And then you wait.
I waited patiently for 2 weeks and then wrote a polite email inquiring about my application. It turned out, the PolSci department had not approved something in the system (a tick in a form?) which was the reason the process had stopped . The department meanwhile thought they have done everything and the problem is at IPO. Few days at the beginning of August I spent forwarding emails in between both departments, as it seemed the only way to get their attention amidst their other task . Which is understandable, if you ask me. UMass had (before COVID) about several thousand international students, each year somewhere between 350-550 undergraduate international students are starting their studies at UMass Amherst. Less graduate students and scholars of course, and also COVID has made its amends, but midsummer most likely is the hot season for the staff.
And then, at one sunny afternoon, DHL courier was at my doorstep, carrying an envelope with golden-valued DS-2019 form.
This form gave me the rights to apply for J-1 visa. In Latvia the visa application should be filled on the special website (hosted by US embassy), whereby all the relevant information, including photo and mentioned DS-2019 should be uploaded. At the same page it is possible to pay the visa fee (160 USD). After the documents are submitted, the website offers to schedule a visa interview. The first available date the website offered was at the end of November… The process is, that you should take this date and then plead for emergency rescheduling. I did that, providing proof that my program starts at the end of September. I got visa interview date next week.
The visa interview did not differ much to other interviews, two significant details though: first, research scholars have to pay SEVIS fee (220 USD) (payable at the internet site) to the US government at least three days prior to the interview, and second, one should already schedule (pay) for the courier (velokurjers), who will deliver your passport from the embassy to your address.
So in few days time the bicycle-courier delivered a slightly wet envelope (it was raining), containing my passport (with visa!) and a letter from embassy confirming my NIE status. Hallelujah!
Finding flight was comparatively easy. My compliments to KLM - I initially booked flight with them, but had to change the date. They returned all the money without a fuss in few weeks time.
Hallways of Helsinki airport terminal 2 are empty. I see only one crowd, there are even people in white disposable protective-suits, Asian origin (I’m not good at recognizing different nationalities). I already brace myself for full flight but it turns out that the crowd is waiting for boarding at gate 45 while flight to JFK is at 44. I have passed it without noticing as there is no crowd around.
My NIE is explored here in depth. Test proof (EGL printout about saliva test) is ok. I have been admitted.
Flight to JFK is empty. Literally empty. From 360 seats occupied are only around 60. Our saloon has only 6 occupants. Flight attendants are at our disposal all the time, happy to chat, happy to have passengers. We, passengers also feel somehow different- chatting, exchanging stories. At least - me and the woman sitting two rows behind, traveling back to the USA, having visited her parents in Saint Petersburg.
The only advantage of having “dinner” on board is that mask mandate is lifted during meal. The food does not interest me in slightest (something that looks like tofu in suspicious sauce and cabbage salad without any dressing, and a roll. Luckily I’m not hungry. I take time to savor my coffee and coke and mask-free minutes.
Ps. Netflix download function is cool. And guilt-free binge watching of your favorite series, sitting with your legs up across three seats is actually quite ok. I have seen worse.
The terminal is spooky. Almost empty, parts under construction. In the terminal (nor at arrivals, nor at departures) or outside it there are no benches. There are no cafes or bars, or diners. These could be COVID measures, to discourage people from lingering in the terminal. But I have to linger here as my ride has been delayed by heavy traffic jams. These two hours maybe are the most difficult ones at this trip, as I already have relaxed, adrenalin has left my body and I feel each and every of 24 hours spent without a sleep. But all is well that ends well. My ride arrives, I even get a steak-dinner, and very very late in the night I arrive back in the college town I left 18 months ago: Amherst, Massachusetts.