Investigated, Not Interviewed, for US Student Visa

“Are any of your family members involved with the Taliban?” was among the many probing questions the U.S. Consulate asked me when I interviewed for my F-1 visa to study in the United States.That’s not unusual in Afghanistan, where the U.S. and my country have been allies in fighting the Taliban since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks that brought down four planes, destroyed New York’s World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and killed almost 3,000 people.  The answer to the question was no, and six years ago, I came to study in the U.S. at age 17 at a high school in Connecticut on a private scholarship sponsored by a generous couple in New York City. I am now a rising junior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Not all Afghan students are so lucky. Only 422 came to the U.S. for a higher education last year on F-1 student visas, according to the Institute of International Education in New York. That’s a tiny fraction of the more than 1 million international students admitted to the U.S. each year to study.  The effort is not purely educational. The U.S. grants student visas from Afghanistan and other nations as part of a diplomatic effort to share and export democratic ideals and practices. The application to obtain an F-1 visa is long and asks for personal and family information, proven by photos and documents, including an acceptance letter from an accredited college or university. In my case, an I-20 form confirmed my enrollment in the high school, and the bank statements of my sponsors proved that I had the financial means to stay in the U.S. My older sister, who arrived in the U.S. at age 15, helped me with paperwork, and we practiced in a mock interview to help me answer the consulate’s questions accurately and succinctly. I prepared well in advance. Questions can be very challenging: “Are any of your family members involved with the Taliban? Do you have a sponsor? Will you return to your country?” I was nervous, afraid I’d forget what to say. Because Afghanistan is poor and unstable, the U.S. embassy in Kabul fears that once Afghans leave, they might not return. So the agents are very cautious and serious. I felt I was being investigated, not interviewed. Many Afghan students failed the interview and were denied an F-1 student visa to come to the U.S. Before me, a young woman was quickly turned down because she seemed unprepared. She said she wanted to study in the U.S. because it was a beautiful country with great weather.  Others I know were on wait lists for weeks and months for background checks. In my case, at the end of my interview, I was handed a card saying my visa would be approved. I was excited and relieved! The visa arrived a week later.   The difficulty of getting a visa depends on where you live. Ahmad Tair, a rising junior and classmate at Trinity, said the process to get a student visa in Saudi Arabia is similar to Afghanistan. Prospective students must fill out an application, provide the right documents, and undergo an intense 15-minute interview in which they are asked similar questions: “Why do you want to study in the U.S.? Will you return to your country? Who is paying your expenses?” However, Sababa Anber, a classmate from Bangladesh, said her interview was brief and non-threatening. The questions were similar, but the tone was less intense.”I felt great about my interview,” Anber said. “It was literally five minutes probably, or less! The interviewer was super nice.” Students from China, India and Japan also reported stress-free interviews. “I was nervous to not mess up the process and provide the right documents, because if I did, I would have to do it all over again,” said Takanori Tanifuji from Japan, a rising junior.   “But I was confident that I would get a visa and was not nervous during my interview,” she said. Rising senior Aadiv Sheth from India described his interview as “chill.” “My interview was very short, like two to three minutes, but it did sound a little professional,” Sheth said. “I did not feel nervous in my visa interview because as far as I knew, almost every student got a student visa,” said Doris Wang, a 2021 Trinity graduate from China, which sent more than one-third of the more than one million international students admitted to the U.S. in the year before the coronavirus pandemic limited travel. My own country’s education system has been disrupted by years of war. My parents have encouraged my sisters and me, not just my brothers, to get the best education possible, despite cultural pressures not to encourage women toward education. After six years of studying in the U.S., I miss my family and my homeland. I care about my people and want to help them after my studies are complete. When I go home, as I did three years ago, I worry about being granted a visa to return to the U.S. and being barred from completing my schooling.  But I am drawn to a world in American education that has included me in fast-moving globalization. Ideologies here and abroad are competing and changing, challenging people to new and different ways of thinking. I am immersed in these changes and intend to use what I’ve learned wherever I go. 

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