This column will not examine the legality of the so-called travel-ban executive order, and I will not discuss its policy implications. Rather, I want to offer my personal story. I think it will be self-explanatory.
Back in 1977, I received my mathematics degree from the University of Milano in Italy. I absolutely wanted to become a mathematician, and since at that time the universities in Italy did not offer doctoral programs, I decided to try to come to the United States, the greatest country in the world for a mathematician.
I had to secure admission to an American university, I had to find financial resources, and I had to secure a visa. The entire project took almost a year. I applied to the University of Maryland (which had a fantastic department of mathematics, and where a friend of mine had gone before), I applied to the Italian government for a very competitive scholarship, I took an impossibly difficult test (at least that’s how it appeared to me) designed to establish that I knew enough English to succeed in a university setting, and I waited.
I passed the test – barely. The results were sent to Maryland, together with my academic qualifications, and after a few months of anxiety I received the news that I had been admitted to a Ph.D. program at the College Park campus, and that I had received, as well, a generous assistantship of $400 per month (exciting, considering that my rent was going to be $212 per month).
That’s when I finally applied for a visa at the U.S. Consulate in Milano. I had to present all my academic credentials and have them translated by a notary (a very expensive proposition that my mother funded). I provided the admission letter from Maryland, and I was interviewed. Finally – it was now spring – I received the visa, in a sealed envelope that only the border control officer was entitled to open.
I bought a plane ticket for Washington D.C., and on Aug. 9, 1978, I took the plunge.
After a long flight on what seemed to me to be a gigantic airplane (a 747), I landed at my port of entry, JFK Airport in New York. I was tired, confused and not sure what to expect. I gave my passport to the officer; he opened it, looked at me, then opened the sealed envelope and carefully read the complicated form (called an I-20). He looked up something in a book, then stamped my passport and the form, and returned everything to me.
He then said something I did not understand. I asked him to repeat it … twice. Finally, he leaned toward me and, very slowly, said, “Welcome to America.”
Now I am an American citizen and the president of Chapman University. Thank you, America.