The first thing I read this morning was a Facebook post by Kalle Westerling, a doctoral candidate in theatre at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Kalle and I are friendly, but we aren't particularly close. He started studying at the Graduate Center after I had completed my coursework, when doubts about whether I wanted to finish my PhD were just starting to tickle at my subconscious. Still, I admire him and his work; New York, the United States, and the academy are lucky to have him.
Kalle is Swedish, and studying here on a visa. He has just returned to the United States from a winter vacation in Brazil. While he is living and studying in New York, he reentered the States via Atlanta. He writes:
At the border control, the immigration officer asked me what my major was and after I let him know that I was getting a Ph.D. in Theatre, he told me that my education was "a waste of time" and that "his new boss" will make sure that there won't be a job for me when I graduate (this is word for word what he said). "I know I'm a bad person but there is no space in this country for you," he proceeded to tell me, since there are too many "starving artists" here already.
Anyone who has international friends, especially those here on student visas, knows that CBP officers have a reputation for this sort of thing, particularly at certain airports. Still, the reference to the officer's "new boss" and the explicit statement that "there is no space in this country for" Kalle are startling and deeply upsetting.
For context, here is a little more about Kalle's work:
- Has publication credits as an author, an editor, and a translator
- Has taught courses in theatre, performance, gender theory, and public speaking
- Board member of CLAGS (Center for LGBTQ Studies)
- Codirector of HASTAC Scholars (at the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory)
- Research Fellow at the Futures Initiative
There is much more to what Kalle has already accomplished in his career so far. In short, though, he contributes actively and successfully to his field and his profession. Whether or not you find his research interests (theatre, gender performance, digital humanities) compelling, he is well regarded by his peers and his mentors, and he deserves respect and courtesy from those whose job it is to facilitate and safegaurd legal entry into the United States. We should be hoping Kalle will choose to stay here permanently, not going out of our way to make him feel unwelcome.
When Kalle wrote this morning that the place he has lived, worked, and studied for the past seven years no longer feels like home to him, my heart sank. The United States benefits greatly from the fact that our universities attract top minds from around the world. Some of them return to their countries, where they are likely to advise future students on whether to study abroad; others stay and build careers here as US academics, scientists, engineers and, yes, artists. At the dawn of the Trump era, many of them might be hesitating to spend their time, money, and creative energy in a country that may not welcome them. If we drive them away instead of inviting them in, the loss will very much be ours.