Ten Lessons from 10 Years Spent on American Visas

10 years.

That’s how long I’ve lived in America. And I’ve spent all of it while living on US visas.

During those 10 years, I’ve:

-Lived, studied, and worked in five states.

-Vacationed in 16 states.

-And learned a lot during that time. Here are some of my biggest lessons from each year after spending more than 10 years in America on visas:

10 Years of Lessons

Year 1: Show Up

This is one of my favorite surprises about living in America. Showing up usually means being accountable and taking responsibility for your actions. In this sense, I mean literally showing up. In person.

Show up to new places.

Show up and enjoy new experiences.

I met two of my best friends in college by showing up to a random meeting about registering for a radio show. I showed up to learn more about the radio station, and having a show, and made not only two great friends, but countless others. And I also managed the radio station for two years. None of that would have happened if I didn’t show up, literally.

show-up-year-1

Other times, I’ve signed up for networking events and parties that I wanted to back out from at the last minute. But I usually meet at least one person that I connect with at events who makes me feel that showing up was worth it.

Year 2: Moving is hard

After the excitement of the first year, I returned to my home country of Trinidad and Tobago for the summer break. And it was then that I realized how much I missed it. I didn’t miss it as much during the semester because being busy helps to take our minds off certain things.

Missing home was one of the things that school distracted me from. But when I went home after the first year, it was clear to me that while I made the right decision to study in America, moving can take a negative toll on us as human beings. And in colleges and universities around the world, international students usually move around a lot, both during school, and after graduation.

Moving is hard.

Really hard.

It can bring both excitement and fear.

Year 3: It won’t always seem like it’s worth it

Failure happens. All the time. It’s a part of life. And when you fail at something, it might feel like a waste of time.  That making the effort, and not getting the result you were hoping for, wasn’t worth it.

Back in 2009, I had my biggest failure. I was a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship. The Rhodes scholarship is one of the most prestigious awards you can get. It’s offered in most countries. I was one of five students in the final round for the Caribbean. One of us was absolutely certain to get the scholarship. And then disaster struck.

I missed my flight for the interview.

On the plane, I prepared for the interview. And I spilled my orange juice.

All. Over. My. Laptop.

My laptop turned off. And my notes and all of the advice I got from my professors disappeared.

That’s not the worst part.

I did terribly in the interview. By far, the worst interview of my life.

I spent a lot of time preparing for the interview to get the scholarship. I failed.

There was no second chance. So applying for the Rhodes didn’t feel as though it was worth it. 

Year 4: It’s OK to get pushed around a little (but have a back-up plan)

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after I graduated.

Get a job? Sure.

Get a visa? Great.

The problem?

I was graduating in 2010, just after the U.S. economy was at its worst. It was hard to find a job, especially one that paid a decent salary. I was in my final year of college, so the last thing on my mind was going to school for 1-2 more years.

But I hedged.

I had a back-up plan.

I applied to graduate school in late 2009, and got admitted in early 2010, months before I graduated. And it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Why?

If I had found a job, I would have needed my (hypothetical) employer to sponsor an H-1B visa less than a year after starting to work for them. Why would they have sponsored a visa for me when there were hundreds, if not thousands, of unemployed Americans they could hire who didn’t need a visa.

Year 5: You don’t have to know what you like. Knowing what you don’t like can be just as important

I’m always amazed at people who know for sure what they like when it comes to many aspects of life: food, people, TV shows. The list goes on.

I’m not one of those people. I usually figure out what I like by process of elimination.

Me: Do I like this? I don’t know. I don’t hate it. I’ll give it a chance.

 

While nobody likes having people around who can’t make up their mind about things, they’ll respect you if you know for sure what you don’t like.

Year 6: Traveling will change your life (for the better)

It doesn’t matter why you travel, it will change your life, whether you’re traveling for work or vacation. It’s common to see Americans bragging about flying everywhere around the world and taking selfies in first class. But that’s a really small number of people. And they plan, save, or use credit cards for their trips.

travel-year-6

Start small.

Save.

Find a good deal.

And go.

Year 7: It’s not always about you

When I was in school, I’d go to my home country during vacations. Winter break made the most sense since it was too short to get a job or internship to make it worth it. During summer break, I would find an internship, travel, or find something else to do other than go home.

One of my best friends from home would always ask me when I was visiting. It was easy for me to say I couldn’t afford it or find some other excuse.

But after a while, I realized that going home wasn’t supposed to be fun all the time. It became more of an obligation: visit family and keep in touch with old friends.

So one year, I decided I’d surprise my friend by visiting home on her birthday. Every time she asked me when I was visiting that summer, I said I didn’t know. And then one day I showed up to her office unannounced. While I haven’t managed to recreate the surprise factor, I’ve visited my friend on her birthday a few times since that first surprise.

Year 8: What got you here won’t get you there

I’d thought about writing a book for a long time. Back in 2012, I was reading a lot about business, and fiction books. I even listened to audiobooks. It was different from how I had approached reading in the past because I wanted to read with a purpose. I wanted to read and put into action what I had read. Not only did I struggle to find time to read because of work travel, but I couldn’t focus even when I had time to read.

reading-books-year-8

I had to change my approach. I couldn’t read harder or magically focus.

I needed help.

Help wanted.

Help found.

Some people have coffee addictions and weird noise machines to give them energy and help them focus.  They swear by them, and can’t live without them.

My weird “can’t live without them” items? Tea and music without lyrics.

I discovered Cognitea and an app named Focus at Will in my quest to read more and be more productive so that eventually, I could write a book. I’ve been a loyal subscriber and user of both since 2014. Although I haven’t yet finished writing a book, I’m much closer to finishing now thanks to changing my approach with Cognitea and Focus at Will. What got me to where I was in 2014 stopped working.

And now I’m way more productive and closer to achieving my goal.

Year 9: It’s OK to have regrets, as long as you learn from them

I’ve always been suspicious about people who say they have no regrets.

Really? You don’t regret a single thing in life? Whoever doesn’t have regrets must be the world’s greatest decision-maker ever. 

Regrets? I have tons of them. Both big regrets and small ones.

My biggest regret? Failing to write about my experience in the US to help others who may be struggling or just starting out. Leaving your comfort zone is one of the hardest things you can do. We are creatures of habit, and most of us avoid big changes. But I’ve learned from my regret, and I’m slowly managing to write about my experience moving to America.

Year 10: Your best is yet to come

It’s safe to say that whoever you are now is probably not who you will be in the future.

One thing is for sure: we can’t predict the future. But we can prepare for it.

How? By learning new things, enjoying new experiences, and maybe even taking my advice from this post and traveling if you don’t already do so.

If you live in America on a visa, you’re not at your peak. And that’s a good thing.

Your best is yet to come.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Photo Links:

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The Biggest Mistake I’ve Made Living On U.S. Visas

Opinions.

Having lived in America on visas for the past 10 years, I’ve learned that this is one “thing” that everybody has.

Everybody.

Everybody?

Yes, everybody.

How do opinions relate to the biggest mistake I’ve made in America?

Let me explain.

When I moved to America, I started out as an international student. For students starting at a college or university for the first time, American colleges and universities organize an orientation period for them. Other colleges and universities around the world also organize orientation for new students. Orientation is a great time for students to learn more about the school, where to go for classes, and lots of other helpful things. There are also events like dinners and board game nights during orientation to help students get to know their peers. When I was a student, I participated in two kinds of orientation – the general orientation for new students, and one designed exclusively for international students.

Many parts of orientation were fun. Volunteers and staff answer tons of questions that students have during orientation.

You name it, they had answer.

Other parts of orientation? Not so much fun.

Some parts of orientation were really boring. Most of the boring sessions focused on helping students fill out forms to comply with visa regulations and student status.

At the time, whenever I went to a session about filling out forms, I would think:

This is so boring.

I’m sure I could find this on the internet.

What a waste of time.

Remember what I started out with: opinions. Everybody has them.

That was my opinion at the time. The thing with opinions, they aren’t really right or wrong. They’re just opinions.

But when I look back on my orientation experience America, I realize I made a big mistake.

Actually, it wasn’t just a big mistake.

It was HUGE.

Biggest Mistake

What was my huge mistake?

I didn’t ask for help.

I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t ask for help even though I needed it. I thought I could do everything by myself. I was too stubborn to ask people who had been in my situation of being an international student for help – lessons learned, pitfalls to avoid, among other things. Instead, I thought I could do everything all on my own.

You see, in America, there are many scenarios where help is expected and given.

Help of some kind is usually offered for major life events. Examples of major life events in America are starting college/university, starting a new job, getting married, buying a new house, and having children. For most of these events, lots of people experience them at the same time.  And since lots of people need help at the same time, it makes it easier for their communities and businesses to help out by organizing classes for everyone who is experiencing these life events.

There are other events, however, where help is needed, but it’s difficult to find it.

Why?

Lots of reasons.

These other events aren’t considered as important or major. For these types of events, everyone might be on a different timeline or the relevant details for each person is different which makes it hard to organize one solution for everyone.

A common example of when its hard to find help in the real world is visa compliance. In college/university, I had lots of help to follow the visa rules and laws. It was easy because many other students like me (at the time) needed help.

But as an employee, it gets much harder to find help. There are too many different types of visas. And visa laws can be tricky too.

Recently, my big mistake came back to haunt me. Yet again, I didn’t get the help I needed.

It was right around tax season here in America. For most people, tax season is March/April each year. For me, tax season is May/June because of my visa.

I found an accountant. I had all of my financial documents ready.

And then I thought: It’s less expensive for me to do my own taxes.

I knew I owed taxes. I knew I needed help. But I didn’t want to pay an accountant to tell me that, especially since I wasn’t going to get a refund. So I figured out how to do it myself.

But doing my own taxes was more complicated than I thought. Since it took me a while to figure it out, I missed the tax filing deadline. Since I missed the deadline, I had to pay the taxes I owed and a penalty.

Lesson learned.

Next time you need help, what should you do?

Ask.

Thanks for reading.

 

Photo Credit: Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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