Seven St. Olaf students planned to do individualized research projects on the “Biology in South India” study abroad program this fall. Due to incorrect visas, however, Indian immigration officials stopped the group at the airport gate and they were sent back to the United States.

The group arrived in India on Aug. 27 at the Chennai International Airport. Jessica Baxter ’19, who flew separately from the others, arrived hours before and was waiting for the group to join her at their hostel. She quickly realized they would never arrive.

Upon reaching the immigration gate, the remaining six students were questioned regarding their visas. According to Eleanor Goodnow ’19, the first five students passed through the gates without issues, but “it seemed like the more of us that got through, the more they had questions.”

A different immigration official stepped up to review the visa of the last student in the group, Kayla Bilderback ’20. He stopped her at the gate and called over three more officers.

“They were all surrounding her,” Jenna Richter ’20 said. “We could see her getting visibly distressed as this was going on.”

Illegal work

“I was panicking,” Bilderback said. The immigration officers asked her the same questions as the other students, yet once they questioned her about her travel plans beyond Chennai, they became suspicious. The officers beckoned the rest of the group back to the gate to console the now crying Bilderback and assist her in answering questions.

“When we got there and we were questioned, they were saying the work we were doing was illegal – they were very specific about that – given the visas we were on,” Noah Foster ’20 said.

Eventually, the group got in contact with Jodi Malmgren, the director of International and Off-Campus Studies (IOS) at St. Olaf.

“When we got there and we were questioned, they were saying the work we were doing was illegal — they were very specific about that — given the visas we were on.” – Noah Foster ’20

Malmgren spoke on the phone with the immigration officers, advocating on the students’ behalf and explaining the reason behind their tourist visas.

“To qualify for a student visa in India, you have to be studying with an Indian university and they are not,” Malmgren said.

Malmgren expressed that because the students would be doing research with nongovernmental organizations or nonprofits in India, there is no visa category for which this program qualifies. But, according to Malmgren, nothing could be done to remedy the situation.

“This decision solely lies with Immigration authorities who decide this on the merits of each case,” wrote Anil Suri, the Indian Vice Consul of Chicago, in an email to the Manitou Messenger.

The students were told soon after Malmgren’s phone conversation that they would not be allowed through the gates.

Malmgren expressed her surprise at how the situation panned out.

“This is the first time ever, that I’m aware of, that we’ve had to cancel a program entirely because of visa concerns,” she said.

Stretching the truth

The IOS office instructed the group to be truthful but vague regarding the immigration officials’ questions, according to Foster. When the officials’ questions became more specific, however, the students found this task to be more challenging than anticipated.

“I think with all of us, there was a line in terms of how much we were willing to say that we were strictly tourists as opposed to other things,” Goodnow said. “So we pretty significantly stretched the truth in terms of where we were going.”

Goodnow admitted that she thought if their group said they were localized to the area of Chennai, India, they would have a better chance of getting through the gate.

“I tried to be as vague as I could,” she said.

Malmgren, upon learning that students felt like they were in a position of lying, disclosed that this was never her, or the IOS office’s, intent.

“Our goal was always for them to be truthful but vague,” Malmgren said. “And that isn’t a strategy that will work for us in the future, we’ve learned.”

The IOS office is planning on adjusting the program so they will not have these issues in the future. Malmgren has already reached out to Carleton and Gustavus – which have similar programs that send students on tourist visas – as well as the Associated Colleges of the Midwest to begin to work toward a program that qualifies for student visas.

Adjusting back

All the students expressed their appreciation for the College and Malmgren in their transition back. They explained that St. Olaf assisted them in scheduling classes, arranging housing and supporting them with future study abroad programs, many of which the students will take part in over Interim and next fall.

According to Malmgren, the College is also absorbing the costs of the trip. Moreover, if a student received a scholarship from a donor for the program, the College said they would match the given amount if students choose to go abroad in the future.

“The school held our hand the entire way from India to back home, and we needed that because it was stressful and overwhelming,” Foster said. Yet, Foster still struggled with the “mental shift” of being back on campus.

“You mentally prepared for being in India,” Foster said. “You said your goodbyes. Your mind isn’t on, ‘I’m going to be at school for the fall semester,’ so having to revert to that is a bit challenging,” he said.

Baxter, like many of the students on the trip, agreed.

“I just think it’s a really sad missed opportunity,” Baxter said. “And it’s hard to put the blame on anyone or anything. At this point, it’s like, okay, this happened for a reason. You just have to come to peace with it because there’s nothing you can do now.”