Staying In America
There’s been a lot of talk in the news recently about illegal immigrants. About how people are welcome to come to America legally, but if they don’t, they should be deported or otherwise rejected in some fashion. This seems reasonable on its face – why not just sign some papers, take a quiz, and become a legal citizen if you want to reside here? The answer to that question, however, may be more complicated than it seems. Just ask Leigh Wakeford.
Wakeford is a South African and a recent UMD graduate who originally came to the school (and the country) on a scholarship for musical theater. As a young person, he dreamed about coming to the states to become an actor and singer. Fighting against the odds, he made it here with a lot of talent and no shortage of luck. Now he’s fighting to stay here. Rather than being an example of how hard work and honest effort easily gets a person the results they so desire, he’s currently embroiled in a process of repeatedly jumping through hoops just to remain in the country, let alone to become a citizen. Wakeford’s story is still in progress, in need of a happy ending.
It’s the tale of a very driven, talented individual doing his best to carve out the life he so desperately craves.
Around the age of 14, Wakeford’s teachers started encouraging him to really focus on his emerging talents in the arts, and he began coming to the realization that his home country didn’t offer him enough opportunities.
“I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa,” Wakeford says. “Arts and especially musical theater do not have a big influence there.”
After finding himself in some of the very best musical productions and receiving some of the best education in the arts that South Africa had to offer, Wakeford knew his path was leading him out of the country and in the direction of America.
“My brother came to the states on a tennis scholarship, so that idea of getting paid to go to school in America was in the back of my mind,” he says. “Little did I know that no theater programs had the funding to bring students — let alone foreign students — into their programs.”
And yet, the fates conspired to do just that. About two years into one of South Africa’s most prestigious musical-theater programs, Wakeford turned to one of his teachers and said “’You know, I really have the passion for this thing, but I’m not being challenged enough.’ I knew that there would be so many more possibilities in America.”
A couple of months later, the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Kate Ufema was in South Africa for a vocal conference, and Wakeford’s long shot dreams suddenly became tangible. “The teacher I had confided in invited me to sit in on one of the workshops,” he says. “I jumped at the opportunity.” At a dinner later on, Wakeford grilled Ufema for information on UMD, and while Ufema cautioned him that the difficulty he faced was next to insurmountable, he wasn’t discouraged. Several months later, Wakeford was invited to submit an audition tape and after more months of waiting, eventually found himself the recipient of a full-ride scholarship to UMD on the basis of his talents and tenacity. “The universe smiled on me,” Wakeford says.
Since then, his life has been a whirlwind of UMD productions and education, mixed with travelling the country as a part of various touring shows like Victor/Victoria, A Chorus Line, and 101 Dalmatians. He’s lived in New York, and he’s currently in the process of moving to Los Angeles to explore the television side of things. All of these things Wakeford describes with a mix of wonderment and gratitude at getting the chance to follow his unlikely dream. But it’s here where his tale still needs that storybook ending in which he’s granted a green card and can stay in the land that has presented him with the kinds of opportunities that his country of origin couldn’t.
The process has been frustratingly hard, fraught with the kind of difficulties natural-born Americans may not even guess hardworking would-be immigrants have to face.
“I’ve had to prove with playbills, articles, write-ups,” Wakeford says, “that what I have done in this country and in my home country has been exceptional enough to qualify me” for extensions on his existing visa. He’s had to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees. Luckily, Wakeford’s got people in his corner: friends, mentors, people who have taken him in and who he has come to consider as being like a second family. As it stands, though, it’s unclear if it all will be enough to overcome the obstacles that stand in his way.
Given how far he’s come, though, and the struggles he’s taken on, it seems likely that, in the end, Wakeford will find his happy ending, he’ll carve out the life that only bureaucracy stands in the way of, and someday he’ll be able to pass on all the experience of his trials and successes to a young generation of kids from America, South Africa, and beyond – kids who also have big dreams of their own, kids who just need that hand to pull them up.
Tony Bennett is a Duluth-based writer.