When You Don’t Fit the Eligibility Criteria But Fit the Profile
“How can you shop at Walmart?” His brown eyes grow rounder as he ends his question. His body, ever so slightly, recoils in disbelief and disapproval.
From his tone and the indignant look on his face, I know I’m being shamed, but I don’t know what I’m being shamed for.
All I did was ask him if he were interested in joining me on a trip to Walmart after class. Have I done something culturally unacceptable again? What Tuscaloosa norm have I broken now? None of us is really from here, but I’m more not-from-here than he is. He’s from several states north of Alabama, but I’m from the Middle East. It’s 2011, and we’re sitting in a small, sickly-lit classroom, waiting for the writing workshop professor to show up.
“Should I not shop at Walmart?” I wonder out loud.
“No one should! You know they don’t pay their workers a livable wage, right? I’ve boycotted them, and so should any decent human being.”
We’re both MFA students at the University of Alabama, but I take my grocery basket to Walmart, while he, as I learn this day, is exclusive with Publix.
I’m being shamed by a fellow writer for making an unethical choice.
In the professor’s five-minute tardiness, I get a mini lecture on workers’ rights, and I’m urged not to shop at Walmart: “Promise me you won’t shop there again.” I nod, signaling that I understand his objection. He interprets my nod as an agreement and gestures for a fist bump. We fist bump, and he smiles in approval. He now approves of the foreign girl and of his successful campaign to educate the “international” student, who’s lived here only for a few weeks and can’t make ethical choices unless guided by “domestic” students’ moral compass.
How much of a choice is a choice when the only options available are between starvation and shopping at a “morally corrupt chain store”? When over 65% of your graduate stipend vanishes in the automatic utility payments and the rent check you drop off at the rental office every month? When, as a “non-resident alien,” you don’t qualify for student loans or any loan of any kind? When you don’t come from money? When the crippling economic sanctions on your country have made meat and eggs unaffordable for your parents back home, making their financial support a non-option? When your meager graduate stipend is taxed more highly than your cohort’s because you’re an “international” student as opposed to a “domestic” one? When your F-1 visa only allows 20 hours of on-campus work, preventing you from serving tables at a local restaurant for extra cash? How unethical is an “unethical choice” when it’s not really a choice?
How, I wonder, my conscientious friend affords ethical shopping. I’m culturally programmed not to query people about their finances, so I don’t ask. It’s only years later in a casual conversation about his financial struggles that I learn of his parents’ occasional financial support and his student loan, both of which supplemented his graduate stipend when we were in school together. I’m tempted to say, “I got a smaller stipend at UA because of my gender and my visa status, and I had no other income source,” but I don’t because I understand his pain, the pain of having to pay student loan for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes, making the “ethical choice” is a privilege. Sometimes, qualifying for student loans is a privilege.
I’ve been taken to the morality, decency, and competency gallows by American friends, acquaintances, peers, and professors more times than I can count.
Sometimes, I’m shamed for what’s construed as political cowardice.
“Do you want to meet up on campus, or will you just meet us there?” a friend asks, adjusting her thick-rimmed glasses over the arch of her freckled nose.
She’s referring to a political protest she’s helped organize. We’re sitting outside the English department’s graduate lounge on a wooden bench that creaks under our weights, both of us waiting for the copier to be freed up.
I look away from her blue eyes, faking interest in a group of students engaged in a loud conversation a few feet away. “Um, yeah, I’m not going,” I say sheepishly, knowing what’s about to come.
There’s a familiar contempt in her voice: “Oh, I see. And why may I ask?”
Before I have time to respond, she adds, “Don’t you care? You’re an immigrant! You’re a person of color! You’re a student! You’re a minority! You’re a part of this community! How can you not care?”
“Well, I’m on a student visa here,” I explain, still avoiding eye contact. “And I don’t really wanna get into any trouble with the cops.”
She insists: “It’s a peaceful protest. No one’s getting arrested or beaten up. There’s nothing to fear, really.”
“I’m sorry,” I finally turn around to look her in the eyes, “I’m still not going. I cannot risk it. If something goes wrong, you’ll be jailed, but I can get deported.”
She adjusts herself on the bench until her entire body is facing me. “No one’s getting jailed or deported, you drama queen. Nothing’s gonna go wrong. Like I said, it’s a peaceful protest. And this is America, dammit. We have freedom of speech and the right to assemble peacefully.”
I get up, shouldering my backpack, and announce, “I’m going to get a coffee. Please, hold my spot in the copier line?” From previous experiences, I know I must remove myself from the conversation. There is no convincing the “domestic” student.
She follows my movements with her narrowed eyes, raises both hands in surrender, and declares, “Okay, okay, you don’t have to run away. I get it. You gotta do what you gotta do. You do you, Saeide. You do you.”
I wonder if she understands the fear of deportation.
Sometimes, protesting for your rights is a privilege. Sometimes, exercising your First Amendment rights is a privilege. It’s not about ‘you doing you’ and ‘me doing me.’ It’s about survival.
How much of a choice is a choice when the only options available are between peacefully protesting inequalities and protecting your visa status.
Sometimes, I’m shamed for what’s construed as poor money management, failure to explore all my options, or lacking a Protestant work ethic.
“Why don’t you get a job, you lazy ass?” I’m asked, once I complain to a friend that “I dread summers” because I lose my only income source “every freaking summer break.” It’s 2013, and I’m still an “international” graduate student in Alabama.
She’s playing with her wavy hair as she speaks. “Seriously, why don’t you get a job at a restaurant or a bar or something? Those are easy to get.”
I explain to her that to work off-campus, I need a work permit, a CPT, and CPTs are only issued for work that’s related to one’s field of study, and they require one’s advisor to sign on them, confirming that the job in question fulfills a course requirement and is essential for degree advancement as opposed to merely serving some financial need.
“Then, get a teaching job,” she offers an obvious solution, her entire face looking like a “Duh!”
I explain to her that I’m not certified or otherwise qualified to teach in schools and that I can only teach in higher education. Every spring, I spend between 100-120 hours on employment websites looking at job postings and applying for any position I can find, but there are few positions that I both qualify for and am allowed to do on my F-1 visa. Such jobs, I add, get hundreds of applicants who are native English speakers and who are either citizens or permanent residents. I tell her about the dreaded box in job applications: “Do you now, or will you at any time in the future, need visa sponsorship to work for [insert the organization’s or business’s name]?” Most employers, I suspect, don’t bother to look at your application when you check “Yes.” Ironically, this question is often located somewhere near the employer’s non-discrimination policy.
She looks uncertain. She’s probably processing the new information before she can offer more advice. I take advantage of her silence and continue, “Believe me, I’ve tried and tried. I never get any call backs, no interviews, nothing.”
She’s adjusting her bra straps, and I can tell from her facial expression that she’s weighing a thought. When she feels comfortable in her bra again, she leans back in her seat and suggests, “Well, then, maybe you should save up during fall and spring semesters. You ever heard of the ant and the grasshopper?”
I explain to her that my only income source is the stipend I receive from the English Department for teaching four classes of 24-25 students. I repeat that I am not legally allowed to work more than 20 on-campus hours during fall and spring semesters. After rent and utilities, I barely have enough to make the ends meet until the next check arrives. Saving is a privilege I don’t have. I am tempted to tell her that if any of us were a grasshopper, it wouldn’t be the one who declines invitations to bar crawls and frequent restaurant meals and who refuses to spend her money on occasional drugs. But I swat the temptation because I know, like most others, she means well.
“Then how the hell do you survive summers?” she wants to know.
“I always end up borrowing money. Then I struggle for the next nine months to pay back my summer debts while also paying my tuition installments and occasional emergency costs, and just as I’m about to emerge from the tunnel, summer comes again, and I have to borrow money again. It’s a freaking vicious cycle. I hate summers. I fucking hate summers.”
She looks both frustrated and bored. After a moment of rumination, she proposes, “Well, then, you should sell your used panties or your eggs. Check Craigslist for used panties ads. There are a shit ton of them. Some of them are really creepy, but some look safer, so you just need to be careful when you meet up with the buyer, or you can just mail the panties. Also, there are clinics where you can make good money for your eggs, and … hmm, there are other options too, you know, but they ain’t clean work if you catch my drift.”
I catch her drift, but it’s clear to me that this conversation is going nowhere, so I try to change the topic: “Wanna know a fun fact? When you apply for a visa, they ask you … in the application form, they want to know if you intend to engage in prostitution while in the United States. It’s as if they know. They know you’re gonna be fucking broke and desperate, and they wanna know if in your desperation, you’re likely to show ‘moral turpitude.’”
She snickers and observes, “Oh, like anyone would tell the truth on those forms. In any case, I don’t think selling used panties counts as ‘moral turpitude.’”
That night, I go home, turn on my laptop, open Firefox, and type Criagslist.org in the address bar. I change my mind, open a new tab, and search for “What counts as moral turpitude?”
Sometimes, it’s a privilege to be an ant, to work hard, and to save up for the wintertime.
Perhaps, the biggest privilege of all is the privilege to remain oblivious of one’s own privilege. Often, the most privileged of us are the least likely to recognize our privileges as privileges.
In academic settings, one of the most overlooked privileges is citizen privilege. Most of my peers and professors, as well as the university staff, breathe citizen privilege. Because it’s like air to them, they don’t notice all the small and big advantages afforded to them by their citizen or “permanent resident” status. Because they don’t recognize these advantages as advantages, their citizen privilege remains invisible to them. Or perhaps, it’s a matter of perception and memory. Perhaps, they hear of citizen privilege in a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workshop, but the concept remains alien to them because it’s hard for them to imagine all the disadvantaging nuances of life as someone on the other side of the national belonging line. Maybe they hear about citizen privilege in an EDI workshop but simply forget about it soon after the meeting is over.
I prefer to lull myself thinking that they either fail to grasp the traumatizing impact of living outside the national belonging huddle or forget its existence because it’s invisible to them. The alternative, that they know and understand and remember but look the other way, would be too hurtful to believe in, so I embrace the narrative of ignorance and unreliable memory.
I tell myself that they can’t quite conceptualize what it means to hit a sealed door at every turn because you’re outside the national belonging huddle. I tell myself that they don’t realize what an advantage it is to qualify for student loans, scholarships, fellowships, internships, and other sources of funding. I tell myself that they don’t see convenience in having the option to take a few shifts as a server, an Uber driver, an Instacart shopper, a part-time gardener, a bartender, or any other position that’s not related to their field of study. I tell myself that they don’t understand what a privilege it is to just march back into the United States and continue their life/work/studies after attending conferences, workshops, and residencies overseas. I tell myself they probably don’t even know what a single-entry visa means and how costly, uncertain, and time-consuming it would be for someone with a single-entry visa to acquire a re-entry visa after a conference abroad or a visit home. I tell myself that they don’t know how F-1 visa holders can’t even take a leave of absence for mental or physical health concerns without losing their legal status. I tell myself that they either don’t realize or forget that some of us don’t even have the option to visit our families or to have them visit us during holiday breaks or when we need emotional support. I tell myself that they forget how comforting it is to know that your family and loved ones are just a plane flight or a bus ride away. I tell myself that they don’t understand the trauma of waking up in the morning to the news of an impending military strike on your home country. I tell myself that they just don’t see how a life outside the national huddle cuts or significantly limits access to vital resources for academic and professional success and for mental and physical health. I tell myself that they don’t realize that the aggregate impact of life outside the national belonging huddle is debilitating and traumatizing. I tell myself that it’s not their fault that their citizen privilege is invisible to them.
This invisibility generates an experience gap between people on the two sides of the national belonging line. Together, the invisibility of citizen privilege and the resulting experience gap give rise to recurring interpersonal and institutional microaggressions and inequities in academia.
On an interpersonal level, I become a political coward for my fear of deportation. I become an unethical shopper for my fear of starvation. I become a lazy grasshopper for my lack of a savings account. I become an incompetent job seeker for my lack of options on the job market. I become an uninformed foreigner for my silenced voice. I become an anti-social character for my inability to afford drinking at bars, eating at restaurants, and partying with peers. I become the doctoral candidate who needs to “get [herself] together” and stop wasting time worrying about Trump’s Muslim Ban. I become the person who always makes the wrong choices, never mind that there’s a fine line between a choice that’s a real choice and a choice that’s made for you, a pre-made choice. Never mind that most of my pre-made choices are made at the intersection of my immigration status, national origin, race, ethnicity, class, gender, field of study, disability, and age.
On an interpersonal level, microaggressions rain on me, and I cling to my narrative of ignorance and unreliable memory.
At times, when I tell people that I’ve been left to trudge on the margins of higher education, I receive emails suggesting that I should practice self-care. At other times, I get emails with links to different types of opportunities, and every single time when I navigate to the “Eligibility Criteria,” it says, right there on the page, that to be considered eligible, applicants should be citizens or permanent residents of the United States, but those words seem to be invisible to people with citizen privilege, who consistently blame me for my lack of opportunities, for being left behind.
Sometimes, I come across opportunities that are open to non-citizens, but I still don’t fit the criteria. Often, my field of study isn’t a match—who would want to support or train an international English student anyway. Sometimes, my ethnicity or race isn’t a match, or my national origin, or my research interests (Islamophobia), or my age, or I’m from the wrong part of Asia. I’m never a match. I never fit the description, which is ironic, because I know I fit the description when it comes to surveillance practices and profiling based on ethnicity and national origin and based on my Middle Eastern looks and my mother tongue, dare I speak it in public. I live on a damning intersection.
To most people, I “haven’t tried hard enough,” I just “have to lower my expectations,” I just “need to work harder,” or, as a professor once told me, I just need to “get [my] shit together.” I understand that this mentality is rooted in the American obsession with Protestant work ethic and the myth of the undeserving downtrodden, the myth that if you’re behind, you must lack work ethic, the myth that frames poverty and underachievement as symptoms of individual failure and character flaws, rather than as outcomes of systemic inequities and legal barriers to success. But I don’t understand how my liberal- or progressive-minded friends, peers, professors, acquaintances, and scholars who study race, immigration, and other DEI-related topics employ the same language and frames that have for centuries served to justify systemic racism and institutional inequalities. Is it because I’m not a citizen that I don’t count as human being, as a life worth living? I don’t understand why it’s so hard for those with citizen privilege to understand that I’m behind not because I don’t work hard enough, but because no matter how fast and long I run, I can’t close the gap between myself as a “non-resident alien” and those with citizen privilege. I don’t understand why, when I tell them about my struggles in graduate school, they immediately respond with, “Everyone struggles in grad school; I did too,” overlooking the fact that, compared to “domestic” graduate students, international graduate students, especially students in humanities departments and from certain national and ethnic backgrounds, experience multiple additional layers of discrimination, microaggressions, and barriers to success.
Microaggressions rain on me, and I tell myself that people outside my exact intersection don’t realize that I’ve started from thousands of miles behind and have been running a decade-long higher education American marathon to catch up with my “domestic” peers, and I’m still behind because, on an institutional level, I’ve been falling through the cracks.
On an institutional level, I’m a statistical insignificance, a failure, and, if I seek help, a nuisance. I stand at the wrong intersection. I’m a minority within a minority within a minority within a profiled and surveilled but undeserving and foreign minority. But, worst of all, I don’t seem to count when it comes to promoting DEI in higher education because I’m outside the national belonging huddle. Maybe because I’m perceived as a guest, a temporary presence, and a foreign burden whose contributions to this country are overlooked, never mind that my undergraduate students, in their post-semester gratitude emails, have called me “an asset to the University of Minnesota,” “an amazing professor” with a “surreal [amount of] patience [and] compassion,” “the most impactful educator” they’ve had, “the best instructor–even among seasoned faculty members,” and a nurturer of the future generations of social justice crusaders. Many students have identified my classes as the “driving force behind [their] academic [and career] trajectory,” or as spaces where they’ve finally felt “safe and included,” or as the only place where they’ve “felt that [their] opinion and contributions mattered.” And yet, despite my contributions to this nation, I remain unworthy of institutional support because I live outside the national belonging huddle and because I fit the profile but don’t fit the eligibility criteria.
Everyone back in my home country thought it a pipe dream when I began applying to creative writing programs in the United States: “Why would they want a foreigner, a non-native speaker of English, to go to there and learn how to write stories in their language? Americans want scientists and engineers. They want brains. What do you have to offer them?”
Maybe they were right. I am not a scientist. I am not an engineer. What value do I have except for being a token minority in white-dominated writing programs and underfunded English departments? What’s the value of someone who fits the profile but never fits the eligibility criteria? Am I part of an American experiment designed to examine human strength and the value of fine arts and humanities?
On an institutional level, I become an undeserving alien, an underachieving graduate student, and a failed experiment. And, if I ask for help, I become a problem but remain ignored, like a gnat that’s annoying but not worth the swat.
As I write this essay in April 2021, I am a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Minnesota, and I have been a gnat since 2011 when I joined the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alabama. I can’t be the only international graduate student standing on a traumatizing intersection. If you are out there, if you’re a gnat, a statistical insignificance, if you don’t fit the eligibility criteria but fit the profile, please know that you’re not alone. Shared pain is still pain, but it’s at least validated pain.
Saeide Mirzaei was born and raised in a small town near the borders of Iran and Afghanistan. In 2011, she moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to join the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alabama. She is currently a 6th-year doctoral candidate in English at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities), where she teaches community-engaged classes and works on her interdisciplinary dissertation that combines knowledge and methodology from law, cognitive linguistics, history, media studies, cultural studies, and literary studies. Saeide’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Slash Pine Magazine, China Grove, Contrary Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, Lunch Ticket, and many others. She has received or been nominated for multiple awards, including Best American Essays 2021.