‘We are invisible’: Not eligible to vote, how international students watched Boston’s municipal election


Photo by Aubrey Odom on Unsplash

Elisabeth Hadjis and Emma Casali

Michelle Wu’s victory in Boston’s mayoral race may have been historic, but one demographic that wasn’t making their way to the polls was Boston’s international student community. As Bostonians were gearing up for the Nov. 2 municipal election last week, Northeastern University’s international students expressed mixed feelings toward the election. 

Foreign-born Boston residents make up a significant portion of the city’s population, at almost 29%. As non-citizens in the United States, international students are not eligible to vote in Massachusetts’ elections — although many wish they could. 

“A lot of international students, we have the mentality that we are invisible, because we know we do not vote,” said Hung Tran, a second-year student from Vietnam. “But we do get affected by the policies here.” 

For Tran, those policies include addressing the impact of climate change on Boston’s ecosystems. 

“I think whoever is geared toward environmental science and aims to address the coastal security of the Boston harbor would be quite good,” he said of the next mayor. 

Other students expressed concern for the city’s public transit options — a key component of now-mayor-elect Michelle Wu’s platform. 

Yefeng “Brian” Yao, a fourth-year student from China, hoped that whoever gets elected on Tuesday would work to update Boston’s subway system, making it safer for international students to use. 

“It’s a big problem, the infrastructure,” he said. “It’s not just that the train is old. I think they need to pay attention to regulations to increase the safety of subway stations.” The city’s subway system has recently come under scrutiny after a series of incidents that left several injured.

When it came to the candidates themselves, Northeastern’s international students shared an interest in Wu’s campaign. Miaoxuan “Derek” Ru, another fourth-year from China, saw Wu as a “really strong competitor,” and added that her background as an Asian American woman would make her more likely to consider the interests of internationals in Boston — something that Northeastern students feel is sorely missing in the city’s policies. 

Irish third-year students Katie Guinan and Emily Felton spoke about the awkward relationship between Boston and its international student community as an important issue for them in the election. 

“There’s a lot of international students here,” said Guinan, “so they bring a lot to the Boston area.” She believes that the city should better advocate for foreigners coming to study here, especially when it comes to helping them through the visa process. 

For Felton, it’s more about what comes after graduation. She wishes the city would do more to help students who relocate here find jobs in Boston once they get their degree. 

“We get the opportunity to study overseas and get to know a new culture, and then we’re shipped off again after a few years,” she said. “We’re not allowed to stay here and use the education we’ve been provided with.”

Although none of these students could cast a ballot on Tuesday – or in any of the state’s elections, for that matter – members of Northeastern’s international community have found other ways to get involved in politics. A first-year master’s student Prachi Storewala, for example, likes to use social media to stay engaged. 

“I think I’m very vocal on Twitter, so I post and raise my voice there,” she said. 

As Boston’s international student population continues to grow, finding alternative ways to engage in politics will remain the norm. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that many foreigners at Northeastern feel that they don’t matter to the city’s government. 

As Hung Tran put it, “The mentality that I see among international students is just, keep your head down and move along.”