She just started her doctorate in physics. Now she’s worried she could be deported

Personal Finance

Michelle Wang

Source: Michelle Wang

On July 1, Michelle Wang moved from San Diego to Atlanta to begin her doctorate program in physics at Emory University. Less than a week after she settled into her new apartment, she heard the news: International students will have to leave the U.S. if all their classes are taught online.

“I can’t just leave,” Wang, 21, said. “It would ruin my life.”

There are almost 1.1 million international students in the U.S., according to higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz. “This is an incredibly cruel policy change and seems intended to pressure colleges into re-opening,” Kantrowitz said. Harvard and MIT have already sued the Department of Homeland Security over its decision. 

Wang was 12 when she moved to the U.S. from China with her mother, who taught Chinese to students at the San Diego High School of International Studies. Eventually, her mother returned to China, but Wang decided to stay in the United States to pursue a career in science. The University of San Diego offered her a generous scholarship to attend.

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“After my mother left, it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be,” Wang said. “I was able to make a lot of friends and school kept me really busy.”

As an undergraduate student, she studied physics and attended conferences and got her research published in scientific journals. “I love how we’ve been studying physics for hundreds of years, and still we only know 5% of the universe,” Wang said. “There’s always more to learn.”

Wang is also a singer and songwriter.

“I created my entire music career in the U.S.,” she said. “I was able to record an album, and put it on Spotify, and play at open mics or coffee shops.”

“If I were to move to China, I can’t do that,” she added. “All my songs are in English.” During college, she often sang the national anthem at basketball and football games. 

Wang knew she wanted to continue studying physics, and applied to graduate programs in her senior year. “Being able to contribute to the science community is beautiful, especially as a woman,” she said. “We’re really underrepresented.”

Wang said she’s interested in working toward energy-saving solutions, “something that could benefit the entire planet — not just one country or group of people.” 

Her five-year doctorate program at Emory University is supposed to start in August. Most of her excitement has now turned to fear.

Michelle Wang

Source: Michelle Wang

Wang has been told her classes will be in-person, but she worries that could change at any minute. Coronavirus cases are on the rise in Georgia, and nearly 100,000 people have fallen ill there.

“If one of us gets Covid, then we’re all screwed,” she said. And there will also be periods of her program where she’s not enrolled in any courses and only doing research. How will the policy impact her then? “I feel threatened,” she said. 

If Wang was forced to return to China, she doubts she’d be able to continue her doctorate program remotely, with the time difference between the two countries and the fact that Google is banned in China

“I would get very depressed,” Wang said. “I’m going to have to give up everything, the people I care about and my career as a physicist.” 

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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