domingo, 20 de junio de 2010

The road to grad school: GRE scores and the question

So I finally took the GRE and I didn’t get a nice result. I got a so-so score that will allow me to apply at least, and hopefully the rest of my credentials will grant me an admission offer from one of my choices (510 verbal, 460 quants if you are curious). I’m just glad it is over. Now I’m preparing all the paperwork requested to apply and we’ll just have to wait and see. If any university wants to reject me based only on my GRE scores, then I shouldn’t go to such place anyway.
I have a good life you know, I can’t complain. And this graduate school plans are only for making it better. But everyday I make any move towards that goal, I wonder if I’m going to be able to reach it at all.

Must people, when they apply to graduate school, they only worry about two obvious things: whether if they’re going to be accepted or not and if they are, how are they going to afford their education. I have the exact same questions and the exact same anxiety everyone in the world applying to grad school anywhere experiences. Am I good enough to be accepted? Do I have enough credentials or do I need to do something else to improve my chances? Do I need publications? Or a more relevant work experience? How do I compare to the other applicants? Am I competing against newly naïve graduates like me or against 30 year old experienced professionals? Or it is in the pool of applicant some genius with an out of average IQ, a 1600 combined GRE score, plus many extra curricula activities, two publications and a volunteer experience of three years in Sudan competing against… well… me? … And If against all odds I’m admitted, Can I get a scholarship? Are there any scholarships available for the program I want? If I don’t get a full scholarship, can I afford the first year at least with my savings?

Now add to all those questions another one. The one I think distinguish Venezuelans like me from the rest of the applicants. And is: Can I really go? In a country when rules and laws change so quickly that you can hardly catch up? In a country where they are now millions of reasons why you could end up in prison without being a criminal? In a country where inflation increases in the same amount as crime, can I really go to grad school abroad? In a country where the foreign currency is strictly controlled, can I really just take a plane with my boyfriend (who is also applying to grad school) and move somewhere else for a couple of years?

I have had this conversation many times and I can’t come up with an answer. The first trouble we have is – you guessed right – the foreign currency control. In a pill, we have a very weird control exchange system. On limited amounts, if you are a student you can have dollars at convenient price of 2,6 Bolívares Fuertes per dollar. But a lot of paper work is required to get those dollars and there is no guarantee of approval by CADIVI (the institution in charge), so really you can’t count on those. For traveling and buying things online you can have a very limited amount of dollars at the price of 4,3 Bolívares Fuertes per dollar. You also need a lot of crazy paperwork and a CADIVI approval in order to use them, so Venezuelans can’t just decide from one day to another to travel overseas. Any travel overseas must be planned carefully with a lot of anticipation and a lot of uncertainty because you never know if you are going to get the dollars and you need to buy your plane ticket in order to start the paperwork process. For online expenses one can only have 400 dollars a year, subjected – yet again – to CADIVI approval.

I have already spent 190 of those 400 dollars on my GRE and applications fees range from 50 to 75 dollars each. It’s pretty obvious why I can’t re-take the GRE: I have to choose. I can either re-take the GRE and send the applications next year or keep my scores and apply this year. I decided to keep my scores and apply this year and if I don’t get in, to do it all over again. But either way, it is a waste of time and I should be allowed to re-take my GRE and apply on the same year. With CADIVI dollars you can’t do that.

There’s a third “level” of control exchange that was launched recently to end with the parallel market but its subjected to the same levels of control that CADIVI dollars are, making it into what we call “CADIVI-to 3”. CADIVI-to 3’ dollars cost about 5 Bolívares Fuertes per dollar. I still don’t understand how this system works but in theory, as a citizen you can get as many as 6000 of them (but no more than 1000 each month) if you are 1) A student studying overseas, 2) If you have a relative overseas that needs your money to support itself and 3) If you have a medical condition which treatment can only be found abroad and 4) If you are traveling abroad. You have to prove you fill any of those three conditions, prove also that you are going to use the money for those purposes and prove that CADIVI dollars are not enough to satisfy your need. If I got it right you must have a bank account abroad which I don’t have.

There’s finally a fourth dollar for us, called the infamous black dollar. The black dollar it’s illegal, of course. And the only knowledge of its existence is enough to frighten the authorities. If I reveal here the exact cost of the black dollar, this site could be banned and closed by Venezuelan authorities. Still, you can find many sites that publish the black dollar price. Sometimes the government closes those sites and threatens its owners. But soon the sites are on the web again under new addresses and new names. One site in particular claims to be based in the United States, making it impossible for the government to ban them or to prosecute their owners. Google “La Lechuga verde” and you will find what you are expecting: that the black dollar is outrageous expensive compared to the CADIVI dollars I listed above. Either way, the black dollar is expensive, speculative, hard to get, and very risky. One could face prison for trading them.

If you are smart enough you should have notice that all CADIVI dollars conditions could fulfill many of the needs one might have for foreign currency (putting the limited amounts aside) except for one: to save. So when I ask the question: can I really go to grad school abroad? I’m thinking about me being unable to save my money in dollars in order to pay for it, or at least to pay a part, or to pay my living expenses. Each month, I carefully save more than half of my salary but its all in Bolivares and it seems that if I really manage to go, I will have to do it without a penny because I can’t trade my money to foreign currency. Plus, Inflation is high in this country, meaning that everyday that passes I’m losing a part of my savings since they are in Bolivares. There’s nothing I can do about it but to save as much as I can, then wait to get my admission offer and then get all the paperwork necessary praying to get the controlled dollars I need. If any paper is missing or it doesn’t convince them, I won’t get the dollars.

The second fear I have in regards of being able or not to go to grad school given the conditions I have in this country, is a more irrational one. It happens to me every time I’m about to achieve something important in my life; It happened when I was about to graduate both from high school and the university and it could happen now. It’s the fear of being in middle of a relevant political event that could stop me from going. With the government’ constant threats to the university, we all, more than once, feared that apocalyptic day when the government simply decided to close our university. So every year we requested for transcripts and carefully saved it “just in case”. Of course the government still threatens my university, but it hasn’t closed it yet, so our fear was totally unfounded. Yet, the moments of anxiety, fear, angst, and uncertainty were real enough to me.

Now, the demon inside me makes me imagine all kinds of apocalyptic situations that will prohibits me of going to graduate school such as the government forbidding me or people like me to leave the country unless we do this or that. I’m not putting examples here; I don’t feel in the need of giving my government and my very particular president more outrageous ideas of what they could do to restrict our freedom some more. The thing is that so far, my president has had many outrageous ideas and most of them have come to reality. In this country, under the rule of this so- called revolution, anything can be expected. Things change from one day to another. What once was good and comfortable now is ugly, imperialist, and forbidden. You never know who or what is going to fall into the hands (or more likely the mouth) of the president, changing its destiny for worse, without a warning. Everything can happen, tragedy specially included.

But after leaving the testing room with my so-so scores, I decided not to listen to those inner thoughts and questions every Venezuelan that wants to take an initiative, now has. I decided not to listen to my fears, real based or not and to the million “What If?” questions; which almost all carries terrible answers.

What if I get accepted? What if my boyfriend does? What if, better, both get accepted? What if we, against all predictions, can actually go? What if we, in a year or more, just take a plane and fly away from here for a couple of years (to then come back in a more “resting” and “in peace will this event full Venezuela” mood)? What if life smiles at us (and admissions committees too)? Maybe we won’t get the dollars we need. Maybe we don’t get in. Maybe the government won’t let us go under any crazy reason; or maybe not. Maybe we receive a “Welcome to…” type acceptance letter. Maybe I can pack my bags and start the next chapter of my life, and what’s more important: of my love story.

In six months I’ll let you know if my scores were enough or not. If the unusual circumstances I discussed above prevent us from going or not. But, foremost, if we manage to win over our inner fears and paranoia to take that plane or if we stayed at home; asking ourselves the greatest question ever invented to freeze us in time: What if…?