I am departing Liberia for the U.S. today after an extended four-week stay. Initially, I planned for and purchased a six-week return ticket, with no knowledge that my six weeks will become ten. I arrived in Liberia on July 5 for the renewal of my U.S. F1 Visa, to complete a school project and spend time with my family and friends. I wish I could say I was on vacation, but it was a workation for me.
Upon my arrival, I decided to first renew my Liberian passport since I had seven months before it expires. Due to the complications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Passport Bureau, it took me about two weeks to figure out how to process my passport within an additional four days, a process that should have lasted under a week. After my passport renewal, I applied for and was scheduled for my U.S. Visa appointment on August 14.
July to September is the peak season when many Liberian students prepare to depart for studies in the U.S. Already, there is always a lot of people who apply for U.S visas annually. Securing an early appointment is almost impossible if you did not book months earlier, except through an emergency.
A lot of people have asked me why I was reapplying for another visa given that I am already studying in the U.S. Unlike other countries, Liberians are only eligible for a one year visa, even students with F1 status need an annual renewal. Visa holders in the A, C, and G categories (still subject to annual renewal, except you do not have to pay the MRV fee or appear in person for your interview) are the exceptions.
Even though the F1 visa lasts only one year, you do not need to return to Liberia for renewal if you cannot afford or are uninterested. You are given an I-20 upon admission, which serves as an identification and proof of legal and academic status for the period of your studies. The challenge is that you will not travel out of the U.S for said period because you will not return with an expired visa, or you are subject to renewing your visa in Liberia before returning.
For someone like me who is mostly responsible to finance the cost of my education, I rely on applying for or being invited to several opportunities that mostly require me traveling out of the States. Now you can understand why I may need to return home annually for a visa renewal for as long it takes to complete my studies.
Traveling across from the U.S. to Liberia is usually expensive (about $1500-$3000). Additionally, the current economic climate has been enveloped by hostility, thereby plummeting harsh economic activities that have skyrocketed the cost of living, disproportionately to income. I had to endure all of these.
Over the past weeks, I worked on a few sexy projects: co-led an impact evaluation for the Monrovia Football Academy, consulted on two entrepreneurship training programs, contributed to the development of a marketing strategy for a local company, and also spent quality time with family and friends. With all the work I did, the primary reason for my return to Liberia was renewing my visa. Apparently, I overlooked this important responsibility.
It was a few days to my appointment and I had not prepared all that I needed for my interview, amidst all the reminders that my work partner, Jallah Sumbo, would serve me. I am very familiar with the entire process, having to have received a U.S visa more than once for both Business/Tourism (B1/B2) and Student (F1) statuses. Additionally, I have helped about 20 people apply for their visa appointments as well.
Spoiler alert: I fucked it up — I missed my visa appointment. What else would have made me miss my appointment? I arrived at the embassy later than my scheduled interview time when they could not take me in for the day. I was then asked to reschedule without paying the fees and this lasted for a week without any progress, which resulted in me repaying another $160.00 for an emergency appointment.
My emergency appointment was approved about one week later, and scheduled in two weeks. I had also missed my flights back to school; now it costs me another $500.00 to reschedule my international flight and repurchase my domestic flight to Miami, since my previous domestic flight was nonrefundable and non-transferable. As if these were not enough, after receiving my visa, all the seats on the departing flights with my airline were sold out for an entire week, leading me to stay an additional one week out of school.
To make a case, the morning traffic and distance I traveled to the embassy played a part in my lateness. But beyond this, my unpreparedness to get everything ready, failure to depart my home hours earlier or spend the night closer to the embassy led to this effect. I realized afterwards that I was too comfortable and lackadaisical. My familiarity with the process and my low chance of being denied a visa made me feel entitled to the process, that even if I were late or not ready, I would be given a special preference to obtain my visa. Dumb!
After the process, my friend, Elvis Browne, and others would tell me the many hours they would arrive in advance at the embassy if they had an appointment. And if they had my case for a U.S. Visa, they would have exerted due diligence, effort, and discipline. These conversations brought me to one realization: I AM PRIVILEGED! Too often we forget to recognize and check our privileges. We become entitled that we stop exerting the effort and applying the discipline we need to uphold the privilege that we use effort and discipline to obtain, and why we are deserving of those privileges. Les Brown reminds us that in order to get something out of life, achieve a goal or make meaning of our situations, we gotta [remain] hungry.
A few months ago, I remember a conversation with my friend, Bryan Nakambonde. We both discussed why we deserved being Watson Scholars and studying in the United States. What made us “better” to be chosen among the hundreds who applied. Even more so, what special qualities or talents did we have that set us apart from the many talented, skillful, and disciplined young people in both our countries, Liberia and Namibia? Maybe the privilege we had to access the opportunity when it prevailed, and our preparedness. That is a big privilege and we could not justify it any further. Therefore, we discussed how we could prove ourselves more deserving of the opportunities we have. Of all the things we discussed, putting in the most effort to succeed, being disciplined, utilizing every opportunity, and most importantly paying it forward came at the top of our list. Months later, I forgot this conversation and felt entitled.
In his song, “Dangote,” from his latest hit album, “African Giant,” Burna Boy sings about how Africa’s richest man still works for money and why wouldn’t he do the same? He goes on to sing about his dedication to continue hustling and striving as they will earn him money.
This analogy may not necessarily align in context, but speaks largely to discipline and humility.
“We work hard and put in the most effort to achieve a certain privilege. When we do, we become entitled and forget we got it through hard work and discipline, and we must continue with these traits.”
Today, I am over three weeks late for school, I spent a large sum of money that could be directed towards my tuition, I put unnecessary pressure on my family, sponsors, friends, and I compromised a part of me that people respect: taking initiative, being responsible, and organized. Even sadly, I lost my sense of humility. But amidst all of these, I am aware of my privilege and my responsibility to uphold myself to a standard deserving of the opportunities I have. I also have a greater responsibility as a Liberian to my family, friends, and country.
My situation is bad, and sad, and even more frustrating, but I believe I needed this experience to be reminded of a lesson so key to thriving in our contemporary society. The next time I am faced with any of these situations, or become too comfortable, or feel entitled, I will remember to check my privilege and stay humbled
Authored by Wainright Y. Acquoi