Canceled concerts. Shuttered theaters. Performers out of work. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the arts, and no one knows when, or if, things will ever return to “normal.” And while everyone in the industry is struggling, artists from other countries are finding themselves in an even more vulnerable and challenging position.
World-class pianist EunAe Lee ’19 DMA had always known that she would have to apply for an EB-1 visa — granted to those who demonstrate extraordinary talents in their field — to stay in the U.S. after graduation. In order to avoid being deported to Korea, in the midst of a pandemic, she must now convince Immigration and Naturalization Service officials that her unique gifts at the piano are an asset to the music community here in the U.S.
Moving through the immigration system was already a long and arduous process before COVID, but now it’s even more difficult. Lee’s application for an EB-1 visa will be evaluated on 10 specific criteria, one of which requires an exhibition of her work — at a time when in-person concerts are impossible.
“[Before the pandemic], I had concerts lined up for last summer,” Lee says. “My plan was to go to Italy and China and also perform across the U.S., which would have made the application easier because it requires as many concerts as possible and concerts lined up in the future. I couldn’t do those performances in person after all, and many of them got canceled. Now all musicians are using social media as their concert stage.”
Lee is not alone in her plight. Countless others — musicians, scientists, artists and more — also have to obtain an EB-1 visa to continue their careers in the U.S. Even though many, like Lee, have spent years, if not decades, in this country.
“I grew up here. I got all my education here,” says Lee, who has lived in the U.S. since 2004. “I really want to remain here and continue to share my skills. I would like to perform and help younger musicians.”
A critically acclaimed classical pianist whose training began at 9 years old, Lee has been widely recognized across the globe. She has worked with renowned pianists like Northwestern music professor James Giles. Lee has received awards including the Bärenreiter Urtext Prize and the Alice Rosnet Prize, and in 2017 she was one of 30 finalists at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
“EunAe is one of the more unique talents that we’ve had at Northwestern since I’ve been here,” says Giles. “She projects authenticity, and she has an uncommon ability to get inside every piece of music she performs.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Lee has shared her music exclusively on social media. She has also taught classes and collaborated with other musicians online. While Lee knows that audiences prefer in-person concerts, she’s hopeful that these online performances prove her talent in an extraordinary circumstance.
Lee’s work emphasizes more recent, modern compositions, which sets her apart from other classical pianists. She is also adept at “sight-reading,” which means she is able to perform an entire composition after just a brief scan of the sheet music. It’s a rare skill that has served her well, even in a pandemic: Just before performance spaces in the U.S. closed their doors, Lee was able to fill in at the last minute for performers who could no longer travel from overseas.
“I miss the interaction and feeling of togetherness,” Lee says of performing for a live audience. “I like to feel the moment of silence before I press the first note. I can feel that everyone is focused and looking forward to my performance.”
Recently married and living in Boston while her husband earns his PhD in materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lee is working with an immigration attorney and trying to stay positive. Once her paperwork for the EB-1 visa is filed, Lee must wait up to six months for a response. If she is granted an EB-1 visa, Lee will then have to apply for a green card, which could take up to two years.
Once the green card application is filed, her attorney explains, Lee can apply to work and travel internationally, which could take an additional five to eight months and expires after one year.
Meanwhile, Lee has in-person concerts booked for 2021 in the U.S., but she knows those could be canceled or rescheduled. “If things don’t get better, every musician has to accept that,” Lee says. “Nothing is guaranteed.”