With students from all around the world, Saint Leo University has a very diverse community. It is a home for students from more than 60 different countries. These international students comprise 13 percent of the University Campus undergraduate community, according to saintleo.edu. Even though the international students came to the United States to study, many of them plan to stay in the country for longer than four years spent on trying to receive their undergraduate degree. As the graduation ceremony approaches, the international students have several different options to consider before going back to their home countries.
Even though for many of them the process of transitioning to the United States educational institution might be very challenging itself, it seems that making a choice about what to do after graduation might cause even more trouble as for many it might be a difficult decision whether it is better to continue education or find a job.
There are many paths that the students can take if they wish to stay in the country. Nevertheless, all of them require planning and making decisions relatively quickly as the choice might be a life changing factor.
“Once the students graduate, they have several different options to be able to maintain their status and stay in the country. They have a 60-day window from the day they graduate to be able to determine what they want to do,” said Paige Ramsey-Hamacher, an Executive Director for Student Success who works at the Multicultural and International Services at Saint Leo University. “They can apply for OPT, which stands for Optional Practical Training. They can transfer to the next degree program, or they can apply for a different status whether it is H1-B or another kind of visa status, or they can leave the country within the 60 days window.”
OPT is an attractive program for the international students as it allows them to gain work experience in their field of study. The program might also help the students to decide whether they want to take further steps towards settling in the U.S.
“Typically students apply for the OPT, which is one year of practical training that they are able to get after each degree level. They would do that application prior to their graduation. 90 days before that day is the earliest they can apply,” said Ramsey-Hamacher.
According to dreducation.com, a number of students who enrolled in the OPT program raised by 160 percent between the academic years of 2007/08 and 2015/16. The total number of students who participated in the program in 2015/16 was equal to 147,498 students who comprised to 14 percent of all international students in the whole country.
Even though the OPT program allows the students to stay in the country for 12 months, certain degrees allow for students to stay in the US even longer.
“If students are enrolled in science, technology, engineering, or math program they can apply for additional two years of work permission,” said Ramsey-Hamacher.
The program that allows them to do that is the STEM extension which was first introduced on Apr. 8, 2008 and allowed the students to apply for 17 months of extension to their OPT program, according to dreducation.com. Nevertheless, the program was updated on May 10, 2016, and the students are now allowed to extend their OPT program by 24 months.
“The students have to have a training plan from their employer that they have to fill out and submit every six months, as well as the final report at the end of each year. If they are on the STEM extension they can have a total of 3 years of training on their degree program,” said Ramsey-Hamacher.
Students seeking permanent residency in the U.S. might face more challenges. In order to become permanent residents, they would have to receive a Green Card. According to uscias.gov, “a Green Card holder (permanent resident) is someone who has been granted authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis.”
However, obtaining the document is not an easy process, and many variables are taken into account while deliberating whether a person from another country might receive it.
“Green cards are not the easiest things to get. H-1B visa is one of the ways that students could use to move towards the green card. It is a work permission for which the company has to apply for the students, and if approved, they can stay in the country from 5 to 6 years. The employer can then apply for permanent residency for their international worker,” said Ramsey-Hamacher.
Applying for the permanent residency is different than applying for a STEM extension while being on the OPT program. While the application for the STEM extension might be filled only when the OPT program is close to being finished, the rules for applying for the green card are different.
“If the company is interested in doing that, it does not have to wait the 5 or 6 years to apply. If the company wants the worker to stay, they could apply at any point in time for the permanent residency for the worker,” said Ramsey-Hamacher.
Other possibilities that would allow an international student to stay in the country do not require paperwork only, and not everybody might be able to use them.
“The other way is of course marriage. Another possibility is through a family member who is a spouse, parent, or sibling,” said Ramsey-Hamacher.
Many international students might have impatiently waited for the decisions of the administration and new President, Donald Trump, regarding H-1B visas. As the President announced on his official website that his administration would strive for and make steps towards making American citizens privileged on the job marked when compared to international workers, some of them became worried that the H-1B visa program might be ended.
Even though President Trump signed an executive order that was targeted towards the visa program, the H-1B visas have not been removed, and the process of obtaining them did not change significantly.
“Things have not been changed fully. There is much more speculation in place on the H-1B approval and application process. Our question at this point is how much more it would be lasting in regards to approval if the status.”
The visa program remains to be an opportunity for the international students who wish to stay in the U.S. even though obtaining the status might not be easy.