As the immigration reforms debate is going on, many international students struggle to plan their life. As a graduate international student, now an international “alien” defined by the U.S. Government, I am now working in a company that is sponsoring my H1B visa. What does it mean? It means I can work for this company for up to 6 years (renewal every 3 years) and maybe… just maybe they ‘ll agree to sponsor my H1B visa green card. Again, what does it mean?
Let me tell you a story, the life and the emotional roller coaster of an international student, maybe you will feel worse for your friend who is an international student, or maybe you can decide to help and do something or at least, try not to unintentionally picking on the same old wound that we, international students, all try to cover up with pretty American made products like bandages, shoes, chocolate molten cakes, etc.
12 years ago I came to this wonderful country on a J1 visa. What is a J1 visa? Great question. It is an “exchange visitor visa.” Which means, you come to this country as an exchange student based on an exchange program between 2 countries (your country and the other country-USA). The exchange program typically works this way, the schools between 2 countries work together, they send students between the schools back and forth during the countries for cultural experiences. No, this is not a mail order bride program, though, if you really think about it, it might be a good cover up for such a program.
Most of the time, the exchange program is embedded in the school fee you pay, but if you are from a third world country trying to do an “exchange” program to the US, the fee is extremely crazy. For me, the director of this “exchange” program stated the cost was $20,000 cash, and according to them, this cost was much lower because it was a scholarship due to my high grade in school. I wonder now, was there really a scholarship since I ended up in a public school where US citizens did not pay much, and the students coming to Vietnam from the US did not pay much either. So, what was the $20,000 for? If it was an exchange, that would mean that the cost of studying in the school in the US had to be $20,000 more than the cost of studying in Vietnam to balance out the “exchange.” And if there was a scholarship, that would mean the cost to attend a public US school would be even higher than $20,000/year to attend. Moreover, if the cost of attending a public US school was that high per student per year, that would mean the government spending on education would be in the trillions, which in realilty did not really match up.
Well, I think I made my point and gave enough hints to the nature of this “exchange” program. My family didn’t have that much money, but for my future, my mother sold everything we had to send me to the US and she sent me to this strange and foreign country when I was 14. 14, alone in a place half way around the world from my home, living in strangers’ home and knowing noone, my first year in the US was much better than it sounded.
I landed in Chicago O’Hare airport, and was met by my “host parents” assigned by this exchange program. Did I mention, I could not find the place in any maps (this was before google became popular) before I left my country? But, oh well, “it’s the US, noone would do anything bad,” I thought. So, why not get on the plane, meet someone you have never met and live in a town you could not find on any map? My “host parents” met me with an upside down name board with my full legal name carefully written. That was the first time in my entire life I have seen my name written in full in such a mega scale, it was a bit unsettling.
I lived with my host parents for 1 year in a smallest town, I met wonderful people, made many mistakes and gained 20 pounds within the first 2 months snacking on onion-sour cream potato chips dipped in sour cream. I drove my first tractor, mowed my first lawn, ate my first McDonald’s hamburger and fries, and many more. I lived on $500 for that entire year. I got lost to class the first day. All the girls and boys looked the same to me with their blonde hair and blue eyes and pale skin. Oh, also, I broke my first bone ice skating and had my first dance.
I fell asleep crying for the first 3 months, and my mother spent at least $200 every month paying for phone cards (I wish they invented Whatsapp, Viber, Google Hangouts and Skype earlier). Every conversasion was filled with silent cries and tears. Until one day, my uncle picked up the phone, and he said to me “if you keep crying, it does not help anyone. Stop crying and be strong.” That was the end of my weeping and mourning period.
1 year goes by, and the fear started to creep. I wanted to go home. However, a J1 visa required the student to not come back to the US for 2 years after the exchange year(why? I have no idea). In addition, the year of exchange in the US would not count toward your education back in your home country. In another word, I would have to retake my freshman year in high school. I refused to do that, but I missed my family. My mother kept promissing me, “you will come home…. SOON….,” and I kept that word “soon” in my heart for the next 7 years until I decided to go home all by myself.
After the J1, you will never be able to get another J1. It’s a once in a life time visa type. Thus, in order for me to stay in the US, I have to change my visa status from J1 to F1 (independent international student) and have to change school ( by law, you cannot attend the same school with different visa type….why? Again, I have no idea… maybe non-citizen aliens like us might get too attached to the native and … start feeling?) So the journey began to change my visa status from a J1-F1 and to look for another stranger to take me in to live with them with no conditions….. and yet, God is on my side again.
According to the immigration rules, I could not change my visa unless I left the US and either go home or go to a third party country and reapply for the visa. Which meant, there was a big chance my visa would get rejected and I would never be able to enter the US. So, after my mother found a friend of a friend of a friend who knew a friend (this is the international version of the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon) who lived close to a friend in Denver to take me in as their host daughter and helped me with my visa, I finally got my visa status changed from J1-F1 within the US border.
Then college time came, not many schools offer scholarships for international students. Not to mention, international students never get in-state tuition benefit, so you always pay the highest cost. I found a school with full scholarships and everything I wanted in a state where -20F is a normal thing (not Alaska, thank God). Consider this, I am from a country where 100F is a normal thing.
When you attend a college or university as an international student, you cannot work for more than 20 hours a week, and you cannot work off campus unless it’s an approved CPT (CURRICULAR PRACTICAL TRAINING). You can work part time as long as you are in school with your CPT which will have to follow your curriculum in school (your major), approved by the school department, signed by your international student advisor and approved by the USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services).
In your years in school, you are also allowed 1 full year of full time CPT, and then after graduation, you are also allowed 1 full year of full time OPT (OPTIONAL PRACTICAL TRAINING). The time frame is longer for you if you are in the STEM program (science fields). So you must consider your major very carefully and plan your full time CPT and OPT time carefully. I save my fulltime CPT year until my senior year, so that I can have 2 years of full time work experience (1 year CPT, 1 year OPT) to give myself and my employer more time to consider sponsoring my H1B. The purpose of the OPT is to find an employer who loves you so much that he/she will sponsor your H1B visa (I dont even want to go over the requirement for the H1B visa approval) and eventually sponsor your greencard.
This sounds great, but, consider this, one of the condition for the greencard H1B visa is that the employer has to prove that there is no or very limited candicates in the US that can do the job and you can… Out of all the people in the US, you are THE ONE! I believe, this condition comes out of the fear of international students, who have to study extremely hard to be top of their schools with the highest grades and the most extra cirricular activities, would take away American jobs. This topic calls for another long and complicated blog!
Long story short, your international student friend who you see everyday or once in a while worries about all these letters everyday, J, F, O, C, P, T, U, S, C, I, S, H, 1, B, D, E, P, O, R, T, E, D…. and many more… so dont mind them when they freak out in front of the alphabet place mat. When they go to bed at night, they have to worry if tomorrow they will be back and continue another day or they will have to pack and start a new life in another country or go back home. Every meal is like the last meal, and every party is the best party. Every relationship is extremely precious, and every mistake is a grave chance of being deported. When they plan their future, they have to have plan A: staying in the US and getting green card or plan B: staying in the US for 3-6 years and getting married, or plan C: leave it all and just restart. And the easiest choice always is: go back to school and get a PHD.
So be nice to your international student friend, feed them the best American dish (90% of the time, they already tried all the food you considered “exotic” yet never touched a hot dog before), invite them over for Easter Sundays, Thanksgivings, etc. because those holidays are the most terrifyingly lonely time for them. Talk to your friends who might know people who are executives (only the executives can be so unrealistic enough to make the decision of going through the pain of hiring 1 non-citizen individual). Pack their clothes and give them a giant party when they can’t find a job, not because they are not qualified, but because noone even want to try to look at their resume due to the invisible flash on their forehead saying : sponsorhip. They will have to go home.