Contingent Seats in the Lecture Hall
An International Student’s Personal Experience with Privilege and Vulnerability as Deportability
by Xander Creed
The literature defines 'deportability' as "the possibility of deportation, the possibility of being removed from the space of the nation-state" (De Genova 2002: 439). Commonly, deportability is linked to the experience of irregular migrants, humans who have been rendered 'illegal' and thus always susceptible to disciplinary measures at the hands of the state, a policy-constructed readily exploitable source of labour. Rather, I wish to reflect upon the concept in relation to the innate being of a migrant, a non-national, and the contingency of residing outside of their country of origin. Certainly, the contingency of migrant residency and deportability has been well explored elsewhere. This time, as an international student turned residence myself, I want to explore what this means in relation to studying at university - especially within the confines of my own experience (there is however, a burgeoning field of literature which has begun to explore the experience and vulnerability of international students, see: Howe 2019; Lind & Persdotter 2017; Unzueta Carrasco & Seif 2014). To do so, I wish to draw attention to autoethnography as a research method. Here, I follow Jones and Adams(2010: 207), who outline the linkages between queer theory and autoethnography:
"Autoethnography,as method,allows a person to document perpetual journeys of self-understanding, allows her or him to produce queer texts. A queer autoethnography also encourages us to think through and out of our categories for interaction and to take advantage of language’s failure to capture or contain ‘selves’, ways of relating and subjugated knowledges".
In this way, I wish to explore the deportability of international students, of myself, as a valuable venue for drawing insights due to the lacking consensus on them being 'migrants' - in my own experience, an understanding reinforced by the continual question, "When do you go back home? Or do you actually want to stay here?". However, even this recognition is disparately accessed, in some cases, students do become deportable-migrants: the Trump administration’s attack on the DACA Dreamers, making undocumented children deportable; the Nigerian-born Irish student Nonso Muojeke who was rendered deportable through his family's asylum status being rejected.
"According to our information you are an international student with a residence permit (for the purpose of study), therefore you are required by law to meet a degree progress requirement. This means that you are required to obtain (at least) 50% of the maximum amount of credits per year to keep your residence permit. You need to meet this requirement for each year that you study here."
I remember every year in my bachelor program receiving an email from the university - you have reached sufficient credits for immigration services to renew your visa, congratulations, good job, you get to stay. The first time my inbox binged with the notification, I was shocked - I didn't realize that my visa was up for debate still, I had submitted all of the necessary paperwork, proven my ability to pay, and earned a spot in my program. Of course, had I looked more into the laws or attended a workshop on being an international student, I would have been less surprised. But my residence card was sitting in my wallet, nestled between my Dutch bank pass and public transit card. My email was received on Wifi provided by a Dutch company with my name on the contract, checked on my phone with a Dutch SIM card. My American bank account had been closed to save on service fees, my American SIM card was likely somewhere in the basement, in a plastic bag inside of a suitcase collecting dust. How could I possibly be expected to leave?
With this email, came a realization; my European classmates weren’t competing for their spot in the same way I was, or at least, the stakes were entirely different. Sure, they also had pressure to complete their courses (and for some, even to earn high marks), but their pressure likely came from personal or familial interpretations of 'success'. In no way was their residency tied to their study progress, failing a course or two or three or four and needing to take them next year was no problem. The State was not looking over their shoulder, asking “Shouldn’t you be studying?”. I've always enjoyed school, always coming prepared for class with the readings complete. It would be shocking to myself and those close to me if I were unable to attain the necessary credits, making the stipulation 'one of those things', a formality with no backbone; I also had the upper hand, being a native English speaker in a program with English as the lingua franca. But that doesn't make it sit right with me - the Europeans’ seat in the lecture hall was guaranteed, whereas the one for non-Europeans was always contingent on their success. For me, alongside all of the benefits, there is an uneasiness that comes from being an international student.
Several of my classmates were unable to attain the necessary credits, resulting in the extension of the typical 3 year study program to 4, 5, or even 6 years. Of course, the extensions were not without reason, with (chronic) illness, mental health, family or financial troubles contributing to their inability to fulfill course requirements - but that’s not to say I didn’t have similar struggles. This is where our similarities highlight where we are different. My inability to pass courses would have resulted in my deportation, the cancellation of my study visa. While there is an appeal process, the pressure to succeed is still there, yet another formality looming behind you. Their inability to pass courses led to an extended time as students, a disruption of another kind. Yet, a prolonged study period is not unheard of, and not something that in itself is disruptive to your entire life; a slight inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, a kind reminder to work harder, or an opportunity to receive another year of studiefinanciering (student financing, consists of a regular loan,public transit card, supplementary grant, and tuition loan) or huurtoeslag (rent benefit).
Of course, international students often work alongside their study - my visa restricted me to 10 hours of work a week, a limitation which employers were not willing to work with (especially in tandem with my less-than-sufficient proficiency in Dutch, or French, or German). My European counterparts enjoyed the infamous free access to the European labor market, combined with reduced tuition rates and access to their respective healthcare systems. I took student positions with student organizations that contribute to the betterment of the university and student culture - unpaid yet 'compensated' through a minor 'tuition reimbursement' for the study hours I would lose. In this way, I was not entirely cut off from earning money, but my 'wage potential' was greatly reduced, with no contract and accompanying healthcare benefits. My ability to be employed is vastly different than that of undocumented migrants, who undoubtedly experience an entirely different form of precarity. Rather, here I want to point out the ways in which the system restrictswhocan be an international student. While scholarships and donors do exist, they are by no means widely accessible. The deportability of international students is somewhat exclusive, a privilege of sorts - who can afford to live abroad, with reduced wage potential? Who has the competencies to complete higher education, to have their documents certified and translated as needed?
My deportability is one borne of privilege - someone fortunate enough to enjoy access to the
international higher education system, to enjoy good health, to have a support system both emotionally and financially. Yet, this privilege is one that comes with vulnerability. As my academic background has transitioned from cultural studies and political philosophy to migration studies, I’ve become increasingly self-aware of my experience as a migrant. While the struggle and precarity of residency for undocumented migrants considerably differs from the vulnerability I have experienced, I cannot help but draw connections between us. We have used migration as a livelihood strategy, having moved outside of our country of origin for a variety of reasons. While the nation-state we reside in views us differently than its own citizens, there are of course differences between us as well. Depending on their country of origin, some groups of migrants are positioned as parasites, burdens on the host society, highly unwanted populations who ‘should just go back home’. Whereas international students are a crucial part of global higher education institutions, competing for rankings, and in turn funding opportunities depending on the young talent they attract. At the same time, there exists the fear of too many international students, calls for cutting back and dedicating resources to nationals, alongside claims of overcrowding or loss of knowledge retention (for example: ICEF Monitor 2018; McKie 2018). In this way, I’ve found that documented and undocumented migrants share one thing - a sense of contingency.
Now, with graduation in sight, I am again more lucky than other international students. While I have a residence permit which grants me 'full rights', albeit in a differently contingent manner, my colleagues are hurriedly applying for their zoekjaar (search year or orientation year, with which recent graduates receive a 1 year permit that allows them to find employment). I have to sit back, to realize how the label ‘international student’ contains multitudes of meanings, how categories of ‘migrants’ are just the ways in which the state views mobility and not innately related to the experience of mobility. At the start of my migratory trajectory and experience with mobility, I was a tourist - either within my own country or internationally.
Then I became an international student, day to day feeling more student or more international depending on the interaction. Finally, I culminated into the identity of ‘migrant’, a highly skilled recent graduate with an international education. Each of these categories influences not only my own self-understanding, but also the ways in which others understand me. But at the end of the day, I am just me, and while these labels do not adequately articulate or capture my experience, I am still looking for the words to express how I feel. In relation to my mobility and education, I feel privileged; I feel vulnerable. I do not feel alone, but I do not feel unconditional support either. There are always strings attached, stipulations and formalities to adhere to, and even at the best position, a tinge of contingency.
All of this to invite you, migration students and young professionals and anyone else engaged within the field of migration, to reflect on your own experience in relation to migration and mobility - "This is recognition of a need to unfasten the hinge that separates experience and analysis and the personal and the political, even as we need it to create an intelligible humanity, a life both livable and worth living" (Jones & Adams 2010: 212). While you study migration, or work in the field, do you reflect on your own lived experience? Are your experiences and knowledge being represented, acknowledged and considered as valid? Or does your experience fall outside of the traditional purview? When you are researching or governing, are you understanding and seeing the other party involved? Or are you working from generalizations, categorizations and labels?
De Genova, N.P. (2002) ‘Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everyday Life’, Annual
Review of Anthropology, 31(1), pp.419–447. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085432.
Howe, J. (2019) ‘A Legally Constructed Underclass of Workers? The Deportability and Limited Work Rights of International Students in Australia and the United Kingdom’, Industrial
Law Journal, 48(3), pp. 416–446. doi:10.1093/indlaw/dwy021.
ICEF Monitor (2018) ‘Denmark concerned about the high proportion of foreign students who
leave after graduation’, ICEF Monitor - Market intelligence for international student
recruitment, 5 September. Available at:
Jones, S. and Adams, T. (2010) ‘Autoethnography is a Queer Method’, in Browne, K. and Nash, C.J. (eds) Queer methods and methodologies: intersecting queer theories and social
science research. Farnham, Surrey, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Lind, J. and Persdotter, M. (2017) ‘Differential Deportability and Contradictions of a Territorialised Right to Education’, p. 23.
McKie, A. (2018) How many international students is too many?, Times Higher Education
(THE). Available at:
https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/how-many-international-students-too-many (Accessed: 18 December 2021).
Unzueta Carrasco, T.A. and Seif, H. (2014) ‘Disrupting the dream: Undocumented youth reframe citizenship and deportability through anti-deportation activism’, Latino Studies, 12(2),
pp. 279–299. doi:10.1057/lst.2014.21.