast forward to the summer of 2019, when they were accepted into the University of Houston, some seven hours away from The Rio Grande Valley.
Having lived in Texas for over a decade, Drew had no issues with culture shock when they stepped onto the UH campus for the first time. In fact, at first glance, they look and sound just like any other student, privy to the American way of life.
Soon, they found a tight group of friends to lean on in their most anxious moments, anxiety often brought on by the barrage of deadlines, some with higher stakes than others. “Lots of paperwork, you know, and forms that I have to fill out and turn in every year. And deadlines, fees,” Drew said.
“I’m used to it, because it’s my reality, but it is a lot.”
Aware of the number of extra requirements and deadlines these students are facing, the University of Houston established the International Student and Scholar Services Office, or ISSSO (pronounced eye-triple s-oh,) to assist and guide international students through any issues that might arise.
The ISSSO office is tucked away right next to the LGBTQ Resource Center and across from Veteran Services on the second floor of Student Center North (the one with no food court,) and is staffed by fellow international students and counselors well-versed in their struggle. It should be a home base, of sorts, for all international students, especially with the amount of services and resources available, but for some, it isn’t.
“My family and I keep track of everything I need to do, so there’s no need for me to go,” Drew said, when asked about their experience with the ISSSO, “I did go a few times when I was a freshman but I think it was because I had to.”
The walls, egg white, are lined right below the ceiling with flags from all across the world: Sudan, Mexico, and South Korea, to name a few. Two colorful paper lanterns float above the reception desk that overlooks the waiting area, complete with a hand sanitizer station for students to use, and a display case brimming with small toy dolls, each dressed in the traditional garb of the country they represent.
The space was obviously designed to provide international students with a small sense of comfort in the most stressful of times, the home-cooked aesthetic and global decor do well to capture this essence, as the space serves peace and relaxation in heaps.
Per their mission statement, the main function of the ISSSO is to “advance the goals of Student Affairs by providing for the special needs of international students and exchange visitors related to their status as non-immigrants of the United States.”
To do this, the ISSSO offers a slew of support services, which include pre-arrival assistance, counseling and advocacy, and general assistance in maintaining visa status, among others. They also have the International Student and Scholar Friendship Program and the International Faculty Mentor Program available for any international students who need assistance. The former pairs them with host families in the Houston area for help with temporary housing, including a ride from the airport, and the latter pairs students with UH faculty to help them assimilate into their new campus and community.
Drew’s continued success is a testament to both the campus and a UH community that is not only accepting and understanding but also equipped with resources like the ISSSO. When asked if they’ve felt any negative heat from peers because of their international students status, Drew said: “No one really cares about it, and if they do, I don’t see it. Actually, everyone I’ve met here has been nice to me, which helps with my mental health, you know, because college isn’t easy.”
Sadly, though, not every international student shares Drew’s positive experience. There are some who’ve felt, and continue to feel, the pressures of their status, in a very real and serious way.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows
The truth about the mental health of these students can be found in the corner directly to the right as you enter the ISSSO offices, where the five-and-a-half-foot tall free-standing file holder of required documents for the rest of their lives resides. Documents such as the “Reduced Course Load” or RCL form, or the classic SEVIS J1 Transfer Form, and others, shoved haphazardly at the top, and a mishmash of literature, meant to ease the transition into a foreign land, occupying the bottom half, their edges and corners bent, the loose pages drooped over the metal edges.
This static chaos perfectly captures the amalgam of stressors that can do a number on even these most hardened of students, forcing them to often suffer in silence.
“These past two weeks I’ve just been stuck here,” the anonymous student said, “It hasn’t been easy, you know. I don’t know what to do at this point.”
The walls of the on-campus apartment are mostly empty around us as this senior international student at UH, who requested to remain anonymous, sits on the edge of their couch, fumbling with their lighter. The last week has been a blur, they tell me, after the email with the worst news an international student could ever receive showed up in their inbox.
“I might have to leave the country now, you know, because of my visa. But, honestly, I don’t care about that. I just want to graduate.”
Hailing from Pakistan, this anonymous international student, who we’ll refer to as “Aubrey,” arrived in this country over four years ago, having never stepped foot in the U.S. prior to that moment. They soon settled into their freshman dorm and immersed themselves in a community that welcomed them with open arms. “Aubrey,” an only child, was now a member of a family that is over 45,000 strong.
Similar to Drew, “Aubrey” had little to complain about during their years at UH. They trudged along as college students do during their freshman and sophomore year, excelling in every class, while doing everything needed to in order to keep their visa in good standing. Depending on the type of visa, international students must submit yearly forms, some even having to do yearly interviews, in order to maintain their student visa, the only thing keeping them in this country legally.
The severity of the situation hit them immediately as they read the email, a morning wake-up call via ice water to the face repeating itself, neverending, keeping “Aubrey” in a state of shock, depression, and fear, all dusted with a bit of confusion and anger. Those two final abstractions are directed, at least in part, to UH, the institution they once trusted and depended on.
With a single missed deadline, this proud cougar now faces possible deportation, made worse by the fact that they were set to graduate in May. Their life is now effectively ruined, according to “Aubrey,” and nobody seems to care.
“All the money I’ve given to UH, all my hard work, all of my time. And now they can’t help me, they can’t do anything. They don’t care about me.”
Stories like this one are sadly not specific to UH. The internet has no shortage of personal experiences turned into cautionary tales from international students across the country who, similar to “Aubrey,” are sometimes forced to deal with extraordinarily stressful situations, all alone, with their families thousands of miles away. These stories also underline the importance of resources like the ISSSO, and how crucial it is for students to take advantage of them.
“I know I missed the date to submit the forms, but I’m taking five classes or was, and you know how that goes,” Aubrey said, “I know I messed up, but UH should have my back, and they don’t.”
Set your prejudices aside as I pose the following question: Should any student feel this forgotten by their University?
Regardless of the reason and legal status, “Aubrey” is a college student, someone who believed in themselves enough to travel across oceans in order to fulfill their dreams of a four-year degree, and that should count for something in a country built on the immigrant ideals of hard work.
In a campus that serves almost 50,000 students, one can easily expect students to slip through the cracks, with their needs not fully met, or maybe even completely ignored. But just because something is expected to happen, doesn’t always mean it should.