Shattered Dreams: How Visa Barriers Crushed My AWS re:Invent Experience and Career Growth

Nwachukwu Chibuike
10 min readOct 3, 2023

It is said that with the mind one can achieve anything, I beg to add that one’s geographic location also plays a “key” part in what can be achieved.

In this article, I invite you to join me on an exhilarating journey through the past year, starting in 2022, when I embarked on a quest to secure the prestigious AWS All Builders Welcome Grant. Explore my trials and triumphs, from successfully obtaining the grant to crafting an engaging presentation for AWS re:Invent Dev Chat which was accepted. Yet, intertwined with these accomplishments are my poignant experiences as a first-time traveler, venturing to participate in global conferences.

Walk alongside me as I recount the unexpected challenges I encountered, both within Africa and on the international stage, all stemming from unforeseen visa denials.

Before the Beginning

Every great journey starts with a spark of curiosity.

In early 2022, after recently joining the AWS Community Builders program, I heard whispers of the AWS All Builders Welcome(ABW) Grant in the vibrant conversations of our Slack channel.

Intrigued by the promise it held, I set out on a quest to unravel its secrets. My curiosity led me to connect with past recipients, and a simple search on LinkedIn opened the door to a wealth of knowledge. I reached out to those who had walked the path before me, seeking their invaluable wisdom and collecting every nugget of advice in anticipation of the forthcoming grant application.

Submitting my AWS ABW Grant application

When the call came announcing the opening of the grant applications, I didn’t rush to submit. I have a ritual: for any significant submission, I meticulously craft my responses. With a Google Doc as my canvas, I outlined my thoughts, honing and refining my answers daily until they resonated with precision and intent.

One question still stands out in my memory: it probed into my career aspirations and how attending re:Invent might further them. Without giving it much of a second thought and with a desire to reinforce the strength of my application, I penned down a “hope” — attending re:Invent could be a stepping stone toward achieving my dream of speaking at such an esteemed event.

With a final review and a deep breath, I clicked the “submit” button, signaling the conclusion of my part in this chapter, at least for the moment.”

Getting the AWS ABW Grant 2022

The anticipation that gripped us following our grant submissions was palpable. For over two months, we endured a drawn-out wait marked by numerous deadline extensions. The AWS CB Slack channels buzzed with anxiety, each of us refreshing our inboxes, speculating if perhaps a crucial email had eluded us.

As October began, whispers abounded that the results were imminent, and our collective anticipation reached a fever pitch. Amidst this fervor, I found a moment of calm, reviewing my notes for what was set to be my second AWS certification exam — the Developer Associate, scheduled for the very next morning at home. Yet, as I prepared to rest for the night, a final email check brought an unexpected revelation.

Grant mail

There it was, gleaming atop my inbox. Heart racing, I opened it, scarcely daring to hope. The reality stunned me: I had won the grant 🎉Overwhelmed with gratitude, I fell to my knees, offering silent thanks. The joy was irrepressible — calls to friends, triumphant posts on Slack, and celebrations echoed through the digital corridors.

Yet, I had to swiftly regain my composure; an exam awaited me the next day. I refrained from celebrating too exuberantly to ensure my mind remained focused on the goal. Turning off my devices and heading to bed, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how my excitement had disrupted my sleep, a testament to the extraordinary journey that had just begun.

I passed the exam and earned my second AWS certificate. At the time of writing/publishing this article, I currently hold seven AWS certifications.

Deferring the AWS ABW Grant

After numerous unsuccessful attempts to secure a USA appointment date, my fellow grant awardees-turned-friends and I came to a unanimous decision. We thought, ‘Why not defer our grant to next year?’ It sounded like a sensible plan to allow for ample preparation time and, ideally, to score that elusive date.

Little did we know, we were about to embark on an unexpected journey — although, not the Hobbit kind! 🧙‍♂️😄

Wait, I can speak at re:Invent, can’t I?

During one of my January reflection sessions, it dawned on me that I could potentially speak at re:Invent. Why, you ask? Well, since I was all set for an all-expenses-paid trip, my only hurdle was getting my talk accepted. This realization led me to the Slack channel, where I dove headfirst into all things related to speaking at re:Invent.

That’s when I stumbled upon the AWS Dev Chat — an avenue for community builders, user group leaders, and AWS heroes to submit community-driven talks. It took me a good few hours of scrolling, all the way back to June 2022, to absorb the wealth of insights buried in the comments and threads of relevant channels. I also made a detour to the previous submission form, diligently noting down every required detail for future use.

My next stop? The re:Invent catalog. After filtering for just the Dev Chat talks, I played detective, looking for patterns and seeking any spark of inspiration.

But the real magic happened when I reached out to the speakers I spotted in the catalog through LinkedIn. I spilled the beans about my intentions and asked if they had any recordings or slides to share. Here’s a special shoutout to all those generous souls who responded and aided me — they were absolute gems.

After this deep dive into the world of talks, it was time to get my hands dirty. I embarked on a three-week journey — a week for architecting and two weeks of relentless building. I even penned an article and sent it out into the social media cosmos. (You can find the article here and the project here).

And now, dear reader, the clock ticked as I impatiently waited for the Dev Chat CFP to swing wide open, signaling my moment to shine.

Visa Issues: Reality Check

After what felt like an eternity of waiting and relentless phone calls, I finally snagged that elusive appointment date. As dawn broke, amidst my prayers, a cheeky thought tiptoed into my mind: “What if they turn you down? How would you cope? What’s the next step?” I swiftly shooed it away. I’m the sort who typically has Plans B through Z, but this time, I wasn’t entertaining any backups or escape routes.

The day shifted into overdrive. I punctually arrived at the Consulate, breezed through the security checks, and soon found myself facing the all-decisive consulate official. After a volley of standard questions — about my work, my reasons for traveling, and the event details — I confidently lobbed back my answers. I eagerly reached for a supporting letter from the AWS grant team, only for the official to wave it off like an unnecessary ornament.

Then, the moment of truth — the one question that would change the course of my day: “Do you have a wife or kids back home?” My response? A straightforward “No.” And that’s when it happened.

Denied 🙅‍♂️ . My passport is handed back, and I’m clutching a perplexing blue slip. In the blink of an eye, a flurry of bewildering scenarios raced through my mind. Was this real? I had answered everything spot-on, with supporting documents in tow. With a smile that concealed a thousand thoughts, I collected my things and gracefully exited the building. A curious observation that day: roughly 90% of folks I saw were in the same boat, including students seeking visas for further studies.

Reflecting on it, I don’t hold it against the officer. I mean, think about it: here’s a young, energetic Nigerian, a first-time traveler, no spouse, no offspring — basically, I ticked all the boxes for a potential immigrant, if you ask me. Oh, the irony.

Here’s the kicker: I didn’t let this setback define my journey. I decided to try attending conferences closer to home, like the AWS summit in South Africa, AWS Community Day Zimbabwe(for which I was a speaker), and a tech conference in the UK. But guess what? Visa applications for all were met with the same “No.”

Missing out on global engagements stings, but getting snubbed within Africa? That was a twist I hadn’t anticipated!

Making a submission for AWS re:Invent Dev Chat

Returning, I felt a pang of defeat, knowing re:Invent was no longer on my horizon. Yet, in that depth of disappointment, a surge of inspiration, courtesy of the Holy Spirit, nudged me: “Why not submit what you’ve meticulously crafted? What’s there to lose?” A part of me also burned with curiosity, eager to gauge the fruits of my months-long labor. Was my talk even worthwhile?

I opened the document containing my painstakingly curated responses, filled out the CFP form, and, with a mix of anticipation and resignation clicked that “Submit” button. Closing the browser, I believed I had put the USA chapter behind me. But life, as they say, has its twists. Or so I believed…

Getting My AWS re:Invent Dev Chat Accepted

One ordinary August day, amidst my routine screen-bound activities, a Gmail notification lit up my screen. As I eagerly opened the email, I was met with the exhilarating news that my Dev Chat had been accepted 🎉. In that fleeting moment, the fruits of my labor felt oh-so-real.

For a fleeting moment, I basked in the glow of hard-earned success. But then, reality crashed in like a cold splash of water: I had just had my visa application declined. The joy was immediately tempered by the sting of circumstance — a truly bittersweet symphony.

Dev Chat mail

Almost instinctively, and in what had become something of a tradition, I hopped onto the Slack channel to share the news and voice my doubts about seizing this golden chance. Yet, through the mixed feelings, my gratitude for the community’s support remained unwavering. I also made my way to LinkedIn, ensuring I extended heartfelt thanks to every individual who had lent me their guidance.

After a heart-to-heart chat with my AWS contact for the Dev Chat, where I laid bare my predicament, we waited, hoping for a glimmer of hope. Alas, it was decided that the wisest course of action was to gracefully decline the talk.

Declining My Dev Chat Invitation: The Difficult Email

It was an immense irony. Here I was, using my own hands to decline an opportunity I’d ardently pursued and invested so much effort into since the year’s onset. But, sometimes, necessity trumps desire.

With a mix of emotions — disbelief, a wry smile, and a shake of my head — I composed a brief email. As I hovered over the “Send” button, I couldn’t help but wonder at the twists of fate. In August, the email was dispatched — a dream, unquestionably shattered.

Forfeiting my AWS ABW Grant: Another Difficult Email

As September drew to a close, I knew the time had come to send this email. Procrastination wasn’t an option; you can only defer once. So, I penned my explanation for forfeiting the opportunity and suggested they consider future awardees from Nigeria for any additional support — an attempt to pay it forward in my own small way.

Some well-meaning friends nudged me to give the USA visa application another shot. But my stance was unwavering — a resolute “NO.” Intuitively, I felt the outcome would be the same, given that my circumstances hadn’t notably shifted. Moreover, the time, energy, and resources required for another application round simply didn’t seem justifiable.

And so, I bid adieu to all things re:Invent 2023. I’d given it my all. It was time to leave the past behind and refocus. Redirecting my energies to a new goal seemed like the perfect antidote to disappointment. After all, that’s just my personal recipe for bouncing back.

Why this article?

They say that documenting your losses is just as crucial. Yet, I hesitate to label everything as either a win or a loss. This year has been a wild rollercoaster ride, driven by visa challenges, both within and beyond Africa’s borders.

If I could turn back time and offer advice to my former self a year ago, I’d still emphasize the importance of putting in the effort and working tirelessly, as if geographical disadvantages were irrelevant. That’s the only way to be certain you’ve given your absolute best. Only then can you ponder what might have been achievable had the shackles of location and visa constraints not bound you.

For me, this article marks a sense of closure. However, I hope it serves as a source of insight for others, particularly fellow young Nigerians, enabling them to craft more effective strategies for seizing opportunities in the future.

A heartfelt shoutout goes to my close friends who encouraged me to pen this piece as a means of preserving this chapter in written form.

Conclusion

As I draw this narrative to a close, I sincerely hope my journey offers you valuable insights and lessons. Remember, every setback is a setup for an even greater comeback.

“In the face of adversity, we find our strength. When one door closes, countless others await our discovery.”

May my experience serve not as a tale of missed opportunities, but as a testament to resilience, adaptability, and the endless possibilities that lie ahead. Let’s embrace the challenges, learn from them, and always keep pushing forward!

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Nwachukwu Chibuike

Full-stack developer, technical writer and lover of Jamstack. Passionate about lifelong learning.