When Graduation Brings Uncertainty

by Priya Ramaiah | 1/15/15 10:08pm

by Annika Park / The Dartmouth

Three weeks before graduation, Brazilian student Guilherme Ferraz ’14 was faced with an unthinkable setback. His employer-to-be had rescinded his job offer on the grounds that it was unable to sponsor his H1B visa process, the fees for which can often cost an employer upwards of $2,000. Without time to find an appropriate job or internship before his student visa ran out, Ferraz leftthe United States.

“My hands were tied,” he said. “I had a limited number of days to leave the country.”

For many international students at Dartmouth, leaving their home country for the frigid winds of New Hampshire isn’t the only challenge they face in coming to the College. As graduation approaches, every student has difficult decisions to think through as they anticipate transitioning into life after Dartmouth. On top of concerns like affordable housing or roommate matches, however, international students must choose whether or not to stay stateside — if the decision to continue living in the U.S. is even legally feasible.

Most international students at Dartmouth, who make up about 15 percent of the undergraduate and graduate student body, study in the United States on an F1 visa, which allows them to stay in the U.S. for a full-time academic program until 60 days after program completion, according to Office of Visa and Immigration Services director Susan Ellison. While international students cannot legally work off-campus, they can work for the College part-time and can be granted up to 12 months of Optional Practical Training time, which can be used before graduation to take on internships stateside or after graduation for a job related to an international student’s field of study. International students majoring in government-approved STEM fields may apply for 17 months of additional OPT time to be used after graduation.

“OPT influences what companies I apply to,” said Peter Saisi ’16, a computer science major from Kenya who hopes to stay stateside for a few years post-graduation to gain work experience before returning to Kenya. “I need a company with resources to get an H1B visa for me, so I’m shying away from startups.”

Perhaps to account for this tension, the government does charge smaller companies less for individual visas, but larger firms may have deeper funds to draw from.

International students from countries mandating military service, such as South Korea, Greece and Israel, must also factor their patriotic duties into their academic planning. Orestis Lykouropoulos ’17 said that while he must eventually serve in the Greek army, his 12 months of OPT time plus the 17-month extension he can receive for studying an approved STEM field has allowed him to defer making immediate decisions about his service.

Students who wish to remain in the U.S. to work for longer periods of time — up to six years — can apply for an H1B visa, a non-immigrant visa that allows U.S. companies to employ foreign workers in specialized occupations. While applying for an H1B visa can be a quicker process than applying for a U.S. Green Card, the number of H1B visas granted each year is capped and decided by a lottery when the number of applications exceeds the cap. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the number of foreign students on F1 visas in U.S. colleges and universities swelled about 500 percent from 2001 in 2012. This growth creates a bottleneck for foreign students hoping to stay and work in the U.S. Indeed, the 2014 H1B visa lottery drew more than 172,000 applications for 65,000 visas, plus an additional 20,000 visas reserved for individuals with a graduate degree from a U.S. institution. H1B visas are tied to employers, not individuals, so losing or quitting a job without a replacement can lead to the loss of the visa.

Saisi is using his first three months of OPT time for a junior summer internship, leaving the remaining nine months for the period between graduation and the H1B visa lottery. As a STEM major, he is eligible for the 17-month OPT extension.

“The OPT extension is good in case you don’t get an H1B visa the first time, he said. “The best case is I never need to use my extension.”

Perhaps as a result of the OPT extension and H1B visa process, international students frequently major in STEM and business fields, the Brookings Institution noted. When searching for jobs, they must take into consideration whether or not their potential employer has the resources and flexibility to support their legal quest for an H1B visa.

Mahnum Shahzad ’15, an economics major from Pakistan, said she found the job search more difficult as an international student.

“The minute you indicate on Dartboard that you’re an international student, the number of jobs you can apply to shrinks exponentially,” she said.

The current H1B system creates significant inconvenience for both international students and potential employers who want to hire based on merit, Mary Peng ’15 said. She said that in her experience the H1B lottery system disrupts many two-year analyst programs at banks and consulting firms.

The D-plan further complicates the already-tangled nature of visa applications. The complicated issues surrounding visas often force international students to take a more traditional enrollment path of staying on for fall, winter and spring terms — forgoing the tradition of sophomore summer.

While Saisi said the Office of Visa and Immigration Services at the College excels at guiding students through the complex paperwork and regulations of the visa process, he thought that the process is more stressful for international students trying to take enrollment patterns considered nontraditional, such as enrolling during sophomore summer, or taking an off-term during the regular academic year.

After finishing her required number of terms at the College by senior winter without taking an off-term, Sophie Choi ’14 had to leave the country and return to South Korea. While she was planning to use the grace period allowed for students on F1 visas to determine job options, complications with graduation requirements and her nontraditional academic plan forced her to leave the country.

OVIS is charged with administering Dartmouth’s F1 visa program as well as providing immigration services to international students, staff and faculty members. Visa and D-plan advice is given from international student orientation up until graduation, Ellison, the OVIS director, said. Advisors at OVIS have their own case load of students to ensure that international students can meet with the same advisor throughout their Dartmouth career. While OVIS and other offices at the College work to help international students make the most of their experience, she said keeping in mind the legalities of being an international student is undoubtedly an “added layer of complexity” to the undergraduate experience of these students.

All 12 international students interviewed by The Dartmouth praised the services of OVIS, but also acknowledged that the legal framework and bureaucratic processes of the immigration system take effort to navigate properly due to their complex nature.

“When you hear about OPT and academic planning at workshops and international student orientation, it seems like a faraway story,” said Choi. “It wasn’t until my Dartmouth career was over that I saw the severity of how much difference it makes to be a STEM major.”

Choi added she would have benefitted from having more international upperclassmen share their experiences navigating the legal process with her, as juggling D-plan advice from OVIS with academic plans from a dean can be difficult. She noted that no single College advisor could help her with the “interdisciplinary” challenges that she met as an international student.

Visa requirements are a strong factor in the choices made by international students in terms of where to study and how to gain work experience, immigration lawyer and second vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Bill Stock said.

“Ultimately, the immigration system is designed to address those places in the U.S. labor market where there aren’t enough workers, such as in the entry-level tech fields where there are a consistent number of openings,” Stock said. “Many of the qualified people selected are foreign nationals, and everyone is hoping to get picked in a lottery, which is not a qualitative test.”

Faizan Kanji ’15, an international student from Pakistan and an international student mentor, said that the H1B lottery system should be reformed. He believes the cap is not enough given the growing demand for these visas.

“The most stressful and scary thing for a fresh graduate is having to quit a good job, pack up and leave the country through no fault of their own, but simply because their name was not drawn in a random lottery,” he said.

Ferraz said that although he was in constant dialogue with his OVIS advisor and felt very informed of the paperwork and legalities surrounding his immigration status during his time at the College, he was also acutely aware of the constraints placed on international students. He noted that while objective information about visa requirements exists, the process is deeply emotional for those who face it.

Back in Brazil after two years of boarding school in the U.S. and four years of undergraduate study, Ferraz has found employment with a multinational corporation with branches around the world.

“I thankfully am from a country where I think I can pursue what I actually like,” he said. “It’s just sad that it’s not the country I have come to see as my own for the past six years.”

Ferraz found himself especially frustrated with the H1B lottery practice and the costs associated with it, which often cause international students to seek out large, well-established employers with the resources to support their legal needs.

“When I was in the U.S., I was paying taxes. I was a contributing citizen. I went to one of the best schools there. So when are you good enough to reside in this country after having proved yourself in so many different ways?” Ferraz said. “People see that $2,000 for legal fees as a barrier, but in terms of lifetime economic value, it’s really not.”

Correction appended (Jan. 19, 2015): The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Ferraz and Choi were deported. They left the U.S. voluntarily when their visas expired.

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