Chasing the American dream, an international student edition (Part I)

On July 6, 2020, ICE announced restrictions on student visas if schools were to go fully online. Many of my international communities instantly went into chaos. Having previously been on an F-1 student visa for 7 years, I know that anxiety too well.

When the world strips you off your humanity, I feel that there is nothing I can do but to tell my story. I want to share what it took for me to be where I am today. I want us to find common ground: that we are all human with families, dreams, and feelings. I want to show that I did not take my opportunities for granted. I worked very hard for it. I know that my fellow international students have been doing the same. Part of me feels we are doing the world wrong by not allowing some of the most courageous, ambitious, and hardworking individuals to achieve their full potential. When humans, American or not, are empowered with education, we can provide more value to our communities than what the communities could have provided to us.

Part I

It was August, 2011. I was sitting on the plane taking off from SF International airport to go back to China. As most of the teens around me were cheering to finally go home, I was overwhelmed by sadness to say goodbye to the first foreign country I’ve ever visited and a longing for my unfulfilled American dream. Right then, I promised myself that I would make my way back somehow. No matter what it takes, I will be back.

My family is middle-class in a third-tier Chinese city. I grew up watching this national television channel where a reporter, who I thought was attractive, interviewed global leaders. Their big talks inspired me to want to see the world and to become a diplomat.

To motivate me to study hard, my parents promised me a ticket abroad if I scored top 10 in my city for the high school entrance exam. I did and went on an overpriced tour to the US with a group of privileged kids during my 9th grade summer break.

My parents might have underestimated the potential impact of the trip on me. If they knew, I doubt they would still have let it happen. What the trip exposed me to was not a foreign language, a group of people who don’t look like me, nor the material abundance of the American shopping malls; it was the fact that I was even allowed to address the teacher by her first name, the academic rigor I saw between the library aisles, and the diverse cultures and values I could embrace while staying with my Filipino host family. The trip showed me a different future I could lead; it pushed me to imagine how my life could be. The unknown exhilarated me.

I recall becoming a different person when I went back to my high school for the second year. In China, high school is three years, with the third year entirely reserved to prepare for the college entrance exam (gaokao). I was from one of the most populous provinces in China so getting into university is extremely difficult. To increase my chance, I left home at age 14 to attend one of the best high schools in my province. Before the trip, I had been laser focused on getting into top universities. After the trip, I suddenly lost interest. I felt this deep dissonance inside me: what’s the point of memorizing stuff just for the exam? What’s the point of learning things that are not going to teach me how to think? What’s the point of being tested over and over again if I already understood the material?

A month into the semester, I called my mom and told her I wanted to attend a US college. Her immediate response was regretting sending me on that trip. Her resistance is not only from how expensive a US education would be, but also from a desire for security: I was doing so well in my high school that it was highly likely that I was going to get the only entrance ticket to Peking University from my school. It’s the dream school of millions and literally one person from my hometown gets in in a blue moon. To walk away from that is like I was out of my mind.

I was indeed out of my mind. My desire to reinvent my life was so strong that I simply didn’t care how hard it was going to be to make my dream come true. My mom trusted me enough to strike a deal that I could pursue both gaokao and TOEFL language exams for the next two months. She said I could allow my grades to drop to top 30 in my grade (of 2000 students), and if I managed to score high enough on the TOEFL, she would let me keep going. It sounded extremely reasonable, even gracious to me. Not every Chinese parent lets their kid take such a risk.

I was determined to maintain my grades and squeeze out any time I can find to study for the TOEFL. My school was military style and everything follows a rigorous schedule. For two months, you bet I was the first person to run out of the dorm to the classroom when the door opened at 6:45am. I was always eating breakfast while studying. I was always the last person to eat lunch because that’s when there was no line. While everyone else napped in the afternoons, I studied for the TOEFL. I was the always last person to run back to the dorm at 10pm right before the door closed, and used 5 min to shower. I would run back to my room in the dark since lights were already turned off with water still dripping down my hair, while the resident director yelled at me for breaking rules. While most students would sleep at 10:30pm, it’s the time I would start my night operation: have a thick blanket completely covering myself, torch on, and study some more. I had to hide because it was rule-breaking to study after curfew and I was caught plenty of times. It was actually incredibly gross to suffocate under a blanket for that long but I somehow stuck through for two years. At 11pm when I started to hear snores, I would take out my keyboard to practice typing before heading to bed. The TOEFL test is online and I had to type my essays out, and… I didn’t know how to type because I had almost never used a computer.

In November, 2011, the day after my high school midterm, I went to take the TOEFL exam. My cortisol peaked. I furiously typed and guessed. I had no clue most of the time. My essay was full of spelling mistakes not because I didn’t know how to spell, but because I didn’t know how to type. Multiple times I wanted to cry as I was on the edge of giving up.

I scored 93 out of 120. It was not bad, but you usually need 110+ to get into an Ivy. My mom was pleased with my score because those who can score 110+ usually go to an international high school and have paid for lots of tutoring. I completely self studied. I also surprised everyone, including myself, by scoring №1 in the grade for the midterm.

Just like that, I was faced with a difficult choice: do I keep alive my American dream and continue to study for both gaokao and SAT or just focus on gaokao and go abroad for masters? If I somehow got into a US college without scholarship, which is usually the case for international students, would my family be able to afford it? At some point, my parents mentioned willing to sell our house and move in with my grandparents. I couldn’t imagine doing that to them. They didn’t give birth to me only to throw all they’ve worked so hard to build in the trash.

As my American dream was about to burst, a school director told us about a high school program called “United World College (UWC)” that was taking applications. The news was like light in total darkness. I discovered the school was exactly what I wanted: to share two years with 200 other students from over 80 countries. The crazier thing is that my education could be totally funded. I was determined to get in.

Getting in felt mostly out of reach. I needed to get selected as one of the twenty to represent China out of god-knows-how-many applications. I was up to competing with some of the most privileged kids in China, who are from big cities, have attended a top school’s international programs, and have parents who could pay. I submitted my application and hoped for the best. The following January, I got an invitation for a superday. It was a day full of group activities, leadership & collaboration evaluations, written tests, and interviews. In March, I learned I got into UWC-USA, my first choice.

It would be pretty reasonable to guess I immediately quitted high school and chilled out. That was not what happened. It was that time that the dilemma I was facing earlier became real when I finally had the options in hand: if I were to attend UWC, my family weren’t sure if I could get in as good a college as PekingU and if we could afford it. If I were to stay, I could attend PekingU and be almost guaranteed “a good life”. All my relatives thought my mom and I were insane when we sided towards UWC. School officials tried to interfere as well because the more people who can get into PekingU, the better.

One night when my mom and I called, she shared a story she never told me before. She got waitlisted by the best foreign language university in China back then. She would have gone if my grandma was willing to pay a small sum of money — but she was a woman and meant to stay at home to take care of her parents; career and ambition shouldn’t matter to her. My grandma didn’t pay, and as a result, my mom never left home. She told me how she felt having that “better life” taken away from her and decided that she didn’t want to do that to me. She didn’t want me to regret and didn’t want me to blame her. She was going to let me choose and let me take the life responsibility for myself. It’s my life after all.

You can probably guess what I chose. It was a no-brainer. The teenager in me didn’t care about playing it safe the slightest. I was ready to reject that see-through conventionally-successful path. When you can predict the outcome, it’s time to start a new game. Just like that, I decided to take this narrower side path that appeared out of nowhere on the road. I couldn’t see very far from where I was standing, but I was excited for the unknown.

Even after I committed to UWC, my mom didn’t let me go home. She asked me to conceal the news and kept studying for gaokao until I was able to obtain my US visa. It’s all futile until I can get a visa to go. This is how conservative you get when faced with a system you have no control over. Luckily, they didn’t reject a 16-year-old who was dying to attend a dream school. With that, I finally gave a middle finger to the Chinese education system and, with all the nervousness and excitement, flew off to the US.

Part II coming up soon. Meanwhile, check out my previous post:



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Mojia Shen

Mojia Shen

Serving mother earth and her children