9/11 from the Perspective of an International Graduate Student

This is another guest post from Victoria Scott, an art historian.


I moved from Vancouver, Canada, via St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Binghamton, New York, population 47,376, to begin doctoral studies in art history at SUNY Binghamton August 8, 2001. I had been accepted at Cambridge and the Courtauld, but only Binghamton had offered funding: a full tuition scholarship and an $8100 yearly stipend. Brand new to the American system, I did not even understand the difference between private and public schools at that point (private schools are almost nonexistent in Canada). Those American dollars took on huge proportions in my Canadian imagination, but the dream was quickly crushed when my fellow American students explained to me that there were only three or four grad classes on the schedule, and we were not allowed to take classes outside of the department. This was later confirmed by a meeting with the graduate student advisor who unceremoniously informed me that if I decided to take a class outside of the department my funding, which was renewed on a yearly basis (rather than the standard 4 year contract at other universities), would be cut.

I began to fantasize about escape but I had spent all my money to get there, and we did not get paid until the end of September, so I was locked in. The design of Binghamton’s campus was actually modeled on a prison compound. I quickly made friends with three other international students from Columbia, France, and Lebanon. We found the local bar where the other grad students were afraid to go and drank Rolling Rock, while I entertained everybody on the karaoke machine with my vast Frank Sinatra repertoire. Once we drove to Cornell and walked around asking people if it was Binghamton University. Americans made me feel stupid in ways Canadians rarely bothered to, but I had my first little office that I shared with Frenchie in the library, and I was learning all the time. I was the only woman in the incoming class, none of my fellow students were American. There was one Chinese student, one guy from Turkey, Frenchie, and one from Jordan.

We were given the opportunity to propose a summer school class; so I decided to organize something that would take advantage of the amazing art collection at the University Art Museum. I had made an appointment with the head curator there to discuss the possibilities on the morning of September 11. In the middle of the discussion she said to me that: “ . . . they have hit the Pentagon.” I honestly did not understand the significance of that statement. I knew there was an American government building called the Pentagon, but I had no idea what people did there, or what was going on at all exactly. I was, in contrast, very focused on the fact that despite the excellence of the art collection at Binghamton, they did not have a published catalogue, or even anything online, so there was no way one could actually see what they had, outside of getting a tour of their storage area. She cancelled the meeting, and bewildered, I wandered back out into the hall and into the main art history office where a gigantic television on a huge trolley had appeared (the whole campus was suddenly full of huge televisions on trolleys. I guess they were emergency televisions?). I stood there in the art history office and watched while the towers began to crumble.

From there, I went to Frenchie’s apartment and we spent the rest of the day watching the smoking towers on his small television. I cannot remember much about the immediate period afterward. Except that we could not drink at local bars anymore because our friend from Lebanon, who was actually a Maronite, kept getting mistaken for a Muslim. People would pick fights with him; so we drank Rolling Rock and sometimes sherry in our apartments for the rest of the school year. Sadly, it is a typical example of the racism sparked off by 9/11 that continues to mask itself as patriotism. It was particularly strong in Binghamton because it is so rural. Within days of the attack, every dilapidated house was decorated with an American Flag. My best friend at the time, who was also Canadian, was living in New York City, and our reactions could not have been more different. She felt like a victim; perhaps it was the event that turned her into an American citizen. In contrast, the prevailing mood at Binghamton made me feel like some sort of enemy. I was struck above all by the theatricality of the event itself, and the reaction of Americans: the melodrama and sentimentality. Frenchie and I decided to organize a graduate student conference called “The Politics of Imagination.” It cemented our budding romance.

One of the reasons Frenchie had decided to go to Binghamton was that they had agreed to a co-tutelle with a French school, which meant that he could do an international or joint PhD, with supervisors from both the Sorbonne and Binghamton. In addition, the department had offered him a generous summer grant, which meant he would not have to work. (I did not even question why I was not offered summer funding because I never even knew such a thing existed). After 9/11, however, both offers were withdrawn, and no reasons were provided. He quickly assessed his options and made exactly one application to the history department at Johns Hopkins University. In the spring, he was offered a four-year scholarship to study medieval history.

Meanwhile, a dark cloud settled permanently over the whole art history department, over the whole university really. But honestly, it was my first year teaching; so I didn’t have time to consider what was happening around me. In addition to my own classes as a graduate student, I was responsible for two sections of 25 students. We did not do anything special on the weekends. That was the only time we had to work on our papers. We watched the movie listings in the newspaper like hawks, waiting for something, anything decent to arrive. Meetings with other graduate students, beyond our little circle, were disappointing. One afternoon, a science student informed me with glee that their stipends were $12,000, $4000.00 greater that the arts students. As she told me, her eyes filled with pity. Obviously she deserved that extra $4000.00 because she was a scientist. Grad school was the first time in my life that I could not afford to buy books.

I cannot remember when the next incident occurred, but I think it was before Christmas. At some point, signs appeared in the library that the Federal government had asked for the library records of all the international students, but that the librarians were fighting it. I took a picture of one of the signs, but ominously when I got the roll back, the photographs were blank. Soon the signs in the library disappeared and we were told (by the librarians? I cannot remember) that the administration had finally handed over the records. We were working so hard that we did not have time to think too much about it. None of us had ever been faced with a similar situation. We did not want to lose our funding. We were foreigners. We did not want to leave the US, and we wanted to continue our studies. So we did not fight back. But then the flipside is that one becomes very aware that you are being watched: that somewhere there is a list of all the books you are looking at, and that it is being scrutinized for any un-American interests or activities. Which pretty much sucked for me, because I had come to Binghamton specifically to study the relationship between art and the student revolution in France in 1968.

The Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Association of Research Libraries know about what happened, but I have never seen or heard them addressing or acknowledging this history publicly. It must have happened all over the country, and I confidently speculate that at some point in time, the policy was extended to include the library records of American students. There needs to be a public discussion about what happened and how it constituted an extreme and egregious violation of the academic freedom of international students. We also need to open up debate about what is going on with students’ library records now.

I cannot remember there being a debate on campus about the administration’s handing over our library records to the Feds. I cannot remember anything about it in the student newspapers. I just remember our department feeling more and more like I always imagined the GDR must have been. Secretaries counting each sheet of paper, each photocopy, each paperclip, hoarding pens. Professors coming down on our politics, like anvils falling from the sky, as if it was any of their god damn business who we voted or did not vote for. I remember Frenchie complaining that on the final exam for the art history 101 class one of the students had written that the attack against the World Trade Towers was an attack against the Jewish Temple. She was right in a way, of course, but it painted a rather unfortunate picture of what she thought the Jewish Temple was.

In March, our conference finally happened. It was great to have such interesting students on campus from Harvard and Johns Hopkins. We sheepishly admitted that we had tricked them into coming. Summer rolled around, and I got an illegal job as a cashier in the roadside shop of a local orchard and bought a second-hand computer. It was the second computer I had ever owned. In September, Frenchie abandoned me and went to Johns Hopkins, but he would come back every second weekend to visit, clocking record speeds in the 1989 Buick that he had bought. I remember nothing about how the second year began. Except that in October a Canadian friend of mine, who had won a research grant in Germany, was chased around by spies there, until he had a nervous breakdown and had to be sent home by the Canadian government. I was telling my advisor about it and he turned to me and said: “You’re on a list, too, you know.”

Puzzled, I responded: “What kind of list?”

“Forget I ever said anything,” he replied. Strangely, even though I hardly believed it, and still have trouble believing it—seeing as I am an art historian—I never did forget about it. Like anyone could forget about something like that.


6 thoughts on “9/11 from the Perspective of an International Graduate Student

  1. With respect to library records, the post is incorrect to suggest that library organizations have not publicly opposed this. The Association of College and Research Libraries is part of the American Library Association (ALA), whose Office for Intellectual Freedom and Freedom to Read Foundation has been actively fighting the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act (sections 215 and 505 in the main) that authorized such searches in the form of National Security Letters (and also forbade public disclosure of them). For more information on ALA’s work on this issue go to http://www.ala.org/offices/oif/ifissues/usapatriotact.

    The nondisclosure provision was challenged successfully in court by a group of Connecticut librarians in the case of Doe v. Gonzalez, decided in 2005. (For more info go to http://www.ala.org/offices/oif/ifissues/usactlibrarians) However, that decision was reversed on appeal. However, in 2013 a U.S. district court judge in San Francisco ruled the provision unconstitutionally overbroad, although that ruling has been stayed pending a consolidated appeal by the justice department of several cases to the Ninth Circuit.

    For a good summary of the current status of the PATRIOT Act’s impact on intellectual freedom in libraries go to http://www.ila.org/the-usa-patriot-act-in-2012-what-it-currently-means-for-libraries

    Section 215, the most controversial provision of the act, is scheduled to expire on June 1 and Congress is currently debating its extension.

  2. Good, and thank you for your comments. What about the Association of Research Libraries? What is their position? I would still like to see a big fat public discussion about it in the press. I want to know what is going on right now, for example. And not just at state schools, I would also like to know what is happening at private schools. Is the NSA looking at students’ and faculties’ library records now? Inquiring minds want to know. And if so, isn’t that a ginormous violation of the academic freedom of a whole generation of scholars? Jussayin.

    I think the Department of Academic Freedom at AAUP will probably need a bigger budget. Maybe they could have a little bit of the NSA’s budget? Just an idea.

    • ARL has also worked, both on its own and with ALA, on this issue. For information go to http://www.arl.org/focus-areas/privacy-security-civil-liberties/usa-patriot-act#.VWVCP0YYHAE

      And, yes, our Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance could use more resources — as could all of AAUP. Our work is funded mainly through membership dues. Readers of this blog who are not members should consider joining at http://aaup.org/membership/join (shameless promotion, no?)

      • That’s interesting, but I am not really talking about a collection of links right!? People do not know what happened, and/or what is happening. They don’t know that their rights have been violated. That is the thing, *there has been no discussion*. In fact it kind of feels like discussion is verboten. I want a public discussion, with public statements from institutions like the ARL, about stuff like security letters being sent to universities, and what the means for academic freedom in the US. As far as I know there has been no open debate about it, among scholars, or in the press. If I am wrong, please correct me.

        “Our” department of academic freedom…hmmm, what a funny way to put it…I would become an AAUP member but I have only had one contract over the last two years for some reason. So, you know, groceries before academic freedom I guess.

        What I am most curious about, I have to say, is who put me on the list, what kind of list it is, and why. I asked my advisor, but he is a coward, and won’t tell me, even though he has tenure. I used to be an activist in Canada, so I can only assume that had something to do with it. Which would mean that the Canadian government put me on the list, and/or informed the American government, and then they informed Binghamton. I wonder how I could find out and who I would complain to about that exactly, so I can get off the list. In Canada, and also America.

        If anyone has any thoughts on this, I am all ears.


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