Overcoming struggle, facing opportunity and challenging opposition

By Michelle Li

It was an anxious afternoon in 2018 as Sheel Patel did his routine walk home from the bus stop in quiet suburbia, Morrisville, NC. He had been checking the mailbox every day for the past few weeks.

At the time, Patel was a senior at Panther Creek High School with a dream to be a diplomat and entrepreneur. As college acceptance letters kept coming in, one fear kept looming over him. Without a green card, the proper paperwork or a visa, attending college was almost impossible. But, he risked it all and had applied anyway.

Sifting through the mail, there it was—his family’s long-awaited green cards.

“I opened the mail and started to cry tears of joy,” Patel recalled. “I think I went into my room and cried for a week or so,” He had received an acceptance letter to UNC-Chapel Hill a few days prior.

Sheel Patel was going to college.

An outward and inward journey

Patel, 19, has been on the move since he was 1 year old 1. He is an Indian-Canadian-American immigrant and with that, comes a blend of culture, identity and inevitable crises. Sheel’s English is a culmination of learning from other Indian immigrants, the Canadian accent and American slang. “I had just moved to Houston, Texas from Ohio and was talking about hail. With my accent, everyone in class was shocked because they thought I was casually bringing up hell,” said Patel.

Patel was born in Dahod a city in Gujarat, India. to Rinkal and Ashish Patel. One year later, the Patels immigrated from Gujarat to Brampton in Toronto, Canada. They moved into the basement of an acquaintance’s’ home and tried to make a life there. Patel remembers placing murtis of Hindu gods in the living room, walking around the fixtures seven times with his best girl friend. It is symbolic of marriage and a fond memory of his time in Canada. His parents, struggling to find work, packed up their bags and crossed borders once more, to America.

Now a sophomore at UNC-CH, Sheel is majoring in business and public policy.

From the moment his parents saved enough money to purchase Country Store Foods in South Webster, Ohio, Sheel knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. “It was a big accomplishment,” Patel said. “The store was the town’s mini Walmart. My parents were so happy.” Patel reflected on the steps his parents took to get to where they were: “When we first immigrated to America, my mom was working two jobs at Burger King and Tim Hortons.” The stark lifestyle difference for the Patel family inspires Sheel to keep pushing.

“There’s never been a place where I fully fit in because I am a bucket of contradictions,” Patel said. “I’m Indian, but I’m also Canadian and American. I grew up in America, but I’m not a citizen. I’m gay, but I’m not white, which seems like the blanket in the gay community. I’m Hindu, but I’m not necessarily theistic.”

Tyler Dunston, Sheel’s college roommate, said, “I think that as college progresses, he’s immersed himself more in his Indian and Gujarati identity. In America, there are a lot of things that we just inherently assume everyone knows. I know he just tried coleslaw in the past year, and it did surprise me when I found out he didn’t know what it was beforehand. I think it’s admirable and interesting to see someone gain a grounding in a non-western-centric identity while also still being able to engage in certain aspects of American culture.”

Not only has the college opportunity allowed Sheel to explore his Gujarati identity, but it has also allowed him to “explore his sexuality more,” Dunston added.

Patel was in second grade when he realized another facet of the many identities he holds that he must wrestle with.

In the back of the classroom sat a dark, curly-haired Sheel and his friend Ethan. Moving images from “Peanuts” filled the screen in the front of the room. Almost everyone had their eyes transfixed on Charlie Brown’s next move. Everyone but Sheel. Instead, he was mesmerized by Ethan’s soft smile. Without warning, he leaned over and planted a small kiss on Ethan’s cheek. Embarrassed and filled with guilt, he handed Ethan three Crayola markers as a peace offering and said to never bring this kiss up to anyone, not their friends or family, let alone the teacher.

It was the day before Valentine’s Day when Patel, now 13, came out to his father through a YouTube video titled “Your Son is Gay”. Anticipating his father would be open-minded, the response of his father’s threats to send him to boarding school took Patel by surprise.

“I immediately retracted my coming out after I saw my father was angry. I just started laughing and saying, ‘I got you, it’s a prank!’ and that I had a crush on a girl in class,” said Patel.

It was not until high school that Patel bravely came to terms with his sexuality: “My dad asked me ‘Are you, are you gay?’…they both started hysterically crying,” Patel said. “But I had hardened up at that point.”

Patel’s parents have slowly accepted his coming out saying, “My dad tolerates it now, but my mom is eons ahead of where she was to the point where we are going to see a Bollywood movie together that features a gay couple.”

What’s next?

The challenges did not end there.

Dev Patel, Sheel’s younger brother, remembers the day his family received their green cards. It had been a 14-year wait: “We had finally done it. We had gotten our green cards. Sheel was probably the happiest as he has always been passionate about politics and could apply for citizenship in a mere four or five years, so he could vote,” Dev Patel said.

Those five years are the supposed five years it will take Sheel Patel to gain his American citizenship. But, with Patel’s hopes of going abroad through the GLOBE Program at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-CH, his path to citizenship could be greatly impacted. “I’m not sure what will happen,” said Patel, “I will meet with a lawyer soon.”

However, Dev is not worried. He believes Sheel has “learned to conquer his problems.”

When asked how Sheel has made the best of his legal situation, Patel’s longtime friend Arya Kode said that “Sheel has often taken his feelings on not having a U.S. citizenship and funneled them towards active social work because he knows he can’t do normal civic things like vote.” Sheel and Kode have known each other since they attended middle school together and are in the same fraternity at UNC-CH.

Regardless, Sheel is thankful for his experiences and for his parents. For Patel, holding many identities pushes him to exist out of the boundaries, revealing inherent uniqueness and perspectives that nobody can match. “It’s almost better that way,” he said.

Edited By Caleb Schmidt