International college students play a significant role in holding up the backbone of the American economy. To quantify this, they contributed $45 billion to the financial system in 2018 alone. But the relationship is not symbiotic because they have to jump through multiple hoops to secure their future in the country post graduation.

Every year, hoards of foreign students flock to the United States with dreams of pursuing quality higher education. In 2019, a little over one million of them made up 5% of the total national student body. That’s enough people to equal the population of the Philippines. The top two nationalities of foreign students are Chinese and Indian.

But while this number is high, it is actually a decrease from the previous year. A potential reason could be that more foreign students are discouraged from trying their luck in America given the rigorous wait-times for documents like the green card. Moreover, if they do reach this final stage before acquiring citizenship, it means these students have overcome an astonishing number of obstacles in the process. The primary issue is getting a work visa sponsored after graduation, in order to transition out the student visa that got them into the country in the first place.

The work visa sponsorship depends on the employing company and their budgeting plan. This is a tough nut to crack since most employers are now cash-strapped due one of the worst recessions in global history. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled the American economy to such an extent that 11% of the country is unemployed. For context, only 3.8% of America was unemployed in February, which was "among the lowest on record in the post-World War II era", reports Pew Research Center.  So, the hiring freeze and mass lay-offs have made it doubly difficult to get one’s foot in the door.

For starters, students have to file an application to get a work authorization upon graduation. It’s called the OPT or Optional Practical Training. It acts as a bridge between the student and work visas. It grants the international student the right to temporarily work in the U.S. after they graduate. But here’s the catch: students can only apply for OPT 90 days before or within 60 days after they graduate. A student has three months from the starting date of their employment authorization to find any job (full-time, part-time or an internship) that’s in relation to their field of study.

The quicker they get a job, the more time they have to convince their employer to sponsor their work visa once the OPT ends. More often than not, employers are prone to deny students applying for work because it is expensive to sponsor their visas. International students have to compete with citizens who cost less to keep on.

“There were 223,085 international students engaged in OPT programs in the 2018-19 academic year, an increase of nearly 10% over the prior year, according to data from the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education released by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs,” U.S. News reported. But not all make the cut for what’s next in line -- a fully-sponsored O1 visa. This work visa is granted to people who display remarkable talent in their field of employment, and it’s available in two forms:

  • The O1-A for individuals with “extraordinary ability” in sciences, business, education or athletics.
  • The O1-B for individuals with “extraordinary ability” in the arts or motion picture and television industries.

The quickest way to get an O1 visa if all else fails? Winning the Pulitzer or an Academy Award. So the range of what qualifies as exceptional talent is wide, so much so that it’s vague. “Having a clear definition of “extraordinary ability,” will also help prevent confusion in the USCIS adjudication process as well as help applicants submit proper documentation,” reports The New York International. The drive to succeed is amplified because they have their work cut out for them. It’s a constant battle to prove to employers why they are better candidates than those who are already American citizens. They have to prove they are worth the additional company expense of sponsorship. Until then, international students are at the mercy of the job market and turn to part-time or freelance work to gain work experience and make ends meet in a strange new land.

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