By Maedeh Marzoughi
Applying to college in the U.S. as an international student is incredibly hard. It feels even harder if you’re not actually international. I moved to the U.S. from Iran with my mom and little brother when I was 6, a year and 3 months after my dad had already come here for school.
My parents hadn’t planned on staying in the U.S., but 12 years and 3 PhDs later, we found ourselves in the same graduate student housing at Louisiana State University that we’d started out in.
My mom started her PhD while my dad was still in school, and then when my dad couldn’t find a job during the recession, he went back to school for another PhD. Going to school was their way of keeping us here legally. Double the money from both of them going to school didn’t hurt either, because a single $13,000 annual stipend for a family of 4 is tight.
Part of how I dealt with the anxiety from our situation was by pouring myself into school because it felt like the only thing I had control over. But when I learned that international students could get denied admission from all but a handful of colleges in the country just for needing financial aid, I became even more anxious.
Every year my mom would say, we’re so close to getting our green cards, I think this year it’ll work out. But it never did.
Throughout this time, my school’s senior counselor Mr. Borders became my best friend. We developed a routine of me showing up at his office regularly to whine and complain, while he gave me a pep talk or called me out, depending on what I needed.
Six months later, I committed to MIT. For a few months, I felt like I’d finally made it, like all my parents’ sacrifices had been worth it. But once I got to MIT, I continued to face barriers. I didn’t have work authorization and traveling was also risky because there was no guarantee I’d be able to get back into the U.S. if I left it.
But my sophomore fall in 2016, I got into a program to go to Germany for all of January 2017 with MIT funding. I was so excited that I was willing to take the risk of leaving the U.S. But when the presidential elections happened, I decided not to go. It was the right decision because the travel bans went into effect the same time I would’ve been trying to come back to the U.S.
Although experiences like that were disappointing, the most stressful thing while I was at MIT was getting closer to turning 21 — something most other students were really looking forward to. Once I turned 21, I’d be on my own with my immigration status. Even if my parents got green cards, I’d have to wait for years to get one through them. The prospect of being on my own with my status was terrifying. My dream was always to become a doctor, but getting into medical school as an international applicant is even harder than getting into undergrad. How would I keep myself here legally?
Then one day in January 2018, 5 months before I turned 21, I got a message from my mom on WhatsApp. It was a picture of a notice from U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. Our green card petition was approved. I was going to be okay.
The first thing I wanted to do was leave the U.S.
So I applied to do an internship in Mexico for the summer of 2018 with MIT funding. Our immigration documents took so long to process that I spent most of the summer in limbo in Boston, unsure if I’d even be able to go. In the end, I made it to the last 5 weeks of my internship. I fell in love and promised I’d come back.
Now it’s February 2020, and I’ve just recently completed my degree at MIT. I fly to Mexico through the same MIT program to do a 6-month internship this time. But it’s funny because, yet again, I only get to stay in Mexico for 5 weeks….
When we first found out we had to come back to the U.S. because of coronavirus, I was in denial. I didn’t want to come back. As an alumna, I was running out of time to take advantage of these kinds of MIT programs. I wanted so badly to make up for everything I’d missed out on most of my time at MIT and to experience things that would help me grow into the kind of doctor I wanted to be.
My parents always emphasized community and serving others, and having grown up low-income and an immigrant, I was naturally drawn to working with similar communities. After taking Spanish classes at MIT, I wanted to become fluent in Spanish in the real world, so that I could strengthen my connection with other immigrants in the U.S.
So it was disappointing when I had to come back. But it didn’t feel as upsetting as when I didn’t get to go to Germany, or as frustrating as when I almost didn’t get to go to Mexico the first time. Because for once, other people were also going through the same thing.
It was lovely to see MIT administrators and alumni come together to provide resources for MIT students who didn’t have plans for the summer, but I wished I had access to those remote opportunities when I struggled to find free housing every summer to support myself since I could only do unpaid internships because of my immigration status.
So during the summer of 2020, when I found out about my current AmeriCorps position with the New American Integration Program, it felt “meant to be”. The position I wanted would be at Boston Medical Center, so not only would I get to serve immigrants, it would be in a healthcare setting. In this role, I’d get to connect patients with resources to help them navigate the immigration system.
I started my service year in September 2020, working remotely even though I live only a 20-minute walk from BMC. I can’t meet with patients while they’re at the hospital, so I have to reach out to almost everyone over the phone.
But over the phone, there are moments when words aren’t enough for all the things people are going through, and all I want is to be physically present with them. To let them know that even if they feel temporarily stuck, they’re not alone.
So every morning, I first have to sort through these anxieties and my own baggage. I almost never know how a call will go, but I know there isn’t a day that’ll go by where I won’t feel helpless at some point. Where I won’t hear pieces of my parents’ struggles and the uncertainty that was so familiar to me in the patients’ voices. And I think about how Mr. Borders didn’t have all the answers. He couldn’t change my immigration status to help me with college, but he could validate how unfair it all was. He’d remind me not to lose hope and to keep pushing forward.
So even though I’m limited by things outside of my control, I still have the opportunity to build relationships with the patients I get to work with.
It’s easy to downplay the power of just being there for someone, but after having spent most of 2020 being forced apart, I think we’ve all come to appreciate just how much we need the simple things. Just how much we need to connect.