After a three-year struggle, he finally earned the opportunity to pursue his PhD at an American university. All that remains between him and his dreams now is a visa.
He aspires to become a teacher and although he was unable to secure the first or second place in his class in BUET, a PhD from abroad would aid his chances of fulfilling his dream, he thought.
On that note, he started working as a research assistant for a BUET teacher while making preparations to go to the US. But now, he is stuck on the last hurdle as uncertainties over the visa process threatens to derail his plans.
“Everyone is aware of the social stigma that an educated but unemployed person confronts in Bangladesh,” he said.
“After struggling for three years, I have no social life now. If I can’t go to the US, I bet I won’t have one in the future. My mother has diabetes and hypertension. She had to live through the snide remarks from people while I was preparing to go to the US. Does she now have to continue putting up with jibes like, ‘Is your son going to America?’”
Under the circumstances, he is unable to focus on an alternative, should he fail to make it to the US.
“There’s no government job related to my field of expertise in the country. I’m not a fresh graduate, so I can’t get a job in a private firm. The only option is to sit for the BCS exam, which is also steeped in uncertainty,” he said.
Like him, the dreams of thousands of students in Bangladesh, who seek to complete their higher studies in the US, hang in the balance because of their visa woes.
The US Embassy in Dhaka is not accepting visa applications from new students, according to some aspirants. It is still not clear when they will resume the visa application process. More than a thousand students, who were supposed to join the fall semester in August, are unable to get a visa.
The students wrote to the US Embassy in Dhaka as well as the foreign ministry but are yet to receive any response. Some are on scholarships, fellowships or assistantships until the spring semester but they are not sure if they can travel to the US in January as they are yet to be issued a visa.
HOW AND WHEN DO THE STUDENTS GO?
The US is an alluring destination for students across the globe, seeking a higher education. According to the US embassy in Dhaka, the country has more than 4,500 colleges and universities.
A student needs to stump up around $15,000 to $20,000 for tuition fees per annum. On top of that, they also need to bear the costs of food, accommodation and education materials.
US colleges and universities admit students in the fall and spring semesters. Generally, the fall semester begins at the end of August and runs until December or early January. Then the spring semester starts and continues till May.
Students from Bangladesh usually opt for the fall semester when going to the US. It takes about a year for the correspondences with the universities and admissions process to be completed. Certain universities require GRE, Gmat, TOEFL or IELTS tests to be cleared before granting admission. Some students, therefore, need around a year just to sort out the admissions requirements.
Funding is another important aspect of studying in the US. Most of the Bangladeshi students cannot afford a US education through self-financing. That is why a small number of Bangladeshi students choose to join US colleges and universities at the undergraduate level.
Most of them try to get enrolled to a postgraduate and PhD programme as these come with the opportunities of bagging a scholarship, fellowship or research assistantship. One can get a scholarship or fellowship when they prove themselves eligible. Sometimes their tuition fees are waived too. A student gets admitted to a university when all of these boxes are ticked.
Getting a visa caps the process, but students from Bangladesh have to start their applications much earlier as it is quite time consuming, they said. The coronavirus pandemic has upended the regular process of seeking a student visa, according to many.
Students who are stuck at home because of the lack of a US visa are now grappling with various difficulties.
THE PLIGHT OF STUDENTS
A new student has to work under two professors for six weeks, and then choose their PhD supervisor (in the US university), said the BUET graduate, who has already been enrolled in a PhD programme. “All my classmates are doing it there but I can’t do it from home. Therefore, when by the time I’m there in spring, all of the good projects will have been taken by the other students,” he said.
He was looking forward to good days after his enrollment was complete, while under the impression that the embassy would start issuing visas from July. But that never happened. After his online enrolment, his university deferred his fellowship for a semester and even waived his tuition fees.
The embassy went silent on the issue of visas, which brought nothing but uncertainty in his life, the student said. “This is a blow not only to me, but to all Bangladeshi students wanting to go to the US for higher education. They (authorities) will think that Bangladeshi students do not get a visa during an emergency and they’ll not take the risk of enrolling those students,” he said.
“The saddest part is that students in countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Pakistan are getting visas.”
Barkat Mia, another student from Dhaka University, earned the requisite fees for GRE and TOEFL tests by tutoring others. He then borrowed money and applied to five US universities. Although he got offers from two of those universities, his hopes of studying in the US could be dashed by the failure to get a visa on time.
Shafiqul Islam Shadesh received fully-funded scholarship for the fall semester in 2019, but he was caught up in the visa process for four months. In the meantime, his funding was cancelled. Swadesh bagged the scholarship for this fall as well but failed to get a visa again.
Now he has left his job and joined an online class. He does not know what his future will hold if he fails to get to the US for the spring session.
Many other students have shared their plight of not getting a visa which could put paid to their funding or scholarship.
“The US Embassy is not holding visa interviews regularly. On the other hand, my professor said my funding will be cancelled if I can’t reach the US before the spring. I must reach by January to keep it valid. There’s no other option,” said Imran Hossain Mahdi.
Students like Umme Marium Miim, Rubaiya Zannat and her husband reiterated the concerns over getting a visa.
“Without the funding, I can’t afford a PhD programme with my own finances,” said Meem.
Rubaiya and her husband Faisal paid their visa fees last April.
“We’ll have to pay again if we can’t go in spring,” said Rubaiya, as she cast doubt about the availability of funding if they fail to get there by then.
The couple has a small child whose admission to a pre-school in the US has already been cancelled due to the delays in getting their visas.
American universities will shift the funded positions to the students coming from other countries like India and Pakistan, fears Khayrul Islam, another student.
Students in Bangladesh have to compete with peers from around the world for a scholarship or funding at American universities, while the application process itself costs around Tk 200,000, according to a student, who asked not to be named.
Several Bangladeshis have lost their hard-earned scholarships after the US Embassy ceased the regular visa service, he said.
“Online education is not an option for these students as it costs more than Tk 1.2 million and no funding or scholarship is applicable for remote education. Those who are taking online classes, have to perform the research work in labs in person.”
In some cases, a professor denied the funding application when they became aware that no visa was being issued in Bangladesh, the anonymous student said.
“These places are now being occupied by students from India, who are getting a visa despite the coronavirus situation being worse in their country.”
Bangladeshi students will lose acceptance and preference by the UN professors under the present circumstances, feared most of the students.
WHAT THE US EMBASSY SAYS
The US Embassy is now only accepting interview-waiver applications for returning students who wish to renew visas for the same field of study at the same institution, Consular Chief William Dowers said at a media briefing.
The embassy will not be granting interviews for new student visa applications, while students with visas that have expired in the last 24 months will be allowed to apply for the visas, according to Dowers.
But students who already have a visa and need to renew or extend it will not have to face the embassy in person.
Embassies in different countries have different decision-making processes, Dowers said, when asked about the visas being issued in neighbouring countries.