September 24, 2015

For International Students, Obtaining Visas Often a Struggle

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Upon graduating college, international students who wish to remain in the United States often face a difficult choice: pursue and pay for another degree, or face the daunting challenges of securing an H-1B temporary work visa.

While international students can apply for 12 months of Optional Practical Training, which allows them to gain hands-on practical work experience in the United States before they graduate, many report that the process of securing a visa following their OPT is difficult and daunting.

“The International Student and Scholar Office provides a recommendation, which the student sends in along with the rest of his or her application in order to receive an Employment Authorization Document,” said Brendan O’Brien, director of ISSO.

Nearly half of Cornell’s 4,500 international undergraduate students applied for OPT last year, according to O’Brien.

“Over 99 percent of students [who] applied obtained work visas last year, assuming they were in good academic standing and paid the $380 fee,” O’Brien said. “I would say applications were approved in nearly all cases.”

If granted OPT status, a student can work for 12 months in the United States. If the student is working in a STEM field, they can choose to apply for a 17 month extension, accoding to O’Brien. Afterwards, international students can choose to pursue another degree in order to retain their F-1 student visa status or seek an employer sponsored H-1B temporary work visa.

“Students can acquire an H-1B work visa only after entering into a national lottery and obtaining employer sponsorship,” O’Brien said. However, if students cannot obtain an H-1B work visa beyond the OPT period, they must return to their country of origin.

“I believe only 65,000 H-1B visas were approved last year,” O’Brien said. “And that quota was filled in one day. That’s the biggest obstacle for students looking to obtain a visa.”

Beyond the slim odds of getting a visa through the national lottery, another significant challenge is obtaining employer sponsorship if they are granted visas, according to Veronica Osborn ’17, vice president of event planning for the International Student Union.

“The H-1B work visa must be paid for by the employer and cannot be paid for in any part by the student,” Osborn said. “As a result, an international student can be seen as an expensive asset compared to domestic students who do not require any sponsorship to continue working with a company.”

While international students can apply to graduate programs to extend their student visas in the United States, the option is often expensive for students who are unable to secure any grant money or financial aid. However, students who are not planning on attending graduate school and would need employee-sponsorship process in order to remain in the United States also voiced exasperation.

“If a company wants to hire you, they have to hire a lawyer to fill out the work visa documents,” said Wow Chiaravanont ’16, an international student from Thailand. “That can be pretty expensive, so unless you’re a really exceptional student, it can be hard to convince a company to sponsor you.”

O’Brien acknowledged that international students could face difficulties in obtaining initial employment, saying that “sometimes employers are reluctant to work with international students because they know they have to sponsor them and there’s a risk to that.”

ISU President Binoy Jhaveri ’16 said students often change their career paths to focus on banking, consulting and technology fields since the majority of employer sponsorships come from these areas.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that someone’s dreams cannot be fulfilled because they cannot get the visa,” Osborn said. “Some students cannot afford another level of higher education and so those 12 months are all they will get for a work period in the U.S.”

Jhaveri and Osborn both agreed that despite ISSO’s best efforts to offer helpful explanations and constructive feedback, there are limits to what the international studnt office on campus can do to assist students during the process of obtaining a work visa upon graduation.

“It’s a more systemic thing about spreading awareness and educating incoming [international] students about the reality of the situation post-graduation so they don’t wake up during their junior and senior years and realize their major is pretty much unemployable in the U.S.,” Jhaveri said.

Jhaveri added that currently available resources are underutilized by students and that increased student collaboration with the school administration and ISSO is crucial to raising awareness among international students.

“I think that many of us — even Americans — tend to simplify the visa requirements and processes in our minds when we envision our plans of working outside our home countries,” Osborn said.

For some international students, the worst part of the quest for a work visa is the lingering uncertainty regarding post-graduation plans.

“The prospect haunts me every single night of senior year because I don’t want to be separated from my best friends and my life here, and I don’t have a job yet,” said Aditi Bhowmick ’16, a student from India.

Bhowmick, who is an opinion columnist and production assistant for The Sun, added that the formidable task of obtaining a work visa upon graduation was “a major source of stress.”

“Personally, it interferes with my ability to go about my day normally,” she said. “I honestly get sad because I have no clue what’s to happen next year.”

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