Beheshteh Rakhshan says she never got to finish her doctoral degree because her visa was rejected.
“It was a big surprise to me,” she said. “I’m not criminal; I’m just a student.”
Rakhshan, a former Iranian doctoral student in the College of Science, first reapplied for her expired visa in May 2019. The officer told her that her case was settled and she’d be informed about the status of her request soon, she said.
When she left for Canada that May, she expected to stay only three months, hoping to be back at Purdue for the fall semester.
“Everything seemed well at the time,” she said, “and the officer said that ‘OK, your case is good.’ Because I lived in the United States for three years, I was totally confident that I will get the visa.”
In October 2019, she was told her case was cleared and all that remained was to send her passport to the U.S. consulate in Armenian, since there isn’t a physical U.S. embassy in Iran. After she sent her passport, it was returned with a message saying it required additional processing.
Rakhshan had a multi-entry visa, but her then-fiancé applied for a visa as well. His was rejected multiple times, and he ultimately applied to study in Canada. She left the U.S. to be with him in Canada.
She said in Fall 2019, though she was enrolled at Purdue and employed as a remote teaching assistant, she only had payment until October. She was unable to retain her enrollment after that semester and withdrew from the spring and summer semesters.
Rakhshan said she pleaded with the University to assign her to an online-teaching or research-assistant position.
“I had so many conversations with Purdue administration (to) please register me, then I can resume my (doctorate) online,” she said, “but then they said, ‘We cannot assign you funding.’”
She had to pay for car loans and insurance in the U.S., as well as rent for an apartment in West Lafayette that she did not occupy. She received no income from Purdue during the spring semester.
Though she said she found someone to sublease the apartment, she paid a combined $3,000 for rent, application fees and travel to Iran and Armenia.
“It was so hard, I cannot say it in words,” she said.
After December 2019, she said she was no longer required to pay Purdue insurance. She had to acquire private insurance in Canada for her multiple sclerosis, a disease that damages the nerves.
In February, she finally received an email informing her that her visa case was ready, she said, but she needed a new I-20 form to certify eligibility for international students since she withdrew from the spring semester. The form took 40 days to issue.
With COVID-19 cases increasing this spring, she said the U.S. ordered the closure of all international embassies. She then sent an email to government officials whom she said “knew my case very well.”
The government office replied with an email to the consulate to issue Rakhshan her visa, but the consulate said the case was rejected and “we cannot do anything.”
“I got the email from the senator’s office, and I was like ‘What?,’” she said. “It was in April 2020, and it was a very big shock to me.
“If they wanted to reject me, (I would be) super happy if they did so in August 2019, not in April 2020 after almost a year of waiting.”
Linda Mason, dean of the Graduate School, said students can take a leave of absence from graduate school for up to three semesters. If more than three consecutive sessions —including the summer — elapse, the student must register again.
“They could be registered in summer, skip fall, spring and summer, but must register in the next fall,” she said. “If a student is funded, they must check with their supervisor to see if the funding will still be available when they return from an extended leave.”
Mason said the University is not approved for an online doctorate program, and doctoral degrees limit how many courses can be taken online.
She added that if a student wanted to work outside of the U.S., employers would have to comply with that country’s employment and tax laws.
“As Purdue is not registered in most other countries to do business, the University generally is required to use the services of a third-party employment agency registered in that country to employ the individual,” she said. “There is additional expense to utilize the services of the third party.”
Despite the different tax laws, Rakhshan said she has friends employed with U.S. internships who live in Canada, and their payment is in U.S. dollars.
“Now in (the) pandemic, I know that they have some kind of solution for those people that they are studying or they are working from their home country,” Rakhshan said. “When I was here Purdue could, I think … assign me something like online TA.”
Though Rakhshan said the consulate treated her unfairly and Purdue did little “to smooth my situation,” she commended the Department of Mathematics for being empathetic and helpful.
Plamen Stefanov, the associate head for graduate studies in the math department, said the department tried to help her as much as it could.
“We wrote a letter of support to the U.S. consulate and worked with the Graduate School to get the best accommodation for her,” he said. “Unfortunately, the COVID situation made things worse and she decided to leave Purdue. We regret losing such a great student and wish her all the best.”
The process was difficult not just for Rakhshan, but for her husband as well, she said.
“He was so sad because he saw all the hardship,” Rakhshan said.
The two got married in August with only one friend each to serve as witnesses. They’re waiting until after the pandemic to celebrate with their families, she said.
Though she didn’t complete her doctorate through the University, she graduated in August with her second masters degree from Purdue in applied mathematics. She obtained her first from a university in Iran.
“I can say in three years for my (doctorate) I did a lot,” she said. “I put a lot of my time (into) that but without any results.”
Rakhshan said starting in 2021, she will be living in Canada for the next several years with her husband while pursuing a doctoral degree in computer science at the University of Montreal.
“The government in Canada, they are really welcome, if I want to compare it to (the) government (of the) United States,” she said, “and now I’m so happy that (Joe Biden) got elected because with (President Donald Trump), it was impossible for Iranian students to come to (the) United States.”
Despite her disdain for the Trump administration, she said she misses the United States, especially the people.
“I love the U.S.,” she said, “I miss Purdue. I miss campus. I miss my friends a lot.”
In Montreal, she will join a professor she did research with in the summer of 2019, whom she said “cared a lot” about her situation.
“I can say without his help,” she said, “I couldn’t survive.”