I was 17 when I left my family behind in the Philippines. I vividly remember tirelessly crying on the plane, only to wake up 14 hours later to the starry lights that lit up the San Francisco hills. By the time I got out of the terminal, it was 3 a.m. I anxiously waited for my ride, clutching onto the two bulky suitcases I packed my entire life into. It was terrifying but strangely exhilarating to move to a new country alone without any friends or family.
My journey that started that night seven years ago has been filled with challenges most international students will experience.
The dental school application process was grueling. I didn’t know of any F-1 international students who had been accepted and was even warned by one of my career advisors that I would not get into dental school as an international student. To make matters worse, I found that I could not apply to the same institutions my other peers were applying to, all because I lacked a green card. I remember frantically perusing the pages of ADEA’s list of dental schools, only to discover that zero to two international students are accepted into schools that do take international applicants. However, it was not until I was deep into my gap year that the impact of being an international student sank in.
International students are given only one year (an extra two years for STEM majors) to stay in the states after graduating college. With limited time, I had to not only rush my application but also balance three part-time jobs (limited to my major’s field) to be eligible to stay, as companies were hesitant to sponsor a work visa for someone with merely an undergraduate degree in biology. But I had to make all ends meet in order to avoid deportation and flying expensive 14-hour international flights to attend dental school interviews.
After facing such huge obstacles, I can confidently say that getting into dental school as an international student was a huge accomplishment for me. However, this new chapter in my life has opened a door to a new set of hurdles. The academic workload and extracurricular activities definitely take their toll, and at times, I can’t help wishing I was back home gobbling my mom’s homemade kimbap or picnicking with my family at the Han River. I still cry every time my parents drop me off at the airport to fly back to school.
The fear and anxiety during it all is a whole other story. Every day, I am constantly under stress about my immigration status and employment after graduation. Recent efforts from ICE have reflected my fears, attempting to oust international students taking online classes during the pandemic. Without a green card, I will also be limited to lower pay and job opportunities. Furthermore, international students are barred from applying to many scholarships, which require citizenship, and the scholarships that are available typically come in small amounts. These factors, along with lack of resources and support during the pandemic, make dental school difficult.
All things said, it’s easy to focus on the limitations, not the opportunities that arose from them. Although I’m oceans away from my family, a series of formative moments and dynamic encounters has brought me to find a keen sense of purpose and arrive at my own sense of home in dentistry. I’ve made deep connections with faculty members and colleagues who are as passionate as I am about giving back to the community and providing care to those in need. I also found great classmates who inspire me to aim higher and supportive friends who make me feel at home with delicious potlucks and fun holiday celebrations.
Because of my situation, I aim to work harder and smarter, to show myself and my family that my immigration status does not determine what I can accomplish or how far I go in my career. The biggest lesson I learned through this ongoing journey is to believe in myself. I often found myself putting up my own boundaries, whether it was saying that I couldn’t get into dental school or that I couldn’t overcome the pressure. But now I know there is no “maybe” or “I don’t think I can.” I can and I will.
~So Hee “Shelly” Kim, Arizona ’22, ASDA Council on Advocacy District 10-11 Legislative Coordinator