As the Class of 2021 enters their final semester, seniors are planning for life after Bowdoin. For international students, however, the matter is much more complicated. Some will return to their home country and some will explore other countries, while others are intending to stay in the United States to pursue citizenship and a career here. However, in the time of COVID-19, the choices and paths forward present a host of difficulties.
“The biggest challenge that I see right now is when students apply for OPT,” said Khoa Khuong, associate dean of upperclass students and advisor to international students, in an interview over Zoom with the Orient.
OPT, or Optional Practical Training, is an authorization that allows international undergraduate students to work off-campus in the United States during or after their studies. It is a strictly-regulated program that directly connects the student’s employment with their status within the country. Students are normally granted 12 months of OPT; those studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) as designated by the U.S. Department of Education may get an extension of 24 months.
Khuong explained that the Trump administration had also enacted a series of policies that made it harder for international students to obtain authorization in time.
To begin with, international students must keep in mind the validity of a wide array of immigration documents. The application for OPT is challenging, full of acronyms and sequences of numbers that can easily blend together and send minds reeling. Furthermore, even with all the requirements met, obtaining approval for OPT in a timely manner proves an obstacle for many students.
“The problem that students face now … is that the wait time for the processing of OPT application … has increased tremendously,” Khuong said. “Before Trump was in office, [seniors] could apply for OPT 90 days before they graduated, and they would get the application approved or denied within that window,” he explained. “Now, it [can] take up to six or seven months for the U.S. Government to process OPT application[s]. … I’ve had students who had to wait so long that they had to withdraw their employment because they couldn’t get their [authorization] on time.”
These difficulties have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially since applicants must be physically within the United States. With entry restrictions imposed on travelers from China, Iran and many European countries, not all students are able to meet this requirement—through no fault of their own. The Biden administration has not indicated immediate remedies to this issue.
Even after a successful OPT process, international seniors still face the daunting realities of the job search in a post-Trump America. Federal regulations dealing with employment discrimination do not cover noncitizens.
“Even if they accept OPT, it’s harder for you to get the job in the first place [because employers] are also considering the fact that you’re an international student when you’re applying,” said Utku Ferah ’21 in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Most students apply for a work visa, what’s known as an H-1B visa, immediately following the expiration of their OPT periods.
“Getting [the] H1B visa is getting harder and harder,” Ferah said. “It’s not just something that happened with Trump, it’s been happening for the past 20-ish years.”
A biology and physics double major from Istanbul, Turkey, Ferah aspires to be a biomedical engineer in the United States after graduation. In addition to these legal obstacles, Ferah also emphasized the difficulties of finding employment in science during these times as a foreign national.
“It’s more like, ‘Yeah, here’s a list of people that just recently graduated. Go network.’” said Ferah. “The problem is … they just don’t understand how hard networking can be for someone who is not American.”
Director of Career Advising Nancy Gibson also acknowledged the difficulties international students may face in an email to the Orient.
“There may be factors beyond your control,” Gibson wrote. “So, it’s important to start early. Flexibility, patience, and a Plan A, B, and C are all needed.”