Independent student pushes through paperwork
Happie Datt doesn’t believe in looking back. “I’m looking forward all the time. I don’t believe in what ifs,” she says repeatedly, a mantra that has guided her ever since crossing the tarmac in Delhi and boarding her first commercial flight bound for the United States.
As a graduate student at the University of Florida, Datt entered on an F-1 student visa, which entitled her to study, but not work, as a full-time student.
“I did work off-campus illegally,” she admits, waitressing at an Italian restaurant for six weeks to earn enough money to attend a friend’s wedding. The practice, she thinks, was fairly commonplace. When applications or other paperwork asked for her social security number, Datt remembers simply writing 999 99 9999.
“I don’t remember if it was official or artificial,” she says, not recalling where she learned what to write in lieu of a government-assigned nine-digit number.
After graduation, “some of my Indian friends said [I] should apply for a green card,” Datt says, allowing her to work legally and to obtain a more convincing series of digits for those nine blank boxes on every application. At that point, Datt still intended to return home to India and instead decided to apply for labor certification as many of her friends did. The “stamp,” as Datt calls it, entitled one to work for 18 months after graduation.
But as Datt graduated in 1972, amid a national recession and oil crises, temporary work visas were harder to come by. Immigration services replied, telling Datt she needed a job offer before she would be granted the “stamp.” Of course, every company she interviewed with required the stamp before giving the job offer. “I got stuck in that bureaucracy, paperwork limbo,” she says, remembering her frustration.
But instead of dejectedly returning home, Datt decided upon a new approach. “To hell with all these people,” she thought. “I’ll do a business degree and create my own business.” Datt renewed her student visa, this time earning an MBA from Oregon State University.
“If someone tells me you can’t do something, I automatically will do it. You don’t want me to stay here, I will stay here,” she says.
While working for her MBA, Datt dropped any intentions she once had of returning home. She applied for her green card while studying at Oregon State, and immediately began to work towards citizenship after graduating. For Datt, applying for citizenship was in no way turning her back on her home country. It was instead ratifying a commitment she had already made when moving to the United States.
“If I want to live in this country, I want to live it fully, not half way there,” she says, comparing living on a green card to “converting to Christianity without being baptized.” Datt received her citizenship, making her “conversion” from a young student with plans of a future in India to a woman making her way in a new country, complete.
“Now, when I talk about my country, I don’t talk about India. I talk about the U.S.”