I have numerous international students sit across my desk daily–all with different backgrounds and stories to tell. Sometimes, as immigration advisors, we are accused of being too focused on the paperwork, the regulations, and the tiny-to-large fires to put out. I would have to admit that this is true. Most of the time, as hard as we try, it is easy to forget the human, non-paper aspect of what we do. Sound familiar?
But sometimes the day-to-day things connect, in unexpected ways, to the big things. For me, it was a light bulb moment. A student I had worked with over the recent years kept hitting snags in dealing with the U.S. immigration system – months-long, complicated, more-than-the-norm snags. It turned out he had one, seemingly intractable problem: he had just one name. The United States requires every foreign national to list a last name in all immigration systems. But this student had no first and last name—just a single name. This caused him problems throughout his stay in the United States. I hated telling this student, “There’s just not much I can do.” It’s a helpless feeling for an advisor committed to helping students navigate through the broken immigration system. So you could say that it was this small but significant issue that encouraged me to attend NAFSA’s Advocacy Day.
NAFSA’s Advocacy Day teaches you the tools you need both nationally and locally to advocate for international students and scholars, study abroad, and other international education policy issues. On my flight to D.C., I thought, “I’m just a blonde, 25 year-old from Georgia—where the political climate for international matters is not very encouraging. There is no way I’ll be taken seriously. I’m just another Elle Woods from the Legally Blonde movie.” My friends, I was wrong. I left my meetings “on the hill” with a new spring in my step. The greatest thing I gained from Advocacy Day was being able to go back to the international student, now a good friend of mine, and tell him, “I told your story in Washington, D.C.”
A few months after I returned from Advocacy Day, I got a call from Boston. A major marketing company had hired my friend with no last name and was sponsoring his H-1B visa. He would hold a position of senior business analyst. I cannot say that I had anything to do with his success except for one thing I did. I went to D.C., I went to Advocacy Day, and I came back with encouraging words – and he kept working toward his dream. He didn’t give up. This might just happen to you too… I’m going back. Hope to see you there.
Ashley Johnson is a NAFSA member and an international student advisor at the University of Georgia. After attending NAFSA’s 2011 Advocacy Day, her interest in public policy and advocating for the students she serves have become a priority.