As Azadeh tells me about the rumors that circulated among her friends in Iran about how to get a student visa to the U.S., she sounds like the students I’ve encountered on so many internet forums.
“People say that if she takes the, for example, the yellow page it means she’s going to issue the visa for you, if she takes the blue one it means she’s gonna reject you.”
The US embassy in Ankara, Turkey has a special section for Iranian visa applicants
But there’s one Azadeh tells me that’s unlikely to go around in other countries:
“Everybody says, ‘Oh don’t go to Dubai,’” Azadeh says of her friends back in Iran. “‘They don’t give you a visa. Everybody that went to Cyprus they got it, but in Dubai it’s so much harder.’”
Where to go to get a visa is just one hurdle students applying to the U.S. from Iran encounter that most other international students never have to consider. There’s no U.S. embassy or consulate in Iran, so students have to travel to one of a select number of neighboring countries where the embassy will accept Iranian applicants.
Azadeh is a 3rd year PhD student in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland. We meet to talk about what it’s like to apply from Iran to study in the U.S., and are joined by the EducationUSA Iran advisor (who asked to remain anonymous).
A common ambition
Azadeh and the EducationUSA advisor agree that studying abroad is as highly valued among Iranian students as among students anywhere. It’s particularly common among high-achieving Iranian students, says Azadeh:
I can say that almost 90% of my friends are now overseas - the friends from my undergrad school. There’s a very big motivation in people in good universities in Iran to apply for their graduate school in different countries.
Azadeh laughs as she says the only reason she didn’t come to America sooner is that she was “lazier” than her friends. I find that hard to believe as she tells me sheresearched American universities by putting together an Excel spreadsheet with information about every school she was interested in.
Ultimately, though, she says:
When I made my mind about to apply there, I just thought of some universities that are located in some specific areas that I had some friends or family or someone close by. It’s not a good criteria actually, but for me it worked very well.”
“I was so lucky because I just applied one, and I got it.
However, the politics between America and Iran can complicate matters. When I ask Azadeh whether studying in the U.S. is viewed negatively by any in Iran because of the political relationship between the countries, she says no, but adds, “There are few people that are very...what should I say? Politics people?”
She looks for guidance to the advisor, who fills in the rest:
The relationship because of the politics, you’re right that they may not see it as a good thing. And that is a problem because those people are usually the people that students go to to get their transcripts translated, to get their transcripts stamped and certified. And those are the people who create obstacles as soon as they find out the student is trying to plan to come to the US for the study.
Contacting the United States, paying admission fees online, because of the politics ... there are always problems you can feel in every step of the way.
Azadeh and the advisor tell me the mail between Iran and the U.S. is unreliable, which can make something as simple as sending money between the two countries prohibitively difficult.
“I had this problem, and everybody has it, since they have to pay the application fee somehow, they have to send their documentations,” Azadeh says, and proceeds to tell her story of applying for her F-1 visa:
On going to the embassy: There is no American embassy in my country. So we have to go to other countries to apply. For some reason that I don’t know, the number of countries that we can apply for getting visa is very limited.
If I wanted to go to Cyprus, I needed a visa for Cyprus as well. And if I want to get the visa they ask me for financial support. There are some other issues for a single lady traveling abroad for some countries. They ask you to have one of your parents with you.
And then I just quit and go, ‘Ok I’m going to go to Dubai.’ It’s easier for me. And everybody says, ‘Oh don’t go to Dubai. It’s much more harder to get a visa.’ ... And I didn’t care. I said, Ok, I don’t have time, I have to go to Dubai, so bye.
On her visa interview: Less than 5 minutes. She just asked me, what is your plan after graduation? And I was talking about my plan after my graduation, and that’s it.
On getting her visa cleared: My visa took like 3 months to be cleared and I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that happened to me. I had no idea it was going to be more than 2 weeks or so. Actually, I quit my job, I moved out my apartment, and I sold my car, everything was ready to fly to U.S. and it was not cleared.
So I missed the semester for that and I had to defer it. And it was my second time to defer a semester because first time I didn’t get the funding in the first admission and I asked for the funding and had to wait a semester to get the funding.
On getting her I-20: I got my I-20 twice, because the first time I missed it because of the visa problem, and then when my visa was cleared I had to get another I-20. And both two times was a headache.
The first time I asked my friend, she used to live here, to grab it for me and post it to Dubai - the place that I was supposed to go for interview at U.S. embassy. She posted it there and I was lucky because I had some other friends there and I used their address and got it easily. But it was my luck. If you don’t have them, you have to just wait to see if you can get it at home or not.
The second time that I asked for the new I-20, I asked someone who was traveling from here to Iran to bring it for me and I went there and got it.
A full year after she was supposed to start at the University of Maryland, Azadeh finally began her PhD studies. Even then, her visa problems were not over.
Azadeh says thinking about the visa process still stresses her out. “When I came here, even after 2 years, I was having bad dreams that I was stuck without a visa in my country and I cannot come back,” she says.
“It’s a very bad feeling that I still have.”
Azadeh has been in the U.S. for 3 years as a PhD student at the University of Maryland, during which time she hasn’t been able to see her family back in Iran. Up until recently, Iranian students could only receive a single-entry visa, which meant their visa would allow them to enter the country one time only. If they left, they would have to reapply for a new visa.
“It’s been very tough for me,” she says. Throughout most of our previous conversation about applying to the U.S. and getting her visa she has been giggly and upbeat, but when we turn to this topic, it’s clear it hits home for her.
I know some people that changed their mind about coming to the U.S. just because of the visa issue. They never could imagine that they couldn’t come back even if something happened.
Azadeh tells me her parents have thought about coming to visit her in the U.S., but the family member she’s closest with is her sister, and it’s likely her sister would be refused the travel visa to come over.
If I cannot see her it doesn’t work for me. And she cannot come with my parents. There is a very high risk to all of them be refused, rejected getting a visa because of my younger sister that wants to come with them.
I give her a confused look, and Azadeh explains it’s because the visa officer might assume the family is trying to immigrate.
Making the change
The State Department announced in May that Iranian students would now be able to receive multiple-entry visas to study in the U.S. The EducationUSA Iran advisor, who joined Azadeh and I in our discussion about visas, says that after the announcement, EducationUSA received hundreds of emails from grateful Iranians.
But, “it doesn’t work for me,” Azadeh reminds us.
The multiple entry visa is a great change for incoming students, but Iranian students already in America face a dilemma - if they want the multiple entry visa, they must return home and apply for a new visa.
When I ask Azadeh whether she plans to do that, she and the advisor start discussing the pros and cons of making this move:
Azadeh: If I want to get to get my multiple entry visa I have to apply again for a visa. ... And for that one, I have to stay for a long time to be cleared. And if it doesn’t clear, what’s going on, what happens to me?
Advisor: You can’t come back with one entry. That’s the problem.
Azadeh: I still don’t have the feeling I can go and visit my family. I haven’t met them for more than 3 years. I’m thinking about coming back home next summer, which is gonna be my 4th year and it’s going to be almost impossible to stay without seeing them. You know, it’s hard, but I’m so stressful about that process.
Advisor: Make sure you get a valid I-20, a new I-20. Make your schedule before you leave the United States so you have an interview date. And if you’re willing to take that risk, make sure you have enough time for the clearance.
But again, it’s a risk that the student if they are willing to take for a multiple-entry, they have to take that risk. There’s no guarantee.
Azadeh says she’s also worried about the conditions of the multiple entry visa. Only students in “nonsensitive, nontechnical fields” are eligible.
Azadeh: I also worry about some different issues that they have. Like, they talk about the sensitive majors or sensitive research areas. That makes me so uncomfortable because in engineering, if you’re doing electrical engineering, computer or mechanical engineering, everything that you’re doing can be used in another way. Everything can be risky, can be considered as sensitive.
Advisor: I’m pretty sure they will not issue or release any official list.
But for Iran the technical is fields that are in proliferation. So I would say nuclear physics is one of them, but you can do physics. ... And also, even if you’re doing specific fields that they are in that physics, if you explain to the consular officer that you’re trying to do a certain research that has nothing to do with the proliferation, you may succeed.
But the technical - every field in engineering or even computer sciences can be considered technical. At the end of the day it depends on the judgment of the consular officer.
It’s not a perfect answer for Azadeh, who remembers waiting 3 months for her visa to be cleared the first time around. But she says she thinks she’s going to take the chance and apply for the new visa.
Besides allowing her to see her family, it would also help her in her education. She says with a multiple-entry visa “I feel more comfortable applying for conferences in Canada, Europe or every other country. I can easily go attend the conferences that I couldn’t go before.”
More changes to come
The advisor says the new multiple entry visas are part of a trend she’s seeing towards encouraging Iranian students to study in the U.S.:
What I know is that every year they’re trying to make it easier for students from Iran to go through the visa process. And the wait time although it’s now 2 weeks to several months for the clearance, they’re trying to make the scheduling of appointments for interview easier - they’re trying to facilitate a lot of it.
And the number of Iranian students in the U.S. has been increasing in recent years, which the advisor calls a “good and promising thing.”
“All the advising that you do to help students to come here, if they don’t get their visa doesn’t mean anything,” the advisor says. “They can get admitted to 10 great schools fully funded, if they don’t get the visa it doesn’t really count.”
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... Payvand News - 07/30/11 ... --