Around 1.1 million foreign students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities across America from 2019-2020.
This was a decrease of 20,000 students compared to the year before as tuitions continue to rise beyond imagination, the government declines and delays more and more student visas, and a society brimming with racism, xenophobia, and bigotry after four years of Trump, and a new president who isn’t much better. Throw in a global pandemic, and another 16% drop in enrollment happens. New international student enrollment dropped an astonishing 43%.
I watched in absolute horror as the Trump administration attempted to bar international students from entering the US if their campuses offered only online courses. When Trump signed an executive order suspending travel from six Muslim countries, over 12,000 international students from Iran were impacted. I can’t even fathom the stress, fear, and panic those students probably felt.
What many people don’t realize is these aren’t just dying, postponed, or deferred dreams. That’s sad enough on its own. The American economy also lost $1.8 billion and 42,000 jobs throughout 2020 because of this decline. Immigration has been a vital part of humanity for multiple lifetimes. Studies show the first pre-modern migration of a human population taking place 1.75 million years ago as Homo erectus moved out of Africa across Eurasia.
Over two decades ago, one woman named Rajika Bhandari packed up her entire life in India and shoved it into two small suitcases to venture to America, searching for a gilded future. And for love. America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility is Bhandari’s part-memoir, part-journalistic look into the global appeal of an American-made education.
Every time I cracked the spine of this book, I read insightful statistics aloud to my boyfriend (and my cat if he wasn’t around) and furiously underlined anecdotes that made me gasp, smile, and think deeply.
People are arguing over whether or not Afghan men and women are worthy of saving with refugee statuses. Hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islands are up 146%. In 2020, ICE reported the highest death toll for people in custody in the past 15 years. They deported 77,000 people and contributed to the spread of COVID-19 domestically and globally with pure disregard for public health. So obviously, this book couldn’t have come to me at a more perfect time.
With growing nationalism and a fear of the “other,” this book is essentially a love letter to the idea that America, and the world as a whole, need to keep both our minds and our borders open for true liberation.
The prologue captures you right away, spit-firing statistics left and right and drawing you into Bhandari’s captivating desire to write this story. We follow her for decades as she evolves from a scared, young new student to an independent, successful woman with a family of her own.
While general immigration has been occurring for millennia, immigration to America for educational purposes has been happening for over 200 years. This transformation has allowed America to grow in prosperity and competitiveness as more and more international students have stayed after turning in their final textbooks. Bhandari is a living example of this transformation.
I admire Bhandari’s vulnerability and honesty in how her story shaped out. Originally stamping her passport for love and following her long-time partner Vikram to study in America, we get to bear witness to Bhandari’s slippery slope of life experiences. We watch her adapt to living in Raleigh, North Carolina, move back to India, and follow her heart back to America in a different way.
We are a fly on the wall as she learns how to drive and type on a computer for the first time. College students in the US studying other languages dropped 9% from 2013-2016, yet international students are supposed to come to America and speak perfect English or face retribution, punishment, or humiliation. This book opened my eyes to the absolute ignorance academia shows to students from other countries while simultaneously begging for students to study in America.
Bhandari speaks openly about the loneliness, isolation, and hardships international students face with striking clarity. When Bhandari was at university, social media was not as connective as it is now. Luckily, international students can now forge connections online, like this Reddit thread dedicated to international students trying to make it.
Bhandari walks us through her sluggish, overwhelming, and demeaning processes of applying for a student visa and H1-B visa. She angers you with her story of discovering a pay disparity between her and her less-experienced colleague, her story with a racist roommate, and her story of having to take a medical exam to earn a visa (hello, ableism anyone?) In a study done by the International Journal of Translational Medical Research and Public Health, a group of international students was asked whether they had experienced loneliness, social isolation, or depression. Every single student said yes.
International students struggle immensely, from perceived xenophobia to a sense of insincerity on behalf of domestic students when attempting to forge connections to extreme homesickness. I think Bhandari did an excellent job balancing the scale with her takes on her struggles and the achievements she created for herself.
International students and immigrants in the US are underappreciated and often ignored. Bhandari stands firm with her book and confidently says “Look at me, listen to me, and learn from me.” If you want to learn more about the suppressed voice of foreign students in America, I highly recommend this book. It is inspiring, nerve-wracking, and fascinating.
America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibilities
By Rajika Bhandari
288 pages. 2021.
Out today! Buy it now from our Bookshop in the US.