Between home and a future: Inside the OPT conundrum of Indian students in the US

internationals students in the US
International students in the US are trying to balance their options in a way that secures their future in the country. Source: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images North America/ Getty Images via AFP

Before COVID-19 hit, Aneri Khetan Shah and Kirti Kumari were international students in the US approaching their Master’s graduation.

Both had come from India to chase bigger, brighter careers — Aneri in architecture, Kirti in human-computer interaction. Now, they don’t know if they’ll be able to get jobs in the US at all.

This is because their Optional Practical Training (OPT) status is hanging on a thread in the midst of COVID-19 shutdowns and border closures. This temporary pass allows international graduates to remain in the US, apply for jobs and find a company to sponsor their employment visa.

“Under current regulation, the international students who are under OPT only have a 90-day unemployment grace period,” Aneri told Study International from New York, where she is self-isolating.

In short, it’s the golden ticket for international graduates to launch their career in the US. If they do not have a job at the end of the grace period, they no longer qualify to be employed in the country at that time.

To secure her OPT eligibility, Aneri chose to stay in the US as her university, Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute shuts down and New York goes into lockdown as one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots.

Kirti, a graduate student at the University of Washington, is at the opposite end of the world.

“I had to come back to India due to a family emergency. The situation was not this bad at that time, so my plan was to come back to the US as soon as possible,” she said.

But on March 24, the Indian government ordered a nationwide lockdown of 21 days. Kirti found herself stuck at home, with graduation and OPT application deadlines fast approaching.

Should I stay or should I go?

International students in the US with F-1 visa must be in the country to apply for the OPT.

According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), “Eligible students can apply to receive up to 12 months of OPT employment authorisation before or after completing their academic studies.”

STEM majors have been eligible for an additional 24 months since 2016. Though these jobs are in high demand, competition is stiff.

“It’s highly competitive to get an internship or job as a UX Designer/Researcher,” Kirti agrees. However, those worries are on hold as she feels it’s best to be home with her family now.

international students in the US

Aneri presenting her design to a panel of architects during her mid-term review in fall. Source: Aneri Khetan Shah

Though Aneri’s parents want her to return to Mumbai, she is adamant on staying, saying, “I came here with a goal, and there are a few steps to achieve it.”

“First, I had to get a graduate degree (which cost a fortune), then a job to cover some of what my parents spent on my education here. Finally, I would return to India with experience and a network to start something substantial.”

To this end, Aneri is actively developing her architecture portfolio. “ I am still hopeful that when all this ends, I will find a job,” she said.

International students in the US call for OPT flexibility

Regardless of their physical location, lecturers and assignments continue online for both Aneri and Kirti.

While their respective universities and International Officers have been responsive to their plights and queries, the administration’s hands are tied where OPT is concerned as the US has yet to announce responsive measures.

Kirti’s F-1 visa remains valid even as she stays in India, as long as she attends classes online. “But I won’t be able to re-enter the US if I don’t go back before my graduation date,” she said.

“I should have a new Form I-20 to re-enter, which I will get after filing my OPT application — which I can’t do outside the US.”

As for Aneri, going home means giving up her career aspirations.

Being inclined to visual arts, colours and interiors since she was a child, it seems fitting that Aneri is the first architect from her family. But now, her dream of working in the US hinges on visa regulations.

“If I go back home, I can only re-enter the US with my Employment Authorisation Document and a job. The latter seems impossible right now,” she expressed.

“My wait here all alone will only be worth it if it takes me closer to my current aim: getting a job in New York City after graduation.”

They both call for the USCIS to expedite OPT exceptions for international students in the US.

international students in the US

India is under 21-day lockdown, resulting in streets as empty as this in New Delhi. Source: Jewel Samad/AFP

“USCIS must take steps to make temporary provisions and allow international students to apply for OPT outside of the US,” Kirti suggested. Her university has already filed an appeal to this end.

Aneri hopes universities would offer students to opt-in for pass/fail grading and have it count toward general education requirements. She suggested universities open dialogue with the US government to allow graduate students passing this year to re-enter the US.

“This way, students can duly complete the online course in their safe zones without any additional stress,” she said.

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