“Did they drag you here?”: Challenges of Existing as an International Student in the United States

Ana Cláudia dos Santos São Bernardo

In 2016, Atosha Zerbine, Rahsaan Mahadeo, and I accepted an invitation to speak in a Political Science class representing the Differences Organized! collective. We had held a protest against tuition increase a few days before at the public R1 university that we attended at the time. Our goal was to highlight the history of activism on campus while exposing connections between different struggles. We also wanted to attract the students to our struggle becaused we believed that fighting for a transgressive, transformative, accessible education, especially for marginalized students, is everyone’s work. We intended to show that R1 universities in the United States actively use racialized bodies to portray themselves as “diverse.” At the same time, these institutions ignore the impact that forcing the coexistence of identities and differences in a highly commodified and competitive space might work to the disadvantage of those already experiencing marginalization. To ease the conflicts, universities make rhetorical commitments to inclusion and free speech, even as their administration keeps increasing tuition, thereby curtailing access of underprivileged students to higher education. Students continue to be arrested for openly opposing problematic practices and discourses.

When we opened the presentation for questions, the first query came from an international student who seemed uncomfortable with our remarks. They asked who among us were citizens of the United States. I was the only one who answered that I was not. This student then asked me in a distressed way: “Did they drag you here? Did the university force you to get out of your country and study here?” The question was not new. Indeed, it has come up in more subtle ways in many of my conversations, especially when I have expressed my disbelief to the fact that education in the United States is seen as a commodity and not a right, and that a huge number of U.S. students must borrow money to pay for high tuition and other costs of attending college. The question has come from U.S. citizens as much as from the aforementioned migrant. As a Brazilian and an educator, I recognize that education in Brazil faces several challenges, including quality and accessibility. However, it is important to note that most Brazilians still value public education as a right, a belief that has translated into a constant battle against commodification of public education and against state surveillance on campuses. Marginalized groups in Brazil also fought for and won the right to have affirmative action in education. Today, federal universities have 50% of their seats reserved for Black and Indigenous students, students with disabilities, and low-income students (Lehmann, 2). In contrast to the United States, for the most part, public university administrations in Brazil do not use educational resources to pay for unnecessary police units on campuses. 

My own experience is telling. As a mixed-black female from a financially disadvantaged family, while doing my undergraduate program in Comparative Literature (Letras), I had access to fully state-funded tuition-free education. I could also live for free in one of the houses that the Sao Paulo State University (Universidade Estadual Paulista—UNESP) built for students who cannot afford rent, in addition to receiving a small stipend from the institution to help me pay for food and transportation. My only obligation was to produce research, which actually prepared me to undertake a graduate program in an international institution. Once I finished my program, I started teaching in high school, but went back to get a certification that would allow me to teach English a few years later. Although at that point I could pay for tuition, I did not have to. Later, I decided to attend a university program in another city on Library Economy, which although I did not finish, I did not have to pay for either.  

In Brazil, under the government of the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro (in office from 2019 to 2022), education suffered many attacks, including budget cuts and renewed calls to abolish affirmative action and state-funded tuition-free higher education. Unlike those (usually the rich and profit-hungry) who believe that people who can afford to pay for education should do so, the majority of students and faculty in public higher education institutions in Brazil understand that education is a public good. As such, it should never be commodified, so it remains available to everyone. There is also a generalized belief that, once one group starts paying for education, it becomes easier to make other groups pay too. Such a belief system, subscribed to by many Brazilians, is opposed to mixing education and financialization to such an extent that even the library of my alma mater banned the monetary fee for late returns of books. Yet, although these resources at UNESP made higher education possible for me, huge inequalities marked my academic development in relation to my all white, upper middle class, well-traveled colleagues in Brazil. 

These facts informed my response to the student who asked me if I had been dragged to the United States. Indeed, some international students are susceptible to messages of grandiosity disseminated by U.S. universities that we receive even before we arrive here. Questioning or rejecting this discourse is a grave infraction for migrants in the USA. The general expectation is that we should be thankful that U.S. institutions allow people like us who are seen as less than their citizens into its spaces. Many international students fear the consequences of not expressing enough appreciation for the opportunity. Others embrace the exceptionalist idea that we are better than those in our home countries who are not fortunate enough to be selected for pursuing higher education in the U.S. 

I understand the question posed by that student to be a reflection of what Anita Tijerina  Revilla and Evelyn Rangel-Medina call citizenism in “The Las Vegas Activist Crew” (2011). They define it as “the ideological practice of inherent citizen superiority, the right to dominance of citizens over noncitizens, and a system of unearned advantages and privileges based on citizenship granted at birth. These systems discriminate, disenfranchise, exploit, dehumanize, and subordinate noncitizens living within mostly ‘developed’ nation-states” (Revilla & Rangel-Medina, 168). As my experience exemplifies, other systems of oppression, particularly racism and sexism, readily intersect with citizenism. There is no comparison between the oppression inflicted on undocumented migrants and that experienced by international students of color, who are targets of citizenism, and discriminated, disenfranchised, exploited, dehumanized, and subordinated in the U.S. The general acceptance of citizen superiority (and even their sense of entitlement towards Indigenous land) disallows international students, especially those who are non-white and low-income, to question oppressive systems in the U.S., to protest, and to demand better conditions for marginalized citizens or non-citizens. These different levels of marginalization are also used by administrations to keep us separate. For instance, resources directly allocated to the wellbeing of students are so scarce that it becomes easy to create competition among marginalized groups. They must also compete for access to higher-education institutions when education should be available to everyone. This context raises questions about the limits of citizenship and how it works in accordance with citizenism. Despite acknowledging the incongruousness of borders and the concept of citizenship, I believe that both citizens and foreigners should have guaranteed access to basic rights wherever they are, and no one should have to compete for their right to fully exist inside or outside academia. 

To some people, the inquiry I received would make a lot of sense: Why would I come to a place that does not appreciate the presence, contribution, or knowledges of migrants and their own citizens of color; that actively perpetrates violence against our existence? Why would I give up on free education to participate in a system where expensive classes are bought online using virtual shopping carts? In conversations with Brazilian colleagues when I brought up my departure to the U.S., they questioned my reasons to participate in the U.S. imperialist project. In my answer to the international student in that Political Science class, I explained that being in a foreign land does not imply that we should be acritical and complicit with oppression. However, later on, when I reflected back on the question, I realized that my answer should have been a simple “yes.” Yes, a U.S. institution dragged me here as it keeps dragging other racialized bodies to the Global North. When a big institution/company waves money and a diploma in the face of a woman of color from a materially poor background in the Global South, her only alternative is to say yes. When a small number of nations control destructive political, social, and economic systems that exploit and kill land and populations in the Global South, staying might not be an option. Did they drag me here? Yes, they dragged me here and they do profit off of my existence in this territory. By maintaining a citizenist system of exploitation and inequality that targets other countries, the U.S. becomes a space that, allegedly, can take us out of poverty if we behave well. The U.S. is selling salvation—or maybe just selling back the lives that they are taking—to us and our loved ones. How can we say no?

What it means to be here 

What does it mean to be in a U.S. educational institution?  “Alien” is the noun chosen to address people from other countries in the United States. Having lived here for four years and being forced to choose “resident alien” to identify myself in numerous forms, I know this characterization is not just offensive because it constructs me as an “other” while highlighting my “outside” position. This categorization contributes to distancing us from the category of “human” and it erases other perceived human characteristics. The word “alien” means that immigrants do not belong, that we are different, and that we will always be marked as outsiders. This nomenclature is a statement against our existence as human beings and our portrayal as “not quite-humans” or “non-humans” depends on how close to whiteness our bodies are. In addition to skin color and hair, I found that it is the language that wields the most power on international students. Our accents and grammatical inaccuracies become disabilities as soon as we open our mouths, especially if we are non-native English speakers. We are frequently dismissed as dumb, and our experiences include shame and bad grades. Professors and students in U.S. academia routinely spend a significant amount of time going over complicated paragraphs written by prestigious scholars (sometimes even foreign thinkers) but they refuse to understand our ideas because of our perceived (dis)abilities with English. 

The contradictory aspect in all of this is that few people know that North American universities select those seen as the brightest foreigners. Here we are nothing; but back in our countries, despite the constraints posed by various forms of discrimination, most of us have created a career that is valued by the Global North. In other words, the ones who are likely to be dragged to the U.S. are the ones who can fit an imperialist project that needs international insiders to function. However, some of us can trick the process into believing that we will unquestionably abide by it. 

Being a foreigner in this country amounts to a refusal of our existence as well as of the knowledges that we can bring to this space. Indeed, our presence in this territory can be described as belonging to a sphere of neoliberal multiculturalism—the idea that inclusion and, as a result, “diversity” will end discrimination based on difference without addressing discriminatory structures of inequity (Melamed, 138). A neoliberal multiculturalist perspective privileges imperialist powers. In other words, the inclusion of “minorities” seeks to contain any form of insurgency by taming the frustrations of those who do not have a place in this system while simultaneously strengthening the prevailing white supremacist and heteronormative system of privileges. Diversity is then used to improve the image of the country as a multicultural nation, while the bodies that are used to demonstrate how benevolent U.S. citizens are, continue to be exploited, discriminated against, and forced to fight for their existence in most of the spaces they occupy. Universities, as for-profit companies, make foreign bodies hypervisible for those outside this space: we can be featured in ads that will drag other people like us here, we can have our “foreign” names attached to departmental websites and conference programs. However, our subjectivities in these spaces are invisible. Except for very few professors, colleagues, and friends who are committed to rewriting knowledge, others will see me as a threat, an alien in the streets, in classrooms, and other spaces. Others will just forget everything they learned about interlocking systems of oppression and reenact the same violences whenever it is convenient for them and to their benefit. It is also worth remembering that in U.S. higher education spaces, foreign, low-income, brown bodies are treated as surplus people. As Audre Lorde, explains,

Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy that needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences among us with fear and loathing and to handle those differences in one of three ways: (1) ignore them; (2) if that is not possible, copy the attributes of those who are dominant; (3) destroy the attributes of those who are subordinate (Lorde, 1984, 115). 

While some might just be interested in learning firsthand experiences of marginalization and hardships from the Global South, educational institutions have further interests: they want to turn everyone in academia into agents of neoliberal capitalism and U.S. imperialism. Let’s not forget about the requirement that we go back to our country once we finish our programs. This requirement is attached to student visas and most fellowships open to international applicants. Because these organizations know we need the money, they will force us to go on and on about how we are going back home to spread U.S. greatness, share our supposed empowerment, become superhumans, and save our country from itself. 

Here, it is useful to recall Homi Bhabha’s notion of the in-between space (2004, 2). Once we are turned into something other-than-human when we first enter the U.S., our desire is to be humanized and there are specific categories one must fit into for this to happen. Similar to the so-called model minorities, the good international students are the ones closer to whiteness and those who will erase themselves to mimic what is being portrayed as human (Bhabha 2004, 86). It must be a very painful process to kill oneself so you can exist as an other. The in-between space then becomes the space occupied by those who went from non-humans to not-quite-humans. It is important to remember though that the enacting of mimicry and the occupation of this in-between space are tools for survival for international students and should not be pathologized. The problem is in the system that forces us to assimilate in order to exist. As argued by Elizabeth Hordge Freeman, Sarah Mayorga, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “The assimilation model acknowledges difference without addressing power relations and the dominance of white logic” (2011, 99).

There are other forms of surviving the North American institution as an international student. It seems that the most common is to exist among the ones who inhabit the same place of hypervisibility/invisibility by creating a safe space for each other. However, these groups  tend to reenact the class and race barriers of our home countries that happen to travel with us to the U.S. The other way is to own, parade, and act on our pain and anger—to make ourselves visible on our own terms, and to highlight the characteristics they want us to hide. This can take the form of sharing how problematic this whole situation is and asking each other why we are all buying into these systems. Resistance can also take the form of helping the ones who demonstrate civil disobedience without jeopardizing their ability to finish their degrees. Resistance is to write an entire dissertation on Afro-Brazilian women writers and their literature, it is to schedule a meeting with the president of the university and hand him a subpoena on behalf of students who were arrested, it is to force our presence in spaces that are trying to keep us out, where we are usually the only ones whose native language is not English. 

Where should I go now 

One of the questions most frequently posed to international students is: are you returning to your country after finishing your program? This question is an almost daily reminder that this is not our place. They dragged us here and they are eager to throw us back where we came from. When I first heard this question in Brazil during my U.S. visa  interview and, then again, as soon as my feet touched North American soil, I had an immediate answer: “I will go back to Brazil not only because my family is there and that land is my home but also because I imagined I could be more useful there than in the U.S. A few months later, however, I would expand on this answer to include that the U.S. does not need or want me. Gradually, I understood better the importance of occupying a space where I and others who look and speak like me, whose bodies are a reminder of the destruction brought onto other countries, are not welcome. And if I bring into picture my selfish reasons, I have to ask: Why should I return to poverty? 

Today, I see staying in the U.S. as a seditious act, a way to refuse to be dragged in or out once again. I want to stay because I do not want to become a colonizer agent in my own country, something that will be difficult to avoid after this experience. Considering that, going back home would be a bigger betrayal than staying.  

Works Cited 

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. 1994th ed., Routledge, 2004. 

Guillaumin, Colette. “Race and nature: The system of marks.” Feminist Issues (1988) 8: 25, pp.  25-43. 

Hordge-Freeman, Elizabeth, Sarah Mayorga, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. 2016 [2011]. “Exposing Whiteness Because We Are Free: Emancipation Methodological Practice in Becoming Empowered Sociologists of Color.” Rethinking Race & Objectivity in Research Methods. CA: Left Coast Press, 2016, pp. 95-121. 

Lehmann, David. The Prism of Race: The Politics and Ideology of Affirmative Action in Brazil. United States, University of Michigan Press, 2018.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.

Melamed, Jodi. Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 

Revilla, Anita Tijerina, & Rangel-Medina, Evelyn. “The Las Vegas Activist Crew.” Marching Students: Chicana and Chicano Activism in Education, 1968 to the Present. University of Nevada Press, 2011, pp. 167-187.

Weheliye, Alexander G. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke University Press, 2014.

Suggested Citation:

Ana Cláudia dos Santos São Bernardo. 2024. “‘Did they drag you here?’: Challenges of Existing as an International Student in the United States.” In Special Volume with CRES on “Seditious Acts,” AGITATE! 6: https://agitatejournal.org/article/did-they-drag-you-here/

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