Graduating International Students See Future Plans In U.S. Jeopardized By Pandemic

Apr 3, 2020

Like many graduating college students across the United States, UNC-Chapel Hill senior Samara Bie experienced her last moments on campus without even knowing it.

Now, as the real world closes in, Bie and her peers are looking for work as a tanking economy tightens the job market. And for Bie, time is ticking. If she can’t find a job before July or August, she said she’ll have to go back to China.

“I just want to stay here for longer, maybe a year or something, to get some experience before I go back,” Bie said.

I just want to stay here for longer, maybe a year or something, to get some experience before I go back. -Samara Bie

Bie has an F-1 Student Visa, which allows her to live in the United States as long as she’s a full-time student. Once she graduates in May, though, she’ll have 60 days to secure a job and apply for optional practical training (OPT), which would extend her visa for another year.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency under the Department of Homeland Security, grants OPT extensions on a rolling basis. The application window opens 90 days before a student completes their degree, and closes 60 days after their graduation.

If students can’t find work in that time frame, the government orders them to leave immediately.

“That’s not something I can control,” Bie said. “If people don’t hire me, there’s nothing I can do. I just have to work with what I have.”

Coronavirus Outbreak Alters Plans for Thousands of International Students Studying in the Triangle

Triangle universities enroll thousands of students from around the globe every year. Over the past month, the coronavirus outbreak has forced many of these students to make split decisions that impact their studies, personal safety and future careers.

Some of the students under the most pressure are those like Bie, who graduate in May and have long prepared to start their professional careers in the U.S., only to see their plans jeopardized over the past month.

84 percent of postgraduates in the Master of Quantitative Management program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business are international students. Among them is Ravleen Kaur, who was visiting her family in India when Duke announced its plan to move classes online.

“I had a very difficult decision to make, because, obviously, I wanted to stay with my family back there amidst all this chaos,” Kaur said. “Obviously, India was a much safer option, but I had to come back.”

If Kore hopes to receive an OPT extension — which includes an additional year for STEM students — she has to be physically present in the U.S.

“If my F-1 status expires, and I’m not in the United States, they won’t let me enter the states unless I have certain documentation with me,” Kaur said.

Kaur caught a flight back to the U.S. on March 21st, two days before India implemented a temporary ban on international travel. Though the ban only applies to incoming flights, outgoing trips have been so infrequent that the US Embassy is arranging flights for U.S. citizens to depart India.

Her classmate, Sebastian Basuki, is also searching for jobs in the U.S. He said international travel bans will likely preclude him from seeing his family in Indonesia anytime in the near future. It’s just too risky.

“If I were to go back (to Indonesia) and then … I couldn’t go back (to the U.S.), that would just be kind of dumb for me because I want to stay here for at least two or three years to get experience before who knows what’s next,” Basuki said.

In the meantime, some international students are beginning to organize. An online petition asking USCIS to extend its 60-day post-graduation unemployment period now has nearly 23,000 signatures.

The agency did not respond to a request for comment.