How an unlikely call from a university official rescued my academic career

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In 2001, two years after I left Iran to join my brother in the United States, I started my undergraduate program at the University of Washington in Seattle, studying Earth sciences. To slash tuition costs, I had raced through two years’ worth of work in one year of community college, and was planning to keep up the same pace at university. With a maximum possible course load of 18 credits, equivalent to 54 hours of work per week, I dived into my first quarter.

But one week into the programme, my financial situation suddenly changed, triggering a race to secure funds wherever I could find them. Being an Iranian international student, this quickly became a complicated and high-stakes problem for me.

The tuition fee is a painful burden, especially for international students, who at the University of Washington pay around three times more than in-state residents — a disparity that is not unusual in the United States. For my first quarter, I was asked to cough up about US$4,400 to cover tuition (this amount has tripled since then).

The odds were stacked against me. Almost all scholarships were open only to US citizens or people with permanent residency (green-card holders), and those that were more inclusive provided barely enough funds to cover the cost of textbooks. The government provided loans to US students in situations similar to mine, but that money wasn’t available to me. Getting a job was also useless because of my visa; I could legally work for no more than 20 hours a week, and only on campus. Campus jobs typically paid minimum wage, just below $7 an hour in 2001: too little to cover the bill. Neither did my student visa allow me to defer my enrolment or study part-time. The situation was grim.

Desperate calls

I left no stone unturned and kept applying to small scholarship funds that were available to me. The deadline to pay (about halfway through the quarter) was approaching, and my rejection pile was growing. Dropping out and returning to Iran began to look like a logical — and perhaps the only available — decision. I continued going to classes as if the fee had been paid. In between classes, I submitted applications, made desperate phone calls to the university’s office of student financial aid, and attended meetings with bank officials that resulted in nothing except, sometimes, tears.

It was one week before the deadline to pay, and I had failed to secure the $4,400. I became angry rather than upset. I asked myself why receiving a university education should cost this much. How could the university expect me to pay without any real help? I wrote a letter to the university president’s office, demanding not money but an explanation to my unanswered questions. I attached all the rejection letters to show how limiting my financial options were, and how hard I had tried to find a way. My time fighting for an education at the university was over. I felt it was now their turn to fight for me.

Soon after dropping off my big yellow envelope of rejections, I got a call. It was the vice-provost for student life. He wanted to see me. At his office, I spotted my pile of rejection letters, opened and leafed through. He asked if I was still going to my classes. I nodded. “Good, keep going to them,” he said. He waived my tuition fees for one academic year — a decision I didn’t know was possible. And I cried with relief.

The waiver paid the bill for one year, and I am forever thankful. It bought me the time I needed to figure out my next steps. During this period, I secured several grants and found an amazing position with the university’s Pipeline Project, an outreach programme that connects its undergraduates with local schools through tutoring. The skills I gained continue to shape my career. Now, I am a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tübingen in Germany, where I carry out geohazards research and outreach activities that connect the scientific community with those at risk from natural hazards.

Every scientist has a folder of rejection letters, and that’s OK. They can show up at any time during our careers, and can be disheartening at first. But these rejections are our cumulative body of evidence for perseverance, a trait we need for making progress in science. They have the potential to push us forward to the next step, whatever that might be. For me, these letters (plus a bit of luck, determination and the goodwill of others) opened the door to an academic career in science.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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