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For international seniors, a deeply uncertain post-graduation

May 22, 2020

Senior Debora Haede remembers the rollercoaster of emotions she went through the day Calvin announced that classes would go online for the rest of the semester. “When am I going to see these people ever again? Am I going to have a proper goodbye?”, she wondered.

As an international student from Turkey and Germany, Calvin had been her home for four years, which eased her transition into feeling more familiar in Grand Rapids and the U.S in general. She felt like she belonged here. 

For senior Laura Harjanto, the reality of what she was experiencing finally hit as she left a desolate campus on the first day of online classes. Parts of her daily routine — studying in the library or walking to DeVos Communication Center — were suddenly changed.

Senior Sebastian Jala was in Italy for interim when news about COVID-19 began to arrive. “We were all confused and didn’t know how big it was. I was definitely unsure of what was going to happen.”

Being unsure of what the future holds is nothing new for graduating seniors. But for international students, a whole new set of uncertainties has become the new normal.

Due to COVID-19 and the ongoing lockdown, many seniors are facing limited job opportunities. With the coming economic crisis, job offers may be even more sparse. This results in a different concern for international students graduating this spring.

Throughout their college careers, international students are on an F1 visa — a student visa that allows them to legally remain in the country for up to 60 days after graduation. To have the chance to be employed for a year after graduation, international students have to apply to a different program called Optional Practical Training (OPT). If approved, they are granted six months in the country to find a job where they will be employed for up to a year, and eventually may have the chance to apply for a long-term work visa. But to do so, they need a work contract.

Without a job or plans to  attend graduate school, international graduates cannot gain work experience through OPT, and thus cannot remain in the country.

If the student hasn’t been hired within six months of their approval in the OPT program, their legal standing is no longer valid, and they have to leave the country. International seniors have to take several steps even before graduation to be prepared to acquire work experience while following immigration requirements. The uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has now put to question whether their initial plans will stand. 

This global pandemic has required some severe measures which have affected the economy of the United States. Consumption, investments, entertainment and manufacturing have all slumped. As a result, over 20 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits — the highest number ever recorded. 

With a spiraling economy and rising unemployment, graduating seniors find fewer open doors for jobs as the country transitions into a stage of recovery. This affects international students on a greater scale, considering that they rely on a work contract to remain in the United States beyond the allowances of their student visa. Without a job or plans to  attend graduate school, international graduates cannot gain work experience through OPT, and thus cannot remain in the country.

It’s not an easy process. The deadlines that have to be considered and paperwork that students need to fill out while keeping up with their final semester are stressful enough without considering the $400 fee required to apply for the program — without certainty that the student will be approved and receive the needed employment authorization.

Harjanto is an international student from Indonesia, currently majoring in Political Science and Economics. Like most international seniors, she is in the process of applying to OPT. “That in itself has been affected so much because paying the $400 fee to apply is hard enough to begin with, more so now that most people don’t have jobs, they struggle to pay that even more.” She wondered, “Should we even apply to OPT if our chances of finding a job are even lower now, while being an international student by itself is already a hindrance?”

To be sure, OPT is still the easiest route to employment in the U.S. after graduation for international students, though it is a complicated process. “After the application is approved, the student receives an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which is a card that shows they have work authorization,” Brent Wilkinson, the Immigration Coordinator at Calvin, explains. “During their 12 months of OPT, students need to work at least 20 hours per week.” There are a couple of conditions within this program: OPT allows students to work in the U.S. in any job that is directly related to their major, and the student under a 12-month OPT employment cannot remain unemployed for over 90 days, or else they lose their legal status and have to leave the country. According to Wilkinson, “For many international students, OPT is the key to finding a job that will sponsor them for a work visa after their OPT is finished. They often work at a company for 1-3 years on OPT, then get sponsored to continue working there. For others, OPT is a chance to get work experience before returning home or going on to graduate studies.”

I was so confident I would find a job and work for a year. But I haven’t heard back from any of the jobs I have applied to.

Jala, an international student from India, feels the added pressure international students have. “International students have a very tight time frame; we have to do OPT this year.” He emphasized, “The year right after college is the only year that we have to complete all these processes.” And there are other constraints: “We also have to work within our major. Finding a job is in itself very hard, but our options are even more limited.”

The problem is that now, due to the economic recession the country is heading into, international students who rely on a job to remain in the U.S. for at least one year after graduation risk not finding one on time. Their last resort is to go home.

This compounds the uncertainty for international seniors, an uncertainty with which Haede, who is majoring in international relations, is familiar.

“I was so confident I would find a job and work for a year. But I haven’t heard back from any of the jobs I have applied to. Talking to some other international friends who are graduating, I just have heard the same thing; no one has found a job yet. I feel like everyone was certain that they would find something, but now, we are all preparing ourselves to the idea that maybe we will need to go back home and be realistic.”

“I don’t know what it’s going to be like once classes are over and I don’t have a job yet,” Haede said. “I’m a little nervous about next month and how things are going to be like after graduation.”

Being away from home does not ease the situation. It’s one thing to go through this transition surrounded by family, but when social distancing means being an ocean away, the last semester at college can be a real challenge.

“Once you apply to OPT, you have to stay in the U.S. after graduation. So that makes it harder; we need to stay for a job opportunity, but our loved ones are so far away and we’re not sure how they’re doing,” said Haede.

Harjanto shares the same feelings as Haede. “The amount of uncertainty just quadrupled in the past months; The most common fear is to find a job in the first place.” Feeling afraid of what is to come has been a common pattern among international students.

For international seniors, to look to the future is to take a leap of faith. The last resort would still be to go home and leave the country where these students have been setting roots for at least four years. 

In the words of Haede, “Once you’re on that plane, you probably know that that was it — that was my U.S experience.”

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