About an hour before their DukeEngage programs in India were due to be cancelled last Wednesday, students and staff received good news—their visas had finally been approved and the programs would proceed.
The sudden news of the approvals came after two postponements to the DukeEngage programs in Kochi and Ahmedabad and relieved weeks-long worries among participants that the programs would be cancelled after the Indian government changed its visa application process.
"We were really slowly but also very quickly giving up—losing hope that we would receive our visas,” said junior Caroline Bay, who was originally in the Ahmedabad program. “Honestly, it still shocks me so much that the visas were approved.”
The two programs were postponed twice because participating students did not receive their visas by the original time they were supposed to leave for India. Program directors originally submitted employment visa requests by the required deadline in February. However, India introduced a new “intern” visa category on April 1 after the paperwork was submitted. The original requests were turned down, and DukeEngage staff submitted new visa paperwork in early May.
A month later, students still did not have their visas.
"We [had] no reason to believe that our visas were held up for any reason other than a possible back-log of that change,” Cathy Stamm, director of communications of DukeEngage, wrote in an email. “We received little communication from the Indian government during the process.”
Bay said that students were made aware of a potential issue at the end of DukeEngage Academy, which takes place in mid-May. When Bay went to pick up her stipend and visa at the end of the academy, she was handed a letter saying that the visas were not available, and therefore stipends could not be distributed.
“This was really unexpected," Bay said. "Throughout the academy no one communicated to us that we didn’t have our visas. The problem wasn’t communicated to us or any of the groups.”
Students received emails saying that visas would be expedited to them as soon as they were ready. Bay said that, at the time, she was not worried because she was not scheduled to leave for Ahmedabad until May 30, giving her around 20 days before her departure. It was only around May 27 when Bay started getting worried, and was soon notified about the first delay to the program.
Bay said she received another email from DukeEngage around June 4 explaining the situation. That's when students became more aware of the issues surrounding the visa requests. Talk of possible cancellations and finding alternate summer plans also began around this time.
Usually, DukeEngage policy states that if a student does not have a visa in hand by April 15, he or she cannot participate in DukeEngage, Stamm wrote. However, when staff has reason to believe the visas will be approved, extensions and delays to the program can be granted.
Senior Priya Alagesan, a member of DukeEngage-Kochi, noted the two delays were troublesome because her proposed start date was one of the earliest for DukeEngage programs. With the delays, her program's length would be cut shorter than the projected eight weeks.
After the delays, Stamm noted that DukeEngage set an internal deadline for visa approval—if the visas were not issued by Wednesday June 14, the programs in India would be cancelled.
“They couldn’t offer any of the participants any sort of back-up program nor could they guarantee us—this is what really got to me—a spot next year," Bay said. She added that the possibility of the programs' cancellations was especially worrisome because she had been planning on spending the summer in India since December.
With the internal deadline looming, Stamm said staff members at DukeEngage reached out to faculty and colleagues who may have had connections in the Indian government. Parents shared personal and professional connections, ideas and advice, Stamm added.
Students also collaborated with DukeEngage staff to organize a Twitter campaign. The official DukeEngage Twitter account tweeted at Sushma Swaraj, external affairs minister of India, to help approve the visas. Within a week, the tweet had received over 100 retweets.
The internal deadline, however, loomed close, and Bay said she doubted that the trip would take place. She said she reached out to students on the All Duke Facebook group and others outside of Duke, including a Sanford professor who had previously worked with the Indian government.
“The Indian government couldn’t get them within the first month—how could I know that we were going to get our visas by the 14th?” Bay said. “What’s an extra week going to do?”
Stamm added that DukeEngage staff were also planning on helping students find alternate summer plans if the programs were cancelled.
But just before 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Indian government approved the visas, and word spread quickly that the trip would go on. Bay decided to change her plans after the approvals and opted out of the program on June 14. She stated that her reasons for withdrawing were partially personal but also due to the delays to the programs.
However, other students stuck with the program. Alagesan, in particular, was relieved.
“If our programs were canceled, eligible students could apply again next year,” Alagesan wrote. ”As a rising senior, I would have been especially disappointed if the visas were not approved because I would not have been eligible to participate in DukeEngage next summer.”
Correction: This article was updated to reflect that Bay decided to change her plans after the approval of the visas, not before. The Chronicle regrets the error.