The College Desk

German Philosophy for Immigrants

The line to speak with a consular official is never so long as when you’re studying 19th-century philosophy and everything you desire exists on the other side of an ocean.

Yearbook Series I, 2010. Image courtesy the artist and Carslaw St. Lukes.

If you’re about to do something important, stay away from German philosophy. Focus on organizing and then re-organizing your paperwork, and rehearse so you don’t screw up. Take two folders, and put everything you might need in one and everything you’ll definitely need in the other. That way when the consular officer behind the desk asks for your SEVIS receipt with I-20 you know that SEVIS receipt with I-20 is in the manila envelope and not the red folder with the button that doesn’t close, which is probably not good since that folder contains at least a dozen loose printed photos of you wearing your most neutral expression just in case the photo you submitted electronically doesn’t meet American neutrality criteria.

“The wretchedness of the world and the nastiness of human nature… is evident enough empirically,” thought Schopenhauer, according to T.L. Sprigge in The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers.


Don’t say anything to suggest you intend to stay in the U.S. after college. F-1 visas are for students, not immigrants. Show that you have strong ties to your home country. Tell them that you plan to return to the U.K. in three years, and be prepared to tell them why.


Don’t mention that all your friends are in America and the girl you like is American and you have no idea what you want to do after college and you haven’t felt British since you were six years old in a paddling pool in Cambridge when your parents asked you whether you’d prefer to move to Houston or Tokyo and you picked Houston because they said it was less different from home.

 “But it is also a necessary truth, following from the very nature of its underlying reality, the Will.” Leave it to a dead white German man to prove that misery is fundamental to the structure of the universe. Besides, the automated lady-voice isn’t nasty. And it’s a nice waiting room. The chairs are spread out enough and there’s a carpet and a flatscreen with the flashing number. It bleats every 20 seconds which is just enough time to read a half-depressing sentence and half-process it and then get wholly anxious about the next number because it might be yours.

Don’t mention that all your friends are in America and the girl you like is American and you have no idea what you want to do after college and you haven’t felt British since you were six years old in a paddling pool in Cambridge.


“Moreover, in its apparent pluralization, each part of the phenomenal world is powered by a drive to survive at the expense of others…” Better than the U.S. embassy in Beijing—four years ago, they had us compressed in a linoleum cube, standing in line for hours as my parents held the manila envelopes and the red folders with the buttons that don’t work, with my mum stressed because we were asked to fill out Mandarin address forms in Mandarin characters. Chinese nationals peered at the only white faces in the room. Some intended to be tourists and some intended to immigrate and some were perhaps resentful because we looked and talked the same as the white immigration officer at the end of the line who would probably give us an easier time even though we couldn’t fill out the address forms. “…so that there is a universal and appalling war of all against all.” But now I’m by myself in a room of seats and Westerners and a few hopeful immigrants.


“We are aware of ourselves, both in the perceptual fashion by which we know external things, and, quite differently, ‘from within’ as Will, more specifically as Will to Live.”

My dad and I have made plans to rendezvous after the appointment—I couldn’t take my cell into the embassy. Assuming everything goes well, it takes three hours. We’ll meet at the outside tables of an Italian café by Governor Square.

In case things don’t go well, he’ll stay in the vicinity. I imagine wandering central London, looking for my dad so I could tell him that I screwed up and didn’t get the visa so I couldn’t go back to Brown, or to Houston. I had asked him what we would do if it didn’t work out and he said, “Make sure you get it.” It was strange of him not to give a straight answer.


I hand over the appointment letter, MRV receipt, DS-160, I-797, and SEVIS receipt with I-20. She doesn’t like the photo, so I pull out the red folder.

I’m instructed to return to my seat until called for interview.

Will seeks constantly for a quietus which from its very nature as striving it could only reach by forfeiting its main goal, existence…” An endlessly yearning Will. It reminds of me reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in English class and making up something about a ‘cycle of nonfulfillment’ trapping the impotent protagonist along with everyone else. The ‘lost generation’ without a home in post-war Europe. A classmate compared them to us international students, without true homes. I found that a little dramatic. I was comforted by Edward Sharpe’s refrain, “Home is wherever I’m with you.” I sang it to the crowd of high school kids and all the flags lining the stage and I spoke it to my grade at graduation and I yelled it with my friends to the highways of Houston, and I meant it.

Another hour of interrupted skimming.


“So our behavior presents itself to us not only as the movements of a physical object but more intimately as the phases of a Will.”

I press my fingers to the glowing green plastic and hope I’m not suddenly a terrorist. Just an alien. The officer asks me to switch hands. She looks like she is in her late twenties, and she has an American accent.

I press my fingers to the glowing green plastic and hope I’m not suddenly a terrorist.

—Brown, is that in Boston? I think I visited once on a college tour.

—No, it’s actually in Providence, Rhode Island, but that’s close by.

—Oh, OK. I see. Um, hang on a second. OK. And why did you decide to go to Brown?

—Uhh, I like the open curriculum, it gives you a lot of freedom to study what you like. And it’s a good school in general.

—Oh, cool. Hold on one minute. OK. That’s cute, heading off college. Are you excited?

—Uhh, yeah I am. But it’s actually my second year at Brown. I was there on a work-dependent J-2 before, and now I’m applying for an F-1.

—Oh OK I see. OK. Well, just wait here and I’ll be back in a few moments.

—OK, thanks.

—OK, Alexander, I’ve decided to approve your visa.

I nod.

—But you need to tell your dad and your dad’s company that you can’t enter college on a J-2 visa. That’s for going to elementary or middle school or something but not college. You violated the lawful status of the visa. Which is strong cause for rejecting your F-1.


—But it doesn’t seem intentional.

She glances at me, as if to double check.

—So I’m going to let this one go. It’s a close call, though. Tell your dad’s company they can’t permit college attendance on a J-2.


—All right, take this and go to the courier and they should deliver your passport back with the visa and I-20 within five to seven days. Good luck with your studies.

—OK, thank you. Have a good day.

—You too.

She’s wrong. You can work and study in the U.S. on a J-2, as long as you’re under 21. “Q: Is the J-2 visa holder allowed to study in the U.S. without being required to change to F-1 status? A: Yes, a J-2 visa holder can study in the U.S. without changing to F-1 status,” says Zhang & Attorneys LP: U.S. Immigration Attorneys and Counselors. But she makes the decision. Tell them you have strong ties to your home country, but that might not matter. It could just depend on someone’s memory of the rules. Three years from now when you need to go to graduate school or get a job or be with your parents or stay with the girl you love it could be something falling out of the red folder or the cut on your finger that messes up your fingerprints or the Cockney security guard with an automatic gun who just wants to fuck with you because you show him a British passport but you have an American accent.

“The only lasting solution, however, to our misery comes when people become so aware of the necessary wretchedness of life, of the misery of existing as futile manifestations of the cosmic Will to Live, that they lose all wish for existence and gratification.”

Schopenhauer can have his asceticism. I’d rather feel vulnerable when part of my future is being directed by a woman waving a stamp. I’d rather feel miserable when the American girl I like rejects me or when my American friends disappoint me or when I don’t feel American either or when I know I won’t see my parents until winter break or when I feel guilty for jumping through hoops to leave my aunts and uncles and cousins and dying grandparents for college. I’d rather have things to care about.

Alexander Meehan is a British citizen who has spent most of his life in Texas. He is currently a sophomore at Brown, where he is happily studying physics and philosophy. More by Alexander Meehan