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    Waiting Game: Visa Delays Leave Students in Limbo

    Dismayed postgraduate students lobby Canadian officials about the country’s lengthy security clearance process and a lack of feedback on visa applications.

    “I was spending my days consumed with anxiety … I didn’t want to interact with anyone. I laid in bed in a hotel for a month, almost never going out.” This was the experience of a man who waited more than 500 days for the result of a visa application to continue his graduate studies in Canada. Once it entered the security clearance process, he received no further updates.

    He’s not alone. WeChat is abound with chat groups for Chinese students looking to know why their visa applications to Canada have stalled. Few can offer answers. Some joke that studying overseas has become a “blind box” — no one can predict the outcome.

    In one group with about 500 members, another despondent student whose application has been in limbo since June 2022 writes, “I can’t defer anymore, and my medical examination has expired. I guess that’s it.”

    The exact number of people experiencing difficulties is unclear. However, in response to the growing number of complaints, the Canadian Embassy in Beijing issued an announcement online on Oct. 6 saying that there is “no simple explanation” for how long it takes to process visa applications and that all applicants are potentially subject to background checks.

    Seeking help, students have lobbied members of the Canadian parliament and state governors, while the Canadian state broadcaster CBC has also reported on their plight. So far, it has had little impact.

    Some have even taken legal action in an attempt to speed up the process, applying for a writ of mandamus, a local court order for a public authority to perform its duty under the law. In this case, the goal was to compel Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the country’s immigration agency, to provide a clear response to applications within a specified time. Those who tried this, however, reported that their efforts were roundly rejected.

    A licensed Canadian immigration consultant explained that the number of international students going through the security clearance process has increased in the past two years and is generally related to the schools and majors they choose. However, there have been “errors,” too, with students pursuing liberal arts degrees, which are not considered sensitive, finding themselves stuck at the security phase, which is administered by three authorities: the IRCC, the Canada Border Services Agency, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

    Students applying to programs in the United States, Australia, and Europe are facing similar concerns. In July 2021, more than 500 Chinese students pursuing postgraduate degrees in disciplines including electrical engineering, computer science, chemistry, and biomedical sciences were denied U.S. visas, partly due to Proclamation 10043, which former president Donald Trump had introduced a year earlier to bar entry to students, scholars, and researchers from institutions believed to “have ties with the Chinese military.”

    According to The Guardian newspaper, Australian authorities carefully vet visa applicants in 63 tech-related fields due to concerns around national interests, while in the U.K., 1,104 scientists and graduate students from China were denied visas in 2022 after a warning from the MI5 intelligence agency about the so-called potential threats of espionage. The Financial Times also reported that the Netherlands is conducting a review of international students, with several Dutch universities refusing students sent by the Chinese Scholarship Council for so-called “security reasons.”

    Forced to play the waiting game, Chinese students are re-evaluating their options for further education, while others are finding that their fate might lay elsewhere entirely. We met with three high achievers who thought they were on the fast track to success only to discover their plans had been derailed by visa delays.

    IT talent finds a bug in the visa system

    I was born in 1994. When I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Canada, I’d finished my master’s and had been working for nearly three years at a major IT company in Shenzhen, in the southern Guangdong province.

    It was an impulsive decision. At the time, I was working as a backend developer, maintaining a livestreaming system. My expertise in this area was limited compared to my highly skilled colleagues, and I could only handle basic developer tasks. I wanted to delve deeper and participate in the research and development of new technologies, but I needed to enhance my skills. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. and resigned. This was in May 2022.

    I remember that evening clearly. Sitting in my rented apartment in Shenzhen, I composed my resignation message and hit send. At the time I felt confident, thinking that after being part of a prestigious IT company, I could excel in anything. However, the process didn’t go as smoothly as I’d imagined.

    Initially, I leaned toward programs in the U.S., but after hearing about possible visa delays and the issuance of Proclamation 10043, I felt that applying to schools there could be risky, so I shifted my focus to Canada. I was thrilled to receive an offer from a Canadian university in October 2022 and didn’t bother to consider any other schools. I had no idea that obtaining a Canadian visa would be so challenging.

    I had only a vague awareness of international relations back then. When I received no news about my visa, I checked my application and discovered it had entered the security clearance process. After my visa application stalled, I began gathering information from websites and social media, compiling records of other people’s experiences. It seemed that security clearance usually took around seven months, so I didn't worry too much at first. It wasn’t until September 2023, when my security clearance passed the average waiting time, that I started to panic.

    A Ph.D. typically requires at least four years of study to obtain. With this visa situation delaying my admission, I’d be 35 by the time I was able to graduate — the unofficial “cutoff age” for most Chinese IT giants. However confident I felt at the beginning, after becoming an unemployed homebody for a year and a half, I felt a little ashamed to face society.

    To alleviate my anxiety, in September, I enrolled at a local boarding school that specializes in helping students prepare for China’s graduate school entrance exam. I couldn’t study at home; it gave me insomnia. Feeling like my life was in ruins, I tried to ease the pain by burying myself in my studies. At the boarding school, everyone was assigned a study station. I stayed in the cheapest room, a four-person dorm, but there were only three of us sharing. My two roommates, both of whom were born in the 2000s, were preparing to take the graduate school exam.

    I tried to synchronize my schedule with theirs, waking up at 8 a.m. and returning to the dormitory after 11 p.m. But being older, I lacked their energy. I couldn’t concentrate for extended periods — I spent a lot of my time scrolling on my phone and daydreaming. With effort, I was able to maintain my “student status,” which gave me a sense of security. If I didn’t study, I’d have to explain to people why someone my age didn’t work and stayed at home doing nothing every day.

    I also looked for other opportunities as a backup plan. I applied for master’s programs starting in the spring of 2024 and eventually got an offer from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. If everything goes well, I’ll be studying there this spring.

    The Canadian visa delay, combined with the unpredictability of international relations, has left me feeling a bit uneasy. This time, when I applied to postgraduate programs, I prioritized international relations. I applied only to schools in Singapore and Hong Kong SAR. However, in the past two years, Ph.D. programs in these two destinations have become extremely competitive. 

    I plan to take an indirect approach. First, I will pursue a master’s degree and then see if I can continue onto a Ph.D. at NTU.

    High-flier takes a risk on the ‘mystery box’

    I graduated with a degree in petroleum engineering from China University of Petroleum, in Beijing, and in June 2022 was awarded a national scholarship for overseas studies from the China Scholarship Council (CSC). I submitted my visa application to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Alberta in Canada on June 20. So far, I’ve waited almost 500 days for a result.

    I’ve tried many ways to expedite the process, exploring every possible avenue. The University of Alberta has also tried to help me and other international students in a similar situation. In December 2022, a lecturer liaising with CSC students collected their information and contacted the Canadian immigration authorities and other agencies twice on the university’s behalf, but they received no response.

    In the summer of 2023, an international affairs professor met with me and other international students affected by visa delays on a conference call and said that, despite the university’s best efforts, there was unfortunately no solution. He advised us to prepare a plan B and, if possible, to secure offers in other countries.

    We feel completely stranded. We joined WeChat groups for students waiting for visas to share updates on our situations. We constantly speculate on why our visas haven’t been approved, only to find that there’s no fixed variable or single factor causing the delays. All kinds of people have experienced problems — STEM students, liberal arts students, winners of full scholarships; we’re all in the same boat.

    I reached out to the mayor of Edmonton by email. His office replied to my request for help saying that he had contacted the IRCC about my visa status, that it had indicated my application was still going through security clearance, and there was nothing more he could do.

    I attempted the last resort for international students — applying for a writ of mandamus from a Canadian court. I spent over 5,000 yuan ($700) to have an agency upload the required documents on my behalf. However, in February, I received notice that my application had been denied. No explanation was provided.

    My supervisor at the University of Alberta is Chinese. Originally, I intended to apply for a deferment and start my studies in the spring of 2023, but my supervisor allowed me to register and attend online classes from China. I have already completed three courses; the remaining courses can’t be taught remotely.

    I’m now caught in a dilemma. As a Ph.D. candidate, giving up now would be unbearable — after committing to a specific research direction, you need to invest a lot of time to achieve results, and changing direction is difficult. If I were to search for a new Ph.D. project, it would need to be related to my current research area, limiting my options significantly. As we progress in academia, our paths become narrower — we’re all digging deeper and deeper into smaller areas of specialization.

    If my visa doesn’t come through, the courses I’ve taken and the independent research I’ve conducted will all have been in vain. These two years were precious. People typically finish a Ph.D. within three and a half years. People who applied to study abroad in the same year as me — in the U.K., for example — are already close to graduation, but I haven’t even started yet. I feel the gap between us will continue to widen.

    I am searching for a job but have already lost my status as a recent graduate. When I completed graduate school, a research institute made me an offer, but I declined. Given the choice between a sure thing and a “mystery box,” I chose the unknown. The prospect of giving up this academic path now is truly difficult, even though the process is tedious and lengthy.

    After completing graduate school, I lived at home with my parents. They didn’t put too much pressure on me, but they are certainly concerned about my future, especially since my high school classmates have all started getting married. Born in 1997, I am at a point where I should be moving on to the next stage of my life, but I don’t know where my future lies.

    If the CSC withdraws my scholarship offer, the feasibility of financing my own Ph.D. is minimal, as the costs are too high. Studying in Canada costs around 200,000 yuan a year, and tuition in the U.K. and the U.S. is even more expensive. Now, I can only devote myself to keeping busy. I still lay awake in bed night after night thinking about my visa situation. There’s no other way; I can only continue to wait.

    (Editor’s note: On Dec. 30, this student was informed that he had finally been granted security clearance.)

    Climbing up from the depths of depression

    In April 2022, I was in the second semester of my senior year when I first applied for a Canadian student visa. I passed up many other opportunities, including guaranteed admission to the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), pursuing a Ph.D. at Tsinghua University or Peking University, and offers from prestigious schools such as the University of Hong Kong and Imperial College London. I was set on the University of Toronto in Canada.

    I received a fully funded offer for a direct Ph.D. program in the university’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, which was extremely valuable to me. Initially, the visa application went smoothly. By the end of July that year, I’d completed my Immigration Medical Examination, a routine procedure, and subsequently received a confirmation email and sent out my passport. However, for unknown reasons, the day after I sent my passport, my confirmation email was revoked and my application entered the security clearance process, which is still ongoing. I found myself in a state of professional and academic limbo.

    For the first half a semester I was OK with the situation, but later I began to have serious doubts. Many of my classmates had gone abroad and were regularly posting on social media about their experiments not working or papers not being completed. Seeing their updates upset me deeply — I didn’t even have the chance to conduct experiments.

    Realizing a change in my mindset, I decided to go traveling in an attempt to ease my troubled emotions. I eventually returned to Hefei, Anhui province, to work as a research assistant in the laboratories at USTC. I couldn’t stay in the dormitory anymore, but I also couldn’t find a suitable place to rent, so I moved into a hotel for a few days as a temporary solution. However, my condition worsened.

    Suffering from insomnia, I went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with severe depression and severe obsessive-compulsive behavior. I asked what this meant, and the doctor explained that obsessive-compulsive behavior involved thinking about the same thing for six or seven hours every day. I was spending my days consumed with anxiety about not being able to attend school.

    I didn’t want to interact with anyone. I laid in bed in a hotel for a month, almost never going out. My medication made me excessively sleepy; most days I slept over 10 hours a day. When I was awake, I just stayed in bed playing games on my mobile phone. I’d never played these games during my undergraduate studies, but now I was obsessed. I started playing “Honor of Kings,” climbing from novice all the way to the highest rank.

    I would occasionally go out to the public bathhouse. Being from northeast China, visiting the bathhouse is part of my DNA, and it helps relieve stress. Looking back, I feel I was actually fortunate. My family provided me with money to help me get through that period. Many people who couldn’t obtain a visa really ended up being unable to attend school, potentially ending their academic journey and costing them crucial life opportunities.

    I often reflect on exactly where my visa problem started. I applied for a major in materials science and engineering, which isn’t as sensitive or advanced as quantum physics or computer science. I’d heard about students failing to obtain visas to attend school in the U.S., but even they received rejection letters. That’s not like the Canadian visa situation, where my application has been stalled for more than a year and I’ve been unable to get any kind of update.

    In the past, I always believed that hard work leads to good results. I’ve been a “model child” since I was young, always a top student. Even in USTC’s competitive academic environment, my grades ranked in the top 7% of the whole university. I always found ways to excel in everything I did. Having followed this path for so long, I felt that applying for a Ph.D. was the natural choice. All the people I knew who’d earned high grades had applied for Ph.D. programs, and I thought I’d regret not applying. But it seems I’ve never thought deeply about what I truly want to do.

    After failing to obtain a visa, now I understand that effort does not lead directly to success; luck also plays a part. It took me about half a year to gradually emerge from my depression. There was no specific turning point; it was a process of reconciliation. Now I think that stubbornly adhering to a single life path isn’t necessary, and not being able to go to Canada might be the better outcome. If I hadn’t had this experience, I might still be fretting about setbacks in life. Now, I’m more relaxed.

    I’ve rented an apartment and started working multiple jobs, tutoring people preparing for the TOEFL exam, and testing water quality samples. I even took a part-time job at an aquarium; it only paid 100 yuan a day, but I got to see all kinds of animals. I never used to cook, but now I can prepare meals and bake cakes. I feel I could even open a cake shop; I’ve become a really excellent baker.

    I’m working hard to save money and plan to apply for a master's program in Germany, where tuition is relatively affordable. If everything goes smoothly, I can start in the fall of 2024, a full two years later than my peers. I am also learning German to prepare to immerse myself in the environment there.

    Even if I don’t get accepted, though, it’s OK. At least I’ve become a person who can bake delicious cakes.

    Reported by Yin Shenglin.

    A version of this article originally appeared in White Night Workshop. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Carrie Davies; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: VCG)