It was like a scene from a bad coming-of-age movie. Young woman on the steps of a towering building, reduced to a puddle of snot and tears. With shaking hands, she rings her mum to tell her that her visa has been rejected. And with it, her life forever changed.
It was a possibility I had never even considered. I had done all the hard bits, sitting high school exams and completing a UCAS application from my native Guatemala. A decent GPA and above-average test scores had secured me a place at five different universities in the UK. It wasn’t until immigration officials got in touch that I realised I’d need to apply for a visa in order to study in the country.
The nearest British embassy to do this from was in Bogotá, Colombia – a three-hour flight away. When the time came to go, I was apprehensive, but only because I was going to miss my then-boyfriend and a couple of nights out. Not for a second did I think that filing a UK student visa application was anything other than a formality.
I had been to Bogotá several times before but never to the clinical, fluorescent halls of the British embassy. I dismissed the sense of dread that began eating away at me as nerves. I filed my express “Tier Four” visa application and left. After that, I just had to play the waiting game.
I tried to kill time in a number of different ways. I went for a run, but Bogotá stands a crippling 1,640 metres higher than Guatemala City, so the altitude made it impossible. I downloaded Duolingo, worked out alongside a pilates instructor on YouTube, and painted my nails over and over. But I always ended up refreshing my inbox, willing an email to come through.
And then it finally did. It failed to include the verdict, but I didn’t worry about that. My passport was ready to pick up. I texted my boyfriend to let him know I’d be home soon.
Back at the embassy, I sat across from an immigration official protected by a thick glass window. He was holding a black folder containing all of my paperwork: bank statements, high school transcripts, passport, birth certificate. And the rejection of my visa application.
He explained that it was due to insufficient funds, which seemed ridiculous to me. My family had money: my dad was chief creative officer of his own advertising agency and we owned our house. I tried to explain this to the man who had just handed me my life back in a plastic folder. I’m not sure when I started crying, or at which point he finally walked away. The decision was final.
So, there I was. On the steps of the embassy, an awkward puddle of emotion and tears. A security guard eventually hobbled over. I reached my hand out expecting a tissue, but was instead kindly asked to leave the premises. I was scaring people.
The visa rejection sent me into one of the worst bouts of depression I’ve ever experienced. All of my hard work, my parents’ hard work – it all meant nothing. I was left with a horrible feeling of not-enoughness.
I wanted to give up on my dream of studying in the UK but two weeks after my rejection and three weeks before my course was scheduled to start, my mum sat me down. “This isn’t where you give up,” she said. We sorted out the right paperwork, ran it past a lawyer and I made the journey back to the embassy in Bogotá.
This time, there was no running, pilates or Duolingo. I reapplied for my visa and waited. Until I got the email again. This time, a different man was holding my folder. This time, my visa was stamped onto my passport. The piece of paper that allowed me a new life in the UK was there, but the joy and relief I had associated with getting my visa were not.
I have applied for a British visa twice more since – both times successfully. But that first rejection has left me with a crippling paranoia. It reminds me that my life in this country has an expiration date, and that some see me as an immigration case file rather than a person. I don’t think my visa anxiety will ever really go away. It will always take me back to being 17, crying on the steps.