Why this international medical student at Harvard is losing faith in the ‘American dream’

This month, the administration announced international students — who pump more than $40 billion into the U.S. economy every year — must take in-person classes this fall or they will be forced to either leave the United States or transfer to another college.

The policy — strongly criticized by schools, legislators, education groups and others — appears to be part of President Trump’s effort to force schools at all levels to fully reopen this fall even while the coronavirus pandemic is raging in many states. He has attacked colleges planning to offer only virtual classes, and said he would put pressure on governors to reopen K-12 schools, even threatening to withhold federal funding to school districts that don’t.

In this, Zahir Virji writes about his reaction to the policy and how his view of the United States and the American Dream is changing.

A molecular, cellular and developmental biology major in the Yale class of 2017, he earned a master’s degree in public health at the Yale School of Public Health before going to medical school at Harvard. He took a gap year from his master’s, during which he worked in Uganda and Tanzania on public health projects.

His area of interest is infectious diseases and he worked the Global Malaria Program at the World Health Organization in Switzerland while a student at Yale. He once wrote about his experience, saying, “I have always had a strong passion for infectious diseases, especially malaria. As a native of Tanzania, I have seen the devastating effects of the disease and the immense loss of life that comes from it.”

By Azan Zahir Virji

I traveled across the world to pursue a higher education and in search of a better and brighter future for myself and my family. Now, in the middle of a global pandemic, I might be forced to leave.

I distinctly remember when I got my college acceptance to Yale University. I was sitting on my parents’ bed, anxiously waiting for the page on my computer to load, hoping that my Internet connection wouldn’t cut out. Suddenly there it was: “Boola Boola, Welcome to Yale!”

At first, the college acceptance didn’t register; I had trained my mind to expect rejection since I genuinely believed I didn’t stand a chance of attending an institution such as Yale. It was my mum’s joyful scream that broke me from my spiral of self-doubt.

My mother, a 57-year-old ex-hairstylist, who dropped out of college due to financial reasons, always wished for a life where her autoimmune medical condition wasn’t a burden on the family. My father, an electrician who never attended college, wished for an opportunity to use his innovative skills to provide our family. But their aspirations for a life without the worry of where their next meal was coming from did not materialize.

Instead, these worries and aspirations became mine as their only child.

I made it my mission to break the cycle of poverty that my parents prayed to be free of every night. The first time I left East Africa was when I boarded a plane to the United States, which seemed to me to be gleaming with the hope of a better and brighter future for myself, my family, and generations to come after me.

I had heard of the so-called American Dream, the idea that anyone, regardless of where they were from or what class they were born into, could come to the United States, and find success if they worked hard enough for it. I was on the right journey — after all, I’d been admitted to one of the best universities in the United States — so I was certain I was on a fast-track to upward mobility.

But this search came at a heavy price: sacrifice. Just like Alexander Hamilton, the immigrant and Founding Father who built the financial foundation of the United States, I too was not going to “waste my shot.”

Financially, I could only travel home once a year. So instead of spending months with my family in Tanzania, re-connecting and sharing stories of my adventures in the United States and all I was learning, I made the difficult decision to only visit once a year for a few weeks. This way, I could fill up my summers and breaks with internships, extra classes, research, and volunteering to boost my résumé.

My passion for learning about parasitic infections, such as the all-too-familiar malaria, led me to study Human Babesiosis, a tick-borne parasitic disease predominantly found in the Northeastern and Midwestern region of the United States. Publishing in academic journals on a disease not prevalent in Tanzania didn’t matter to me; I knew I was contributing to the advancement of scientific knowledge, learning about parasite pathology, and helping the people that I hoped to one day call my neighbors.

Complementing my passion for learning is my passion for teaching. One summer, I worked as an instructor teaching high school students about global health and vaccines in the hopes that the future leaders of this country would have a solid foundation on which to make world decisions.

The sacrifices and hard work paid off when I was accepted to Harvard Medical School. Forming lifelong friendships with some of the most accomplished individuals I had ever met filled me with joy and gratitude. Even though medical school did feel like trying to drink from a fire hose using a cup, I found solitude in working with the school’s administration on financial aid policy. My goal was to continue to advocate for better financial aid support for incoming students regardless of race, gender, or citizenship.

Just as the dream of America being my new home seemed so close, it all came crashing down in the span of a few months. Spring semester brought on a global pandemic, one that I had to face alone, financially under pressure and emotionally stressed about my family in Tanzania. Overnight, my once-stable housing situation, on-campus job, and community all disappeared.

Amidst the global pandemic, in late January, Tanzania was added onto the list of countries facing stringent U.S. travel restrictions. I could no longer apply for a green card as a Tanzanian citizen, something I had been trying to do every year. Then in June, H1B visas were suspended until the end of 2020. I knew that if I had been graduating this year from medical school, I would be unable to start residency without my H1B visa. I watched as a pandemic that transcended borders and that was supposed to unite countries, instead left the world even more divided, forcing every country to look out only for themselves.

If the last two obstacles weren’t enough of a deterrent that jeopardized my future in this country, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently announced a policy that could strip international students of their U.S. visas if their coursework was entirely online. It was heartbreaking to hear that everything we had worked for could be taken away so easily due to circumstances beyond my control.

This hostility toward and negative rhetoric about immigrants is not only happening in the United States Numerous countries around the world have seen growing attitudes of distrust towards immigrants, exacerbated by covid-19. But, for a country founded and built by immigrants to now shun them away is inherently ironic.

The recent immigration decisions have left me wondering what the “American dream” looks like today for low-income, first-generation students like me who weren’t born here.

It has only become more difficult to legally immigrate and establish residency in this country. The United States, a country that welcomed the best and brightest from across the world, for jobs and schools, is now adopting policies that makes us feel everything but welcome. Is the policy of “America First” inherently un-American? What’s happened recently directly negates the idea of the “American dream.”

The Statute of Liberty stands tall in the state of New York with the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” etched into its side. Do these words still hold true as they did centuries ago? Recent legislation bars poor immigrants from obtaining permanent residency in the United States if they use government benefits such as housing and food assistance.

Black immigrants find themselves at the mercy of systemic racism and police brutality, struggling to breathe. International students and workers, tired of being trapped in vicious cycles of poverty and violence in their home countries, are now forced to uproot the lives they’ve made here — abandoning their homes, families, and life of hard work to achieve the American Dream.

In the short amount of time I have spent here in the United States, I have learned so much and grown in ways that I could have never imagined. I have come to love the people that make this country what it is and could not be more grateful for the experiences I have had to this day.

As much as I wish to stay here and continue my pursuit, I am not given a choice and the opportunity is being stripped away from me, suddenly and systematically. The future of the American Dream is at stake and is slowly losing its promised value.

If I could go back in time, I would tell the younger version of me, wide-eyed and chasing a dream, to re-consider the surety of attainment of that dream. I knew that this journey was going to be difficult, but not impossible.

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