On being a third-class student at ETH

Image from qz.com

Recently, I started reading the book “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah and as I read more, I got more familiar with the history of South Africa, especially apartheid. And I realized, peculiar similarities between apartheid laws and some laws I have faced recently. Apartheid was the system that divided people between different colors. You could be, white, colored, black, Indian, etc. And people with different colors couldn’t live together, marry each other, etc. The brilliance of the system was that different groups of people hated each other for different reasons and enabled the government to control them. Colored people hated black because they taught that’s why they are kept back and can’t be recognized as a first-class citizen. Black people hated whites because of their extra rights…. As I was reading about apartheid, I sensed that this feeling is not so unfamiliar to me. I have felt it more as I have started living in another country.

I heard a lot about it from other people that you will feel like a second-class citizen in Europe. And I thought, I could handle it and it’s not a big deal. I still think that it’s not a big deal, but still, a sad one. I knew that I couldn’t open a bank account in UBS or CreditSuise because of my nationality but I tried anyway. There was an “oh” moment for the bank teller when he/she saw my passport and after a few minutes of phone checks and calls, they would say that they can not open a bank account for me. It was heartwarming for me to sense real sadness in their voice, but still, I didn’t have a bank account. What really made me sad that day was that my plan B option failed as well. I thought, ZKB is just a local bank and there would be no problem opening an account there but the same happened there too. I tried to put a smile on my face when they told me the sad news but I couldn’t do it with ZKB, I was sad that I had to search for hours finding a bank that will open an account for me. That was one of the first moments I felt I am not a first-class citizen in Switzerland. So, maybe just a second-class citizen, like all the other 26% of foreigners who live in Switzerland. Unfortunately no.

I didn’t have any funding for my master's program so I had to look for a job. As a non-EU student, I had to get a work permit and I couldn’t work outside of ETH for the first 6 months according to the rules. These rules reduced my options but I found a nice position anyway. Then, it was the time to apply for summer internships, a chance to earn some money and cover my costs. According to ETH and Switzerland laws, it was basically impossible for me to do an internship inside Switzerland in my first year of master's. Internships in the US were too risky for me because of the current situation. Some of my friends found out they couldn’t enter the US to start their graduate studies right when they checked in at the airport; they found out that their visa was revoked. At least, I’m happy that Switzerland doesn’t play with foreign students' mental health like the US does. Anyway, my options for internships were mostly limited to Europe. Oh, I forgot to mention that the UK is not in the Schengen area, so I excluded the UK too because I already tried once to go for a conference there and they rejected my visa application. The most nerve-wracking part was (and still is) when I talked to other students; whenever they find out that I was an IOI gold medalist, their first response is “Oh, so you can get any job you want”. And then I responded about Iran sanctions and why I can’t. That’s the time when I feel the whole system is anything but a meritocracy. When I see that other students have opportunities that I can not have, not because of my intelligence, but because of my passport, that’s the point when I feel disconnected from them. That’s when I feel that they live in another world, with another difficulty level, with totally different concerns. While they are concerned about which company has more interesting projects for their internship, I should filter out companies that do not accept me because of my nationality, like IBM. And that’s how I found out there is also a third-class, which I belong to. I would consider European students as first-class, the non-EU students as second-class and myself as a third-class student. That’s because I was born in one of the few countries under the US sanctions.

All of these experiences made me feel different. It made me feel that my passport is way more important than my grades and my achievements. And these feelings of envy, wrath, injustice doesn’t make my life any easier. I am not saying that I made a mistake coming here and I’d rather return to my homeland. On the contrary, I believe my opportunities are way more here than in my homeland, but still, not equal to others. All I want to convey is that this is a fundamental problem with no easy solution. I will always be a third-class student/citizen even in the most neutral country in the world. I am not seeking empathy. I just wanted to share my perspective as a third-class student from my own world :)

Update:
I got a lot of feedback and found out some other students are now more concerned about applying to ETH. Trust me, it’s about your passport and not the destination.

Master student in computer science at ETH

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