Twelve Years and Counting
I walk into Nagila's apartment, a tiny space in the basement of a hundred-year-old home south of the University of Utah campus, and see all the signs of someone battling a sickness: tissues, a pile of blankets and a pillow on the couch, cough drops, pill bottles, and something in a mug on a side table. Nagila doesn't hug me like usual when we see each other after a few months. She doesn't want me to get sick.
I sit on the couch facing the TV that's playing an old Gilmore Girls episode-- the one where Rory and ex-boyfriend Dean shack up for the first time (BARF!)-- and Nagila sits in the chair across from me and tells me that she's had the flu for a couple weeks. That she asked her boss if she could take a blanket to work so that she wouldn't have to miss. Nagila cleans underground parking lots at night. With water. In freezing temperatures. Making minimum wage. As she has at every student job she's worked in the past twelve years as an undergraduate. But she can't miss work to rest. She doesn't have paid sick leave, and she can't afford to not get paid.
Aside from all her regular bills-- school tuition, housing, food, medicine-- she has a lawyer helping her who needs to be paid.
Nagila already graduated from college. Four times, actually. She has a B.S. in Human Biology with a minor in Chemistry, a B.S. in University Studies, an associates degree in Medical Assisting, and an associates in Cyber Security. "And no social life," she says to me with a laugh.
I feel a question coming on. Do you??
Question: Why is she still a student and why is she still making minimum wage?
Answer: She's from Brazil and she's trying to become a legal resident "the right way."
And so far, "the right way" still hasn't given her the ability to work full time and provide for herself like any normal human being wants to. She has to continue to reapply as a student. Over and over again. She has no family who came before her who can apply for a resident visa for her. No siblings, parents, or children of her own who are residents already. She is the pioneer in her own family. And she's not only supporting herself, but a sister who's going through college at home in Brazil as well.
Hence the reason Nagila has to go work wrapped in a blanket to clean underground parking lots in the middle of the winter while she has influenza.
Now her lawyer is telling her that in this political environment, with the ever-changing rules for immigrants, only a Masters Degree MIGHT get her an actual work visa. But her bachelors degrees are basically worthless. No employer wants to pay the rising cost of applying for a work visa for an international employee.
Which is a shame, because Nagila is THE hardest working human being I know. Period.
Nagila and I were mission companions in the Brasil Campinas Mission back in 2005. I was on my way out and she was on her way in.
If you're not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, let me explain what this means. Men and women volunteer as missionaries in our church. Men can serve after they turn 18 for a period of two years, and women at 19 for a period of 18 months. We don't get to choose where we go, but instead are assigned to an area referred to as a "mission" that has a group of missionaries and a married couple who leads the missionary work in that area and keeps track of the missionaries. I was just a few months away from finishing my mission in Brazil when Nagila arrived. We were assigned to work together.
She was a HARD worker. We walked day in and day out. She had SCREAMING blisters and never complained. She was exactly obedient to the rules. She was on it. She started at a run, and kept running. I was tired trying to keep up with her.
From the time I met her, I remember her talking about her dream of coming to the United States to go to school. How she wanted to be a doctor and help sick kids. I wasn't sure she would actually make it up here. But after her mission she worked four jobs simultaneously, scraped together what she needed, and made it happen.
And so began the 12 years of studying and working
I'm sure when she got here, she had no idea what she was in for. She may have planned on being in school that long, but with an MD to show for it. Instead, let me explain what happened:
2008-2009: English program in Provo. Work included cleaning offices from 3:30 AM-7:30 AM every morning, scrubbing toilets, and shoveling snow at the bum crack of dawn. Took the English test and passed. Couldn't afford to apply to BYU-Provo. Was assaulted in front of the Marriott Center walking home from a graveyard shift. Attacker didn't count on her TOUGH-AS-NAILS response and was wounded in exactly the sensitive way you might think!!
2010-2011: Went to school at BYU-Hawaii. Was told her English classes would need to be retaken, even though she'd passed the test already. Took those, and normal classes, and worked, and did shifts at the Laie Temple every Saturday. Got a scholarship because she rocks! Cooked meals all freaking day (No, literally. 3:00 AM to 8:00 PM) for a boy scout camp during the summer. Still didn't have enough to support herself in Hawaii.
2012-2014: Froze her butt off in Rexburg at BYU-Idaho. Got there and was told none of her credits would transfer from BYU-H. Had to retake everything. Worked in cleaning, food prep, special events, setting up tents and outdoor heaters, moving 50-pound buckets of concrete, snow removal, etc, etc,etc, etc. Like...really. Just everything! And I don't mean, casual job, few hours a week. Every chance she got, she was working. Every Saturday: working. Graveyards and early mornings before class: working.
On July 15, 2014, there was a terrible flood in Rexburg. At that point, Nagila was living in the basement of an apartment complex. Her apartment flooded and she lost everything. Though she literally had almost nothing in her checking account, she had to pay fees to BYU-I for the loss of the school books she had rented, and hundreds to replace her computer and pay fines to the Brazilian government for losing her passport.
To add insult to injury, her mom died during this time, and she couldn't go home to be with her family because she didn't have the money 😢
2015-2016: **See 2012-2014 above and add lots more work and freezing of buttocks**
2016 - present: Graduated from BYU-I. No visa and no job, reapply for student visa. Graduated with another degree from LDSBC. No visa and no job. Reapply for student visa. Graduated with another degree...PERPETUAL STUDENT HELL.
She has paid thousands of dollars to the department of immigration, graduated with four degrees, taught senior-level courses, assisted in research facilities and medical laboratories, and yet, she has been relegated to minimum wage student jobs, retaking courses she has taken twice already, and could be teaching herself, and repeating the cycle over and over again.
During all of these years, Nagila has worked herself to exhaustion, taking advantage of every opportunity to make money that comes her way, but never giving in to the temptation and ease of obtaining fake papers in order to get a job. She has received monetary help from many people who love her, though she hates having to rely on others, and would love nothing more than to support herself, go to medical school, and pay back the money others have paid on her behalf. She is the hardest worker I know, hands down. But she has faced trial, after trial, after barrier, after disaster, and she is reaching her limit.
She now faces two choices:
1. Get a Masters and hope she can find an employer who will apply for the visa for her, or 2. Move to Canada. Both will take more money than a minimum wage job can give her.
Why doesn't she go back to Brazil, you ask? She tried. A couple of years ago, she broke. She couldn't do it anymore. Everything was working against her and she decided maybe it was time. She left everything here, emptied her savings to buy a ticket, and got on the plane, dejected. Before the plane could leave, she felt something tell her to get off the plane. She felt almost physically forced off the plane by something (or someone) unseen. So, she's still here. Working and trying and dreaming of the day she can have her own place in life, work a full-time job, and finally graduate from her perpetual-student status.
She was here, and a student, for my oldest son's first birthday.
She was here, and a student, when my daughter was born.
She was here, and a student, when my twins were born.
My oldest son is twelve now. And Nagila is still a student. Will she still be a student when he gets to college?