Abhijit Tagade’s Facebook profile picture tells you nothing about the F1 visa anxiety levels in Trump’s America 2018. Tagade’s toothy grin hides a constant gnawing about the US visa page on his passport. You’d think Tagade, 26, armed with a dual Master’s degree in Economics and Education at Columbia University and a job at Harvard Business School in Boston should have nothing to crib about but he does - his student visa times out in six months.
Welcome to the dystopian F1 hamster treadmill in the US for students outside the hallowed circle of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
Tagade’s F1 visa was stamped in 2015 for his Master’s degree which cost him approximately ~ $60,000 - a conservative number not including living costs and overheads, he funded this with a loan which carries a 11% interest and will begin paying back this month.
"USA is closing doors on foreign students. The message is clear that we are unwanted in the US. Many of my friends are turning to Australia, Canada, Europe and even China where the costs are lower and the nuisance value is less. The only hope for the US is the students in tech who study at the top 20 universities and contribute to the frontier," says Tagade.
Tagade has a job and venting; others have not even gotten this far. “I know so many of my own batchmates who waited it out for a few months after graduating and just couldn’t find jobs,” says Tagade, who we first met at Columbia University when he was waiting for interview calls before he landed his job in HBS.
The switch from an F1 to H1B is wearing people out, keeping fresh graduates on the tightest leash for the longest outer time limits with every consecutive hoop.
“After I finished my study, I applied for my OPT (Optional Practical Training) and I got that only at the outermost possible time limit”, says Tagade who moved to a rural outpost to cut costs during the wait. An OPT stamping extends the lease on the student visa for temporary employment.
But not all OPT journeys end well, even for STEM students with a double Master’s degree.
There are those like Swati who has a double Master’s degree in STEM subjects and yet stonewalled by the F1-H1B chasm. Here’s what she told us over phone from the West Coast: "I moved to US 5 years ago. I hold a Bachelors and Masters degree in Engineering. I had a well paying job in India, which I decided to leave to live with my husband because he came to the US on an H1B. I did not want to leave India but you can imagine the family pressures. I had a baby and I focussed on raising my daughter as I did not have any work permit. I enrolled for my second Masters and did a change of Status to F1. I found an internship and was relieved. I went to India in January and I had to go for stamping. My F1 visa was denied. I am back to US on H4 and still studying. With the chances of H4 EAD getting revoked, I will not have any option to work in the future. My husband is willing to move back to India because we don't see any point in living like this anymore....With a Masters degree in Engineering and another Masters almost done, I have been out of a paid job for five years now. I don't want to look back at age 40 and realize that I spent 10 years just doing the dishes."
Tagade tells us that he and his batchmates found that interviews were simply drying up for international students. “They didn’t want to touch us. Nobody is going to say that to your face but we can see what’s going on.”
Two of Tagade’s classmates from Columbia went back to India and Dubai. Are they upset? “Of course they are. To be forced by the system to go back so soon means you’re paying off a US dollar tuition fee with Indian earnings straight after graduating which is just one reason to be upset,” says Tagade.
Tagade's friend Gaurav Pradhan’s story runs a slightly different course. After growing up in small town Dombivili, near Mumbai, Pradhan, now 32, studied electronics and telecom engineering at Mumbai University and spent a few years bouncing between software companies and social sector jobs. “I decided software wasn’t for me. After working in Teach for India, I knew that this was the kind of work I wanted to do and I began applying to various public policy programs”, says Pradhan on how he came to study at Columbia University, New York.
In Pradhan's case, he was clear from the start that he wanted to put his Columbia expereince back to work back in India but he was keen to get a taste of working on real world public policy programs in the West before returning. Gaurav says he went all in on applying from December 2016 itself but got nothing in hand till August 2017. Sensing the mood, he booked his return tickets.
“It was important to decide when to stop. I exhausted all my funds and the decision was straightforward. I come from a very humble, middle class background from a small town. I never thought I would go abroad and study but my work experience led me there. If I could have found work, it would had added to my understanding of real work public policy work on the international stage but job interviews were very tough to come by and I put a lid on the chase,” he says.
Pradhan is now based in Chennai, working on the project team of a brand new liberal Arts University that's to come up in the city. With his current earning capacity, Pradhan says it will take him at least 7 years to pay off his student loan he took for the Columbia course, despite the generous 50% scholarship money he got.
On the supply side, has any of this changed how coaching classes in India, which cater to the qualifying examinations of GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, are hedging their bets?
K P Singh, chief of IMFS, an exam training hub for outbound Indian students, says he is looking at “America with renewed interest” because of intake numbers in the US dropping from the Middle East region which means potentially “better admission decisions” for Indian students. Even the numbers point to US keeping its lead in the worldwide spray of Indian students with 186,000 incoming students last year. "That’s a jump of 12%,” says Singh.
At the same time, student traffic from India to other conutries is also ticking up. “Indian student numbers to Canada have shot up from 49,000 two years ago to 76,000 last year. New Zealand has remained constant at around 29,000 kids from India, Australia is doing well and UK has gone up too - especially the last year. "
“Companies in America, especially the IT giants will lobby hard and not allow Trump and his government to take decisions that will hurt them. The H1B will stay, despite its problems. We’ve reached the bottom, it can only get better from here”, is Singh’s outlook for the India-led academic market in the US.
Plotting the dots together so far, a STEM course remains a better bet against political dystopia than at any other time in America. Sonal Chandrakant's story below is a template that informs the F1 experience for liberal arts majors in America. Chandrakan't story is also relevant because she's speaking from the high ground of an Ivy League platform. Like Tagade says, "if you're not graduating from the top 10 or 20 institutions, things are much much worse."
Below this line, we'll be updating with first person accounts of students on F1, OPT, CPT or those aging out on an H4. Share your story with us. Tweet to @byniknat.
"My only option is to back home in July"
Sonal Chandrakant, Columbia University alum
"I graduated from Teachers College, Columbia University in May 2017 with a masters in International Educational Development. Unlike the pressure on some of my friends and classmates, I started off my OPT with a job at Columbia’s International Students Office. I was a GA with them and converted to a temp contract just so that I would have an additional four months’ buffer to find a job. As much as I loved the work there, I knew there’s no future for me in that office because one has to be a green card holder or an American national to become a Designated School Official. This was a purely administrative job that renders a person with 2 masters extremely overqualified to be in that position. Basically, my job was to check students’ documents.
"In the meantime, I kept applying to no less than 5 positions each day. Out of about 45 positions I applied to, only 2 had called back for an interview by mid October 2017. During this time a friend found out that my four months at the ISSO were up and I faced the possibility of going back mid-OPT if none of those interviews led to something concrete. By this time, I was barely managing to pay the rent and had no health insurance.
"It was only by December that I started a full time position at a nonprofit. I asked them for sponsorship last week. Although they’re really happy with my work and would want me to stay on, they turned it down owing to the precarious funding streams in nonprofit sector and the bureaucratic nature of the process pre and post hiring a foreign national. From the many contacts here in New York, I’ve so far heard only those friends who are in STEM majors talk about their organizations sponsoring H1B. They also get a three year OPT while non-STEM majors get only one year of OPT. Anyway, it is too late for me to find a new employer who will sponsor an H1B.
"In many ways, my situation hasn’t been as bad as some of my friends who’ve been promised sponsorship at the beginning to have it turned down a week before the filing season and then having to scramble to figure out options for staying on in the US. I don’t have a loan to repay but it’s still a large investment that my parents made- around $80,000. With no opportunity to stay on in the US and earn some of it back, my only option is to go back home in July."
Updated Date: Mar 01, 2018 17:35 PM