On Visas and Happiness

I have had a few proud moments recently. Our boxes have been carefully packed, numbered, and inventoried with a detailed spreadsheet. I managed to get rid of the baked-on-aftermath of a homebrew explosion that has been stubbornly occupying our kitchen stove for the last year and a half. Some days I feel like an actual adult, and then I go and do things like tell the Department of Education that they are ruining my life.

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I wish I had a before and after picture. I’m that proud.

Let me preface this by saying that immigration policy is by design discriminatory and that our experience has been nothing compared to the uphill struggle of those seeking immigration as a means of escaping imminent danger or for the pursuit of opportunity. As Americans applying to study in the UK, the paperwork and bureaucratic hoops required are a small fraction of that which is necessary for those applying from a “high risk” country or for permanent settlement. We aren’t required to include bank documents proving we have enough funding to keep us from becoming dependent on state welfare, submit documentation of our educational qualifications or sit through a lengthy immigration interview. We applied online, drove 15 minutes from our house to a processing center for biometric analysis (fingerprints and scans) and mailed off our passports to New York for final approval. And yet for all of our privilege, there are still basically four stages of the visa application process:

1. Worrying about incorrectly filling out paperwork

2. Worrying about the US Postal Service losing your passport in the mail

3. Worrying about a bureaucratic mess delaying your processing

3. Worrying about losing your passport before you can actually use your visa


Our passports ready to go to Scotland for our 2013 trip. No visas required.

Even with a perfectly completed application a lot can go wrong along the way.

In April, we received an email from St. Andrews saying that in order for our visa to be issued any necessary student loans must be in active application. We are taking out one small loan to cover part of Jeff’s tuition (we had hoped to save enough to cover us both without loans, but came out just a little shy).

I filled out our FASFA, submitted the necessary information to the university and didn’t think anything of it. Until St. Andrews replied that they couldn’t disperse our loans until our preexisting loans were out of default. I panicked and pulled up the national student loans database to see that the loans we had previously consolidated were listed twice in their records, once as consolidated and in good standing and once as individual loans and in default.

I called the default department immediately, and they quickly confirmed that this was an error and that they would put in a request to update the database. I was rather proud of myself. In previous student loan matters, nothing had ever gone this smoothly. I actually bragged about my competence navigating bureaucracy. Hubris is a fatal flaw.

Months went by and nothing from the university about the status of our loan. We got back from Brazil and still nothing. We began on our online application and nothing. I emailed St. Andrews again and received the same response: they can’t disperse our loans until our preexisting loans were out of default and that they needed to see proof, in writing, of the fact. I checked the national loan database and nothing had changed.

I was already frustrated when I called the Department of Education. My friendly representative Lucy then informed me that it can take from 6 to 12 months for the database to update and that she could do nothing personally to change the record.

I would like to personally introduce the Department of Education to the refresh button, but I understood that this is not Lucy’s fault. Lucy was trying. She tells me that they can fax a clean record to the university which should suffice.

Again I am elated; a reasonable solution!

I am then informed that we have a problem. The Department of Education cannot fax internationally, and email is completely out of the question. It is still 1987 at the DoE.

Lucy, still trying, does her best and transfers me to her manager, a woman whose name I do not remember, but will forever be known in my heart as the most un-empathetic person I have ever encountered.

She told me 50 different ways that there was nothing she could do. I think I presented quite a few creative options, and she wouldn’t have any of it. It seemed like this one arbitrary error was going to keep us from something we had invested in so deeply.

Obviously, I went straight for the most logical outcome: total fatalism. How do you go back when you haven’t left yet? How do you un-quit?  I broke down. I was not rational, calm, collected, or polite. I cried over the phone to the most un-empathetic person I have ever encountered, and it got me absolutely nowhere. I think she actually hung up on me.

But 15 minutes later, my dear friend Lucy called me back. While I was concerned about how unfair life was, she had figured out how to fax our documents oversees.

I am grateful for people like Lucy, who cared more than we ever expect people to, and I’m embarrassed of how I let my frustration get in the way of perspective. If I had taken a step back, I would have seen that this particular obstacle was not the end of it all. We could have found another way to pay Jeff’s tuition. But more importantly, I needed to reevaluate how much weight I was putting on the importance of a single experience. I was tying my happiness to this one picture of our future. So much of our lives depend on things out of our control. So much of happiness is finding a balance between pursuing what we desire most and finding joy in the outcomes of our efforts, even when they miss their mark. In church we often talk about finding joy in all circumstances and on this day I came up a little short.  But our passports are still in New York, awaiting final approval. So if everything doesn’t come through soon, I may get a chance to practice my new perspective sooner than I would hope!

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Thank you, Lucy!


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