Adriana Rodriguez, junior recreation and sport major, vividly remembers the day when she was told she had a week to leave the country, or else she’d be deported.

“It was a Tuesday morning and I get an email saying that I have an illegal status in the United States and I have to go back home as soon as possible, which meant within a week. I was not allowed to be enrolled in [William Jewell College]. It was Oct. 28, 2014. Admissions didn’t know I was not allowed to be enrolled in the school. They told me I had to withdraw all of my classes within a week, and that I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere,” Rodriguez said.

This is what happened.

When an international student is applying for an American visa, they have to follow a series of steps. This process can be confusing, and there are abundant opportunities for miscommunication.

To use Jewell as an example, once an international student is accepted, the Admissions Department—specifically Admissions Counsellor Jason Groves—will send the student a document called the I-20 form. On this form, the student verifies certain things such as their admittance, their ability to pay for the program and English proficiency.

Students also pay what is called a “SEVIS Fee,” which is $200 for international students. SEVIS is a database that monitors international students attending American institutions.

There’s another form called “DS 160,” and linked is a sample of what that might look like. The purpose of this form is, essentially, to apply for an interview with the embassy. If the form is accepted, and the information checks out, the embassy will contact the student to set up an interview.

What happens next is the student goes to the American embassy in that country, which in the case of Rodriguez is the embassy in Madrid. Students must appear in person. For the interview, they have to bring their I-20 form, passport, a receipt showing that they paid the SEVIS fee, their letter of acceptance to Jewell and documentation from their bank to confirm that they have the funds necessary to attend.

After all this, a student can still be declined for a visa. The interview process with a consular officer can get personal, not to mention the cost: the application for a student visa is $160. These fees add up.

There is so much more information, hoops, hurdles to jump through, but this is a general synopsis of what it takes for an international student to apply for a student visa to attend an American institution.

What is important to note is that an international student must have a student visa in order to attend college in the States. There really isn’t another way around it.

Back to Rodriguez.

Rodriguez had a tourist visa initially to tour colleges in the United States. She has family in Seattle, so she was visiting them as well. She knew that, to go to school here, she’d have to go back to Spain to change her tourist visa to a student visa. But when she was accepted into Jewell and came to campus in late August of 2014, she was advised that that wasn’t necessary

I knew I had to go back [to Spain], but then [Jewell] contacted me and told me there was a new rule, and I didn’t really have to go back to my country to apply for the student visa,” Rodriguez said.

This is a new process, and Rodriguez didn’t want to pay for a plane ticket back to Spain unnecessarily, so she went along with it.

“People back in Spain from the embassy told me, ‘No, you do have to come back.’ But since somebody from the school here told me that it was okay, I trusted them. We were waiting for the visa for a couple months, and I kept checking with them because something was wrong and I was nervous about not having a student visa,” Rodriguez said.

Then she was notified in October 2014 that she had a week to leave the United States or else she would be in the country illegally, which would result in deportation. With her tourist visa, it was not legal for her to attend Jewell. Admissions thought that it would be legal for her to attend school here while she waited for the change of status, but it wasn’t.

So she had to move out of her residence hall immediately. She stored her belongings at her coach’s house and stayed with a friend.

Rodriguez went back to Spain, went through the visa application process again, got a student visa effective spring semester of 2015 and returned to Jewell. However, this all cost her a lot of money.

Below is an excerpt from an appeal Rodriguez wrote last year addressed to President David Sallee and Brian Clemons, VP for Finance & Operations & Treasurer. This appeal is in response, primarily, to the high costs from this situation, but it also explains why Rodriguez didn’t initially go back to Spain:

I don’t know if you are aware of my situation or what happened the first semester. I am an international student from Spain and I transferred in here for the fall semester. When I enrolled here at Jewell I was told that my Visa was ok and we could do a change of status while I was a student. On Oct. 28, I was told that I could not change my visa status and that I had to withdraw from classes and return home immediately because I was in violation of my Visa.

This appeal goes on to state, in bullet points, the financial burdens she faced:

  • I had originally had a plane ticket in August to go back to Spain but did not use it because I was told I was ok to enroll
  • I had to buy a plane ticket on short notice which was very expensive
  • I had to apply for the visa change of status and pay those fees while I was here thinking that it could be changed.
  • After finding out that I had to go back to Spain I had to re-apply for a change of Visa and pay the fees again. (Each application costs around $200)
  • I had to be moved out and off campus on Nov. 6 and didn’t come back until January. I paid for my room and board to cover until Dec. 12.

The school did grant Rodriguez a discount on tuition costs for the spring semester.

In October 2015 Javier de la Blanca, junior business administration major, had similar difficulties. He came to Jewell in August 2015 and entered the country on something that is called an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). But the ESTA is meant for tourism, so it’s only good for 90 days.

So when de la Blanca was trying to apply for jobs, he found out that he couldn’t because he didn’t have the proper visa. He had two options: request all of the paperwork and wait for it to go through or to go outside the United States and then come back with the stamp. Considering that waiting the three months for the paperwork would have gotten him deported, he decided to go to Mexico.

He went to where his girlfriend lives in San Diego and drove to Tijuana. What he needed was a stamp on his I-20 form to validate his student visa to replace the ESTA.

“There was a huge line to get into the [United States]. We had to get into a van with a lot of random people, I was really scared because it was really sketch. We waited for four hours and then I got my I-20 signed and then I was legal again and able to work,” de la Blanca said.

As Groves described it, these situations are rare. There are 40 international students on campus, each with unique circumstances and particularities surrounding the status of their visas. Both Rodriguez and de la Blanca have had troubles with their visa statuses, but the issues are resolved now.

“Admissions helped me resolve the problem, but I don’t feel like it was my problem. They should be the ones in charge of knowing what the situation is with [international students]. They knew I entered the country and that I didn’t have my visa. I think they assumed that signing the I-20 was enough, but it wasn’t,” de la Blanca said.

Rodriguez is glad simply to be back at Jewell, and she’s grateful to those who have supported her during this experience.

“I think everything happens for a reason. This made me realize that people here are really supportive and caring. I found a group of people here that really care about me and like me and want me to be here. That’s difficult to find sometimes, so I’m thankful for that and my coach (Jill Slominski), because she helped me a lot,” Rodriguez said.

Editor’s Note: A special thanks to Jason Groves for helping me navigate the confusing, labyrinthine nature of the visa application process.

Feature photo by Kyle Rivas.