In the Spotlight: Wiktoria Parysek, The Daily Pennsylvanian

On Sunday, New York Times Magazine published a much-discussed mini-memoir by Jose Antonio Vargas, who secretly lived in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant while rising up the journalism ranks.  It spurred fresh chatter about the plight of the undocumented in America and the journalistic ethics of someone in Vargas’s position covering potentially related stories.

By chance, late last week– on the same day the piece was ‘previewed’ online (i.e. published in its entirety for free)– Wiktoria Parysek wrote a similar mini-memoir of her experiences in the U.S. as an international student.

For example, Parysek, a fresh graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that she recently arrived at a Department of Motor Vehicles office weighed down by a veritable mountain of paperwork.

As she recounted, “I trekked to the DMV armed with (take a deep breath): my old license, my passport, my Social Security card, my visa, my visa documents, my I-94 (proof of my legal entry into this country), my employment authorization document, two official letters to my current address (proof of residency) and a check to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to fund this circus. Yeah, it’s a mouthful.”

The Polish-born, English-raised current German resident shared her document-saddled DMV journey as a glimpse at one of the many, many stresses and surreal experiences foreign students face while studying, working and traveling in the United States.

As she wrote in Daily Pennsylvanian column, headlined “Uncovering the World of Internationals,” “[T]here’s a lot that American students aren’t aware of when it comes to us students from a little further afield, even though they are almost certainly sitting next to us in class. Without sounding too dramatic, I truly believe there’s a fundamental gap in our intercultural communication here. . . . Yes, international students can drive. Yes, we can work. Yes, it’s extremely complicated– why don’t you ask me about it sometime?

Wiktoria 'Vicky' Parysek, a Daily Pennsylvanian columnist this past academic year, recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. As her DP "wiki-pedia" shares, "Polish-born, English-raised, she somehow calls Berlin her home."

In the spirit of that request, I asked Parysek a few questions about her life in the United States and her advice for “world-strewn colleagues” who want to follow in her stead.  I also asked her about the Vargas piece and her thoughts on the ethics of reporting about international student issues while being an international.

What are the biggest difficulties you faced on a day-to-day basis as an international student?

Day-to-day is relatively easy. Other than not being able to call my family whenever I want to because of the time difference, the things which come up tend to be unexpected rather than every day. Like the process of getting reimbursed for something at work or not being able to participate in a study because of my non-U.S. citizenship. But I think it is so easy for me partly due to the fact that I have no language difficulties (other than occasionally mispronouncing words like “hover” because of my British background). I’ve met students here with extremely poor English skills and I often wonder how they get by.

How much of the time do you feel like an ‘other’ or an ‘outsider’ here?

I would say quite a bit. Most of the time it’s intentional– sometimes it’s good to stand out. What I’ve always enjoyed, however, is being able to turn it on and off. If I want to blend in, I can– there’s no reason why my lab group needs to know my whole life story. But if I’m chatting with other internationals or trying to get a job, I’ll probably emphasize the fact that I’ve lived in four different countries and speak a few different languages. The trouble with this is seeing those positions I’ll never get hired for because they tell you right at the outset they won’t sponsor visas. Then I wish I could blend in again.

What is your advice to international students who want to study and live in the U.S.?

Be prepared for a lot of paperwork. But as long as you stay organized and patient, it shouldn’t be too hard. The anecdote from my column about my trip to the DMV actually has a happy ending. After I’d collected all of the required documents (including my Social Security card, which I had a particularly hard time locating), it was all pretty easy. The DMV worker actually thanked me for being so organized. I told him it’s the only way I can get anything done and he said, “You’re right, which makes my job easier, which makes your job easier, which definitely makes my job easier.” Yes, the system is long and tedious, but as long as you respect the fact that everyone plays a part and the rules are there for a reason– though probably one beyond me– you’ll be fine.

My other piece of advice would be to branch out. At least at Penn, the international students are typically the first ones on campus. It’s OK to seek out other people from your home country during international orientation, but don’t anchor yourself too soon. Make it a personal goal to meet people from 10 different states or countries on the first day of freshman orientation. Join a performing arts group. I joined one that’s quintessentially American, the marching band, and can truly say it’s where I met my best friends.

What’s your advice for journalists interested in reporting on international student issues?  Are there certain stories that should be told more?  Certain stereotypes that need to stop being perpetuated?

[Stories that should be told more]  Perhaps bureaucratic issues, like those I raised in my column, or financial issues.  Many schools still have very limited funds for internationals, making their international recruitment very narrow.

As with any international issues, there are many stereotypes which should be avoided. Generalizing groups from particular countries is never a good idea.  I think the closest I ever got to a tricky situation is when I reported on international financial aid issues at Penn.  I was advocating for need-blind admissions for internationals.  My main complaint was that most of the internationals being admitted were extremely wealthy students whose families could foot the entire bill, making the international class incredibly un-diverse.  Obviously I was generalizing, and it was an opinion piece, but I did feel like I was dangerously close to perpetuating stereotypes.

Do you see any semblance of comparison to the experiences of Jose Antonio Vargas [as described in the NYT Magazine piece] and your own?

The piece truly moved me.  It points out everything that is wrong with the immigration laws here in the U.S.  Although I am a fully-documented non-immigrant, I’ve often complained about how the government is forcing well-educated graduates to leave, rather than opening doors for us to stay and give back to the country which educated us. My dream job is to be a high school English teacher, something the state of Pennsylvania will not let me do as a non-citizen. The certification policies prohibit me from working for the state’s school districts, despite my great enthusiasm and what I consider to be at least a decent education. Every time (Jose Antonio Vargas, the writer of the piece) reiterates his belief that if he works hard enough and exemplifies the model citizen he will be granted citizenship, a big part of me agreed with him. It’s like there’s a lack of trust between government and residents. I am a German resident, not a citizen, but am allowed to vote in local district elections. Can you imagine immigrants voting in the U.S.?

From a journalistic perspective, do you feel as an international student you could fairly cover international student issues?

As with any good piece, it’s important to prepare yourself by doing the necessary background research.  When reporting international issues, I feel better prepared.  So I would say I don’t see anything wrong with “specialists” reporting in their own field.  It’s also different being a columnist rather than a news reporter.  I was encouraged to write about issues which made me frustrated or happy– things about which I could be passionate.  I talk my friends’ ears off about all the different hoops I have to jump through as an international student, so the column was actually a good outlet.  I never hid the fact that I was not American– I think this is key.  As long as readers understand the angle or the potential bias, bigger ethical issues could be avoided.  Maybe that’s why I prefer opinion–people can take my biases or leave them.

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