With August comes move-in. With November comes Family Weekend. With May comes graduation. Each of these events brings me a familiar sense of sadness and longing. On Locust Walk, I see brothers, but not mine. I see grandparents, but not mine. I see families, but not mine.
As a prospective student from New Zealand, I saw college in the United States as a place with more job titles than I could ever name, more lavish cities than I could ever know, and more opportunities than I could ever need. But if I pursued all this — would I ever live in the same country as my family again?
Just like American students, many international students think about life after graduation. Some of us picture ourselves among bright lights and corporate suites in New York City. Others dream about taking our creative visions to sunny California. And others know we can make our footprint at a non-profit in the influential world capital of Washington D.C. But unlike domestic students, this comes with an emotional, intangible trade-off: career or family?
Of course, our dreams stay firmly within the limits of our student visas. We do not come to the United States with the intention of staying and settling. But our visas allow us to stay and dabble in the U.S. workforce for a year after we graduate — teasing us with the possibility of a career here.
Logistical issues aside, American career trajectories are unsurprisingly the focus of Penn’s exorbitant rhetoric on success, leaving international students with the impression that finding a job here is our gold standard. Even if we were committed to returning to our families after graduating, on-campus recruiting tries to convince us that our talents will only reach their full potential in this country. Guest speakers show us what can be accomplished in the star-spangled land. Conversations on Locust about summer plans bolster the idea in our minds that in order to succeed, we must stay.
We cannot escape the American dream.
Appealing to our desire for world-class success, it all sounds too attractive. We, too, want to be where we can make our biggest impact. But, visa considerations aside, if we want to chase our dreams, we must pay a steep price. We give up hugging our grandparents on their birthdays, giving our younger sisters college advice over frozen yogurt, and watching our parents grow old.
I will always have to choose between pursuing my passions in the United States of America and being with my family. If I choose one, I can’t have the other.
Confronted with this puzzle for the first time during freshman year, I became jealous of my friends from New York. They can have the world’s best jobs and they don’t have to worry about never seeing their families again, I thought.
But, after almost three years of contemplating this conundrum, I have realized that I do not in fact face a trade-off, but rather an opportunity most people are never granted: the chance to make one of these really count.
If I move home to be with my family, I actively choose to maximize the value of quality time with those that I love. But, I’m not giving up a successful career: success does not follow one traditional American trajectory. Even if we choose to return home, we’ve already had the best of both worlds: a Penn education and the chance to use it for maximum impact in our home countries. I’m not giving up an American career either — how can I give up something I never had?
Alternatively, some international students remain in the United States. Under this decision, they actively choose to maximize their career options, trying to make an impact on the world with all the resources America has to offer. But they will know more than anyone about the value of family. They don’t give up family — to the contrary, their love for family is multiplied. When reunions do happen, the new value of gained time makes up for all time spent apart.
Wherever you choose to be, the opportunity to make this decision as an international student is a privilege that highlights to us the choice we have to maximize in our lives what is important to us. It’s not about giving something up — it’s about choosing to make something count.
LUCY HU is a College junior from Auckland, New Zealand, studying political science. Her email address is email@example.com.
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