I sat in the office with my eyes downcast, still in disbelief about what had just come out of my advisor’s mouth. But still, I was hopeful. She called the International Students Office to see if I could get a work authorization – False! And if they couldn’t grant me a work authorization, then I couldn’t even try to ask around for a paid research position with a faculty (since I was no longer a student with the department). The College of Technology option was still viable, but I believed they handled that on the administrative level – department to department, so I didn’t meddle. I didn’t want a case of double communication, so I trusted that the concerned parties were handling that. Another option was to write a petition to be admitted as a non-degree seeking student into the department. I’m having trouble pulling up some of the emails from this (too many were exchanged, so I won’t be able to reference dates) but just so you know, my decision for the conditional admission came in on a Sunday and on Monday, I went to the College of Technology to speak with a graduate advisor myself, since I hadn’t gotten much feedback from my previous department. I was copied in a few emails, but from the responses, nothing affirmative had been said. So I felt I had to now do that on my own. I called the lady who was copied in the email and she referred me to the right party. That Monday, the graduate advisor at COT told me that she could not admit me to the program, because it was past the ORD add/drop deadline (deadline to add classes). So what had happened was that I submitted a petition which took a week and a bit, only to be declined and by the time I went over to the COT, it was past the add/drop deadline. My advisor was to oversee all if not most of this as the Dean had relegated to her. Where was she? The COT advisor was a lot nicer and a lot more understanding and she actually made an effort to reach out to the rest of her department to see if I could be admitted. I met with my Dean and advisor again and this time around, nothing much could be done. My advisor just kept saying “Your only option is to enroll at HCC”.
During this time, I might have as well been a secretary. I had emails flying around, both on the sending and receiving end. My studio apartment had become the comfortable, cozy office.
Left with no other option, I began the process of enrolling at a community college - Houston Community College. I filled out the application online, got that immediate “Acceptance” which was weird. Do community colleges accept any and everybody? I didn’t care anymore. I was just grateful. So I danced into their International Students office and got that look from their advisor. I recall her saying “Even a student in China can stay there and print out this acceptance letter. You were not accepted. Did you receive anything in the mail?”. I almost cried my “No” out. I went home and the next day or a few days later, I talked to my friend who told me they had multiple campuses. Up until this point, not one of my friends knew what I was going through, just my family. I didn’t want to offload my burden on anyone. But this friend (who I pray God to rain his blessings on her till today) drove me to the other HCC campus nearby. I took my “admission letter” which they didn’t even ask to see. I was asked for my college transcript instead – they needed to see that I had taken college level English and Math. That day, I registered for classes but guess what? The International Student office at UH had been sending me emails about my visa status which was now in jeopardy after being kicked out of their program. And remember that the International Student advisor at HCC had told me that admissions were closed and she couldn’t get me in. But to the glory of God, I had enrolled in classes, right? So I went right back to her office the following week, this time with Uber. I met with another advisor who was such a blessing! She was receptive, understanding and told me the documents I needed to bring back to be issued my student visa document. I showed up some days later with the documents and this time, guess who I was slated to meet with? - the first advisor who told me I couldn’t even register. I showed her my list of classes and she said “I don’t know how you managed to get in. I told you admissions were closed”. Her facial expression was a mix of surprise, disgust and just that “who do you think you are?” expression.
At that point, I knew it was my Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscient God who was turning tables in my favor. I also sorted out a transfer of my visa status from UH to this college, just in time for the deadline they told me I’d be out of status by. Thank You Holy Father!
But the battles were not over – far from it!
Due to my transportation issues, exhaustion from the race so far and my overall deteriorating state of mind, I missed the first week of classes. The following week, I told myself “don’t mess this up, it is another opportunity God has given you”. So I started classes at HCC, taking Uber to and fro. After I had accumulated about $400 in a month, I had a serious talk with my family. I knew I was now a shameful child, but this was obviously not economical. Let’s not even talk about how much I had racked up in Uber expenses in the Fall term, in a city where the closest thing to you was 20 minutes away. I was tired of donating to Uber because I barely had enough money left over for myself. So it happened and God blessed me with a car but before my car came, I had began my license tests. I failed my first driving test. And you know, even though it is common for people to “fail” this test the first time, my own failure felt like FAAIIIILLLUUURREEEE! I cried. It wasn’t just about the driving test, but the fact that nothing I did at that point in my life seemed good enough. I started feeling inadequate. I felt like a huge blob of failure. The second time, I tested, the car barely made it out of the DPS when the instructor told me to park in front of the next warehouse. What had I done? The road had a terrible cut, and I was trying to get the car out as gently as possible so I don’t get marked down for being rough. So I slowed down beforehand and gently got into the unavoidable ditch that was right at the intersection of the road. I watched out for oncoming vehicles and I was going to wait a bit longer, but when I saw the impatient look on my instructors face, I started to accelerate out of the ditch. The tire rolled back because I obviously did not accelerate enough and by that time, the oncoming vehicles were closer. She marked me down, stating that “I pulled out in front of traffic”. Unlike the first time where I made a few errors (honking at some men who were walking in the middle of the road - I still laugh at this, pulling out when I felt it was safe instead of waiting for the road to be entirely clear - like that ever happens in reality, and not stopping long enough at the first stop sign), this attempt pained me more because it was on the same day I had received one of these strains of bad news. I think it was the day I was told I could not be enrolled at HCC.
Back in school, a temptation was brewing.
My classes went well for the most part. I told myself I would not labor my brain with anything Science-y at the moment, so I took a Business course, something I was innately passionate about. I knew the things I learned would directly apply to my life at that moment. I loved my professors and learned so much real world knowledge from them. So what was the temptation? Picture this: girl walks in to class with another girl (her sister). Girl gets added to my group by the professor. Girl gets told we have a group project going on and parts have already been shared (2 sections per person). I tell Girl what parts were available if each person drops one part and Girl denies her ability to work on the available parts. So Girl chooses to work on the parts that had already been worked on, one of which was my part and when I tell Girl that the part was due at the end of the class, Girl revolts. But…but…you chose these parts saying you absolutely couldn’t work on the other parts, not knowing that what you chose was due that day (Tuesday). The professor asked who the group leader was and the other really responsible girl wasn’t in class that day. I mentioned her name. I wasn’t going to put myself at the forefront of this drama but I also knew the other girl had done enough work to merit the position of a group leader. I also did not want to ever have a need to say “I have a degree in engineering and I have done group projects before in my undergrad…this is how we did it” because then, they would find out that I had a degree. I didn’t want that. We were all in a community college (for whatever reason) and we all wanted to learn. To effectively do that, laurels and any longing to rest on them had to be put aside. I relinquished all power and resisted any temptation that would make my voice heard (in a negative way) in that class. I even shied away from answering questions though my professor took a liking towards me and always gave me one responsibility or the other, for my group. I sunk into the background because this phase in my life was in essence, a test and I was not going to let a non-challant group member take my blessing away.
I’ll tell you what happened to this student and her sister.
It was not long before their trouble spread to the knowledge of the entire class. The little sister was good and came to class, did her work. The big sister also did her work but showed up to class irregularly. The bigger one never allowed the little one take charge of her life. She spoke on her behalf every time and basically gave her orders. Our professor sent out an email, warning students of absences before the final presentation. They did not comply. One day, they stormed into class halfway through and the older one told the teacher (from the door) “I want to see you” or “Can we see you outside?”. The class stopped. Minutes later, our teacher walked back into class a little infuriated – the girls had brought their dad and tried to create a case against the professor who dropped them from the class with good reason. So you see, my God had again helped me triumph over that temptation. This girl tried to create a case with me and where did she end up?
I got an A in the class as my group had the best presentation, though we were terribly nervous. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t hidden from the pictures taken that day after the presentation. Like a human that I am, I was somewhat embarrassed that I ended up in a community college, but I knew I was going to have a testimony. I just didn’t want the pictures to get out and have people asking “what are you doing there?” before my testimony was complete. The last thing I wanted at that time was to start explaining my story to everyone.
Throughout the duration of my classes at HCC, I kept a low profile, so low that in my marketing class, when asked what my business idea was and I said “styling”, my professor and classmates looked at me in disbelief and added that judging from the way I dressed to class, I did not look like a stylist. Ha! What have you been told about judging a book by its cover?
I presented my website (the then www.styledbymemkoh.com now just www.memkoh.com) as my final project and hurriedly scrolled past my “About” page because it had my degree on there. I still hope no one saw it. In all, they loved my work and I loved the content of the class even more. This particular class felt like an hour and a half of soul searching to help you be a better marketer for your business. And we were an all-ladies class so it felt like a little bond of women striving for something better, together, being open to constructive criticism and generally helping each other with our business ideas. Our professor was awesome and till this day remains the only person in that community college who knew why I was there and even wrote me a letter of recommendation for Rice University.
But what happened to the third class I was supposed to take? It was slated to start a couple of weeks into the term. Community colleges have shorter terms, labeled as “First Eight Weeks / Second Six Weeks” and so on. It’s a little confusing. I had lost track of the weeks and now that I think about it, I think it’s possibly because I had missed the first week of classes so my count was off by a week. Yes, that explains it because a week after that third class started, I created a reminder on my phone to check the status of the class. On impulse, I proceeded to check my email. The professor had emailed me, saying that he was going to drop me. I sat there in my other class, confused. Every day was a race and I was so fed up of running. I responded to the professor. I apologized and told him that I would catch up with the work and hand in all asssignments by the end of that week but it was too late. He removed me from the class and never responded to my second email where I told him that losing his class would affect my visa status.
Then came the next set of races – keeping my visa in status…again! It was 2 weeks to the end of the program and I was hoping I could somehow get by. Wrong! I got a voicemail from the HCC Advisors on a Thursday, then an email the next day. It sounded urgent. Of course, it was urgent! I was now below the full time hours. That Friday, I went to the advisor’s office and she told me a student had just left with the same issue. I had only one option - enroll at a “nearby” community college. She called it a concurrent enrolment.
I still remember how I stopped to put $10 gas in my car. It was the last money I had. Right before I left, I went online to check what time that school closed on Friday (5pm), since HCC closed earlier; I didn’t want to drive down in vain. As I approached the school, I felt something was off. I slowed down and asked some workers where the admissions building was and I was directed accordingly with the extra words “An electricity pole just fell some minutes ago so we are out of power. I doubt they’ll be able to help you much”. So my 45-minute drive to this school was in vain after all. I didn’t give up. I drove to the admissions office and truly saw people filing out of the buildings nearby. I thought to myself “should I go in or just go back home? But did I really drive down here in vain?” I looked up and saw a woman walking towards me and I asked her if the admissions office was still open. She said they were, but confirmed what the man had told me: “no electricity”. Disappointed, I started getting into my car and complained aloud “and I came all the way from Houston”. She heard me and told me to rush in so I thanked her, ran in and spoke to one of the admissions officers. I obviously knew she couldn’t do anything without a computer and she confirmed that, but speaking to her that day helped because when I went back on Monday, she was able to refer me to the right parties and I got registered for class. I was worried that I will have to drive 45 minutes for the class, but it turned out to be online. So after I completed the other 2 classes, I took this one. The day I had my final exams, I received yet another visa status threat. HCC told me that if they did not receive my transcript from this other school, ACC, I would lose my status. I told the advisor that I had just written a final and I could email in my grades after they get posted. He said that will not suffice, that a transcript was needed immediately to verify my status. I had gotten a bit comfortable but it was clearly time to run some more. After getting that squared out, it was time to face my Fall admissions squarely.
In March or April, I had applied to Rice University for their Bioengineering Masters program. Because the school was so close to me, I decided to drive down there a couple of times to meet with their graduate advisor. I wanted to find out about the program and see exactly why it was right for me, not just because it was “Rice”. Granted, I had applied there before for my undergrad and the previous year for a graduate program and got denied twice. But I was in Houston now and I was curious to find out why I was so drawn to their program. Meeting after meeting, laced with a heartfelt discussion with the advisor about my entire predicament and how my experience at Rice can bolster me in the right direction, I walked out with hope. I was entirely hopeful that Rice University would be the answer to my unanswered prayers. One day, I attended a Bioengineering PhD student’s defense just to see how that process was like but mostly to have first dibs on what the faculty was like. After the defense, I hung around for a bit, talked to other students in the presenting student’s lab, exchanged contact and dropped in again to see the advisor. She told me the decisions would be out on May 5th. How could I forget? I checked my emails religiously. Nothing. So I emailed her again a couple of times, being careful to not sound obnoxiously demanding, but just a student that was heavily worried and entirely uncertain about her future. Each time, she gave me a date that was about 2 weeks away. On June 1st, I decided to visit her office in person. It was around noon. She told me something happened to the admissions chair that slowed down the decision process but that I should check my email around 5pm that day. I checked around 6 and guess what? My denial had been sent at 11am that day and when I met with her, she claimed she had no idea of what the admission decision was. Good Lord! I was so…insert any word here that you think describes my anguish perfectly.
Curious to know what I could do better for other schools I planned to scout out, I emailed this same admissions lady (in hindsight, I shouldn’t have. But I was curious. I wanted to do better). I asked her what was wrong with my application, whether it was the fact that I opened up and addressed the issue with UH and how my experience at Houston Community College shaped me. She did not respond. I emailed again and this time, her response was that robot-sounding general response that was already on my admissions letter. I was taken aback. I had opened up to this woman, not for pity, but because I wanted to have a strong case for the admissions committee when they review my application. I just wanted to know that I was doing the right thing for once and I needed guidance. The fact that this woman essentially “played” me hurt. It hurt and it stung even more because June 1st was the admissions deadline that most schools held for International Students. For your reference, Fall term admissions closes December 31st, January 1st and January 15th. My termination from the UH program happened way after these dates, putting me in a bad position already. After this June 1st deadline, my chances of finding a good program to apply to were slim. Or were they? P.s. June 1st is the priority deadline for international students to apply.