Eve Alas Moran, a recent Hofstra University graduate, came to the United States to pursue her dream of becoming a professional dancer—a career, she says, that does not exist in her home country of El Salvador. “I made one of the hardest choices,” said Moran. Now, however, she worries that she may be forced to leave the US, giving up everything she has worked for over the past few years.
According to a report from the Institute of International Education and the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, there are nearly 1 million international students studying in the United States. When a student comes from another country, they attend college with an F-1 visa. As long as they are sponsored by a school, they cannot be deported, and after graduation, they are allowed one to three years of work experience in the US, sponsored by the school they attended. Their F-1 student visa then becomes an Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa, allowing them to stay in the country if they have an approved job related to their field of study.
But once their time is up, international students are expected to return home. According to NSF, 77 percent of international students expressed intent to remain in the United States and work after the conclusion of their OPT. However, only 46 perent were able to do so. A survey from Interstride, a platform that supports international students pursuing higher education, found that “most international students in the US want to stay after graduation but worry about getting a job.”
If international students want to stay in the United States after graduating, they have to apply for an H-1B work visa—along with everyone else trying to immigrate to America. In order to qualify for an H-1B, individuals must have proof of education equivalent to a bachelor’s degree and a job offer from an employer who can prove that there aren’t any applicants interested in that position that are US citizens. Then, all those applying for the H-1B visa are put into a pool and randomly selected. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services selects only around 85,000 individuals a year. For the March 2022 drawing, there were 308,613 applicants, according to the USCIS. “I graduated from American school with the best grades and honors,” Moran said. “Everything is just thrown to the garbage with a lottery deciding my destiny.”
Moran applied for the H1B visa for 2022 and did not get selected, but intends to reapply. “They make it practically impossible to make your dreams come true,” Moran said. “People who have graduated and have an OPT, they should get priority. But, they don’t do that. They just throw us in the pool with everyone else.” Ashish Perkari, a graduate student from India in business analytics at Hofstra, feels similarly. “You’re coming here, putting in all the effort and all your savings and finally, at the end of the day a lottery decides where you stand, is something that is not quite rational.”
While some students come to the US intending to return to their home country after graduation, that is not the case for many others. Fatima, a graduate business analytics student from Saudi Arabia at Hofstra, said that she came to the US because she would have better opportunities here than in her home country. “The salary that I will get in the US,” said Fatima, “I will only get one-third of that back home.”
Nathan Monga, a senior music business major at Hofstra, said that music business is not a career that exists in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He will be graduating in Spring of 2023 and he hopes to get an OPT visa. However, since his major is not in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field, he only gets one year after graduation instead of three. Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced that it would expand the OPT program, with 22 additional fields qualifying for the STEM OPT, such as climate science, environmental studies, geobiology, and more. “These actions will allow international STEM talent to continue to make meaningful contributions to America’s scholarly, research and development, and innovation communities,” read the announcement from the White House.
If Monga is not able to get an OPT, he will have to go to graduate school—a route many international students take in order to keep their visa. But this is not financially viable for everyone, as the average cost of a master’s degree has ballooned to over $65,000. “That’s another option, but do you have the money? I don’t,” said Moran.
According to Novia Ramsay, director of operations in the Office of Residence Life at Hofstra and a previous international student from Jamaica, there is a large misconception surrounding the financial status of international students. “When you come, you’re paying your bill in full. You’re not allowed to take out loans,” Ramsay said. “I think a misconception that many people have is you have to pay up front, so you have it all together, you have the finances and that’s not always the case.”Moran has struggled financially, only being able to work in her field of study, which was dance. She currently works three jobs as a physical trainer, a dance teacher, and a rhythmic gymnastics coach.
The American Council on Education has advocated for comprehensive immigration reform that would assist international students wishing to remain in the United States after graduation. “The federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which ACE has supported since it was first introduced in 2001, would provide such students an expedited path to citizenship if they accomplish academic goals or serve in our military,” reads the ACE website. “ACE also supports reforms of the non-immigrant visa process, particularly the H-1B visa, which would enhance our nation’s recruitment and retention of highly skilled international students and employees.”
As the conclusion of her year-long OPT visa rapidly approaches, Moran has one last option. The O1, also known as the artist visa. This is for people with “extraordinary ability.” They must prove that they are unusually talented and have proof of solid achievements in their field. “I’m always in this mode of ‘I have to prove myself.’ I have to prove to the government that I am deserving of this,” Moran said. “ If you want this, you have to be the best.” Moran has been working on obtaining these achievements and certifications. She has made two dance films and is working on her third, hoping they will give her a leg up in her application due February 2023. “I’ve embraced this country,” said Moran. “I’ve embraced it with my whole being. I’ve hugged your society even if it goes against who I was back home. I just wish they would make it easier for people who invest in America.”