Campus Life guest column


‘Will you now or in the future require a sponsorship?’

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Too many abbreviations and too many restrictions but too little money and too little time to figure it all out before the time bomb explodes
Arun Wongprommoon–The Tech

Well, FML for digging myself a hole that makes it nearly impossible to find a path towards a better life for myself.

Look, with the hiring freeze this year, I know applying for internships and jobs is harder for everyone. But the more I apply, the more I learn and read about job applications, and the more I get rejected, the more I realize:

I'm not on equal footing.

Let me explain.

This story starts right at the end of summer, when my other story came to a close. Yes, after all my troubles obtaining a tourist visa, I was finally able to visit my brother in the U.K. and spend a week in Europe. I got my passport back merely three days before I was scheduled to leave Pittsburgh.

From then, however, everything seemed to go downhill.

If you thought my last article was complicated, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

On the last Wednesday of my summer internship, I had a final check-in with the recruiter.

"I’m sorry to say that we will not be extending a return offer because of your complicated visa situations."

My life plans crumbled right then and there, and I crashed into panic. Over the summer I had formed a five year plan for myself given what I know about my visa and scholarship situation.

There is one common path international students can take if they want to continue living in the U.S. after their studies, into their career years and beyond. If you’ve heard of the green card, this is it.

The vast majority of international students here in the U.S. hold an F-1 student visa. It comes with Curricular Practical Training (CPT) during studies and an Optional Practical Training (OPT) period of about three years after the period of study. Training is an umbrella term, which students would usually use for internships while they are in school and for starting a career after graduating. There are some guidelines here, but they boil down to the need to document and get approved for every kind of work you do in the U.S. outside of school, which needs to be directly related to the major or field of study. There’s also this crazy thing where you can’t do an internship if you’ve completed all of your course requirements, so you might have heard of or seen us internationals putting off one requirement until senior spring. This, folks, is strategy and survival in the cruel world of bureaucracy. F-1 students can also only work part-time — at most 20 hours a week — during the school year, whether they are on or off campus. That might be why you don’t see many internationals taking up side jobs or straying off the beaten path.

Doing the documentation and requesting approval is about half as much chaos and fury as getting a tourist visa. Not bad, but still quite irritating. It takes maybe about half a month to a month of emailing, asking a few different people for things, and waiting around.

After graduation, there is an H1-B visa, a work visa, that one can obtain by sponsorship of a company and through an annual federal lottery that takes about 80,000 people. For the whole country. For the entire year. Many F-1 students try their luck for an H1-B visa, timing their application to be during their OPT period, so that they can stay in the country after their student visa runs out and transition to a work visa. I want to emphasize that this process is a lottery, and that there exist some unlucky people whose three or four tries for an H1-B come up unfruitful. Returning to their home country is their only option thereafter.

Finally, there are green cards, which are dream goals for people who intend to stay in the U.S. in the long run. Even given the current U.S. political climate, many still want to get the green card, as living conditions, wages, and prospects of social mobility would still be better than those in a lot of countries people come from. There are a few things to file during the process of getting a green card, in three long steps, which can ultimately take at least two to three years. Deep into the process, people will be put in “green card jail,” where they are unable to travel outside the U.S. for a whole year or so. Green card jail might be brutal for some, especially those whose entire families are abroad and are venturing in this strange land alone, but it is an extremely worthwhile tradeoff for the ultimate gift of being a permanent resident.

The typical path would therefore involve obtaining an F-1 as a student, then an H1-B during the start of a career, followed by a green card. That was what I envisioned myself doing as well, and as such I formed my five-year-plan around this path and the company I worked for during the summer. I really enjoyed the work and it really felt like my fit, work content-wise, culturally, philosophically, everything. For a while, I thought I was all set in life and nothing could set me down. My green card was coming.

This article would end now if it weren’t for the fact that I am an exceptional case.

Enter: J-1 and the two-year home country physical presence requirement.

The Thai government ordered that I get a different kind of visa, a much rarer J-1. The name of J-1 is officially the Exchange Visitor visa, and the intended use case is, for example, for those who are studying abroad for a relatively short amount of time, kind of like some MIT students who are going to the UK or Switzerland for a semester. Not a lot of people would be on this visa for a whole degree.

Up until fairly recently, I was led to believe that F-1 and J-1 are mostly the same. F-1 has CPT and OPT; J-1 has a combined Academic Training (AT), albeit set at 18 months instead of three years. The Biden administration is piloting extending AT to three years for people in STEM, but it seems that the process to extend AT is heavily backlogged.

I was telling my story to a friend at my internship over dinner one day, and the friend joked:

"Ah, yes, they’re basically the same thing, that's why they're named differently."

Yeah, so true bestie. As it turns out, some J-1 visas have the Two Year Home Country Physical Presence Requirement (two-year rule, for short), which dictates that students have to return to their home country for two years after their period of study ends. The Thai government had outsmarted me — they knew the F-1 would make people disappear, so they made sure to chain us with a J-1.

Two years means missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars. Money is the least of my worries, but who doesn’t love the opportunity to obtain more money when available? To help out my parents, whose financial situations are dire. To build up a comfortable life.

Two years mean a discontinuity in social mobility or career growth. I can’t get as far if I were to go home and work there for a while. It basically guarantees a “Please explain this gap in your resume.”

Two years mean an exponential increase in difficulty of applying to come to the U.S. again, since you’re no longer able to come as a student and have to play with the work visa lottery.

Two years mean disappearing off the social scene that I have built up over the past four years. Trust me, when I was home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not fun to wake up to my peers going to sleep, and get to sleep as my peers were waking up. It’s really hard to communicate and keep in touch with people if you’re quite literally as far away as one could be in the world.

The two-year rule also prohibits me from ever applying for an H1-B or a green card, cutting me out from that common path.

But is there a way to waive the two-year rule?

Thinking about this is like trying every way to buy time on a ticking time bomb. Right now, the timer stands at 12 months. After that, boom — time to get deported and head home. I need to act fast if I want to extend that time.

As I’ve come to discover rather recently, the Thai government scholarship can function as a Thai government loan. Going with their playbook, I go back after my studies and retribute my scholarship by paying back with time — six years working in a government-affiliated organization in Thailand for six years in the U.S. Another option, which is more popular among those who don’t play by the book, is that I can pay back with money. The government has been keeping tabs on how much they have invested in me since the very first flight out of Thailand. However much they paid for us is how much I have to pay back to them to clear the two-year rule. There is no interest if the sum is paid within 30 days. The sum? About four hundred thousand dollars, give or take. If you don’t pay within a month, get ready for a 15% per year interest rate. Only when I finish paying would I be able to obtain a two-year rule waiver.

Yes, yes. To add time to the ticking time bomb I just have to give a small sum of 0.4 million dollars.

Should I get a loan to pay a loan? Is this a mortgage? College loan?

Can I ask for retroactive financial aid and make the Thai government unpay MIT tuition since freshman year?

Is there anyone who knows a kind billionaire who can let me borrow just a tiny bit of money — only about 0.0002% of Jeff Bezos’ net worth?

Should I put all my savings into Bitcoin and expect a miracle to happen?

I know the answer to the last question, don’t worry.

It is yes, yes I should.

Because there’s no fucking way the other options would work, and so what seems to be a crazy idea isn’t quite so crazy anymore, is it?

The thing about holding a J-1 is that companies also see the ticking time bomb chained to me, and most are hesitant to give me a chance. It’s like I’m not a worthwhile investment to these companies.

It is already hard for F-1s to obtain an internship or full time jobs in this country, let alone in this economy. However, there are a number of companies who do sponsor F-1 visas but disgustingly shove J-1s away.

Looking at you, Meta, Stripe, and Spotify, to name a few. These companies will ask you if you have ever held a J-1, and all chances of receiving an offer from them vanishishes instantly.

This makes it harder for me to approach the hiring process selectively. I don’t have the option to be selective.

And given that the only way to waive the two-year rule is to throw away money, I am persuaded to apply to jobs that have high compensation, even if the company does something that goes against my ideals.

Shackles, everywhere I go.

While I’m trying to live the best senior year and have fun with it, I can’t bring myself to, because every once in a while this black hole of thought that I usually keep in the back of my mind resurfaces.

And I actually can’t live the best senior year that I want to either. I have been looking forward to a senior trip for a while, but after reading up on J-1 expiry and restrictions, I realize that my senior trip dreams are shattered. I, among other people on a J-1 visa, am simply not able to join my friends on something as normal as a weeklong trip abroad after graduation.

The expiry date for my visa is June 2, 2023 — literally the day of commencement. This means I have to leave the U.S., and while the government has a 30-day grace period for me to pack up my life, I can no longer enter the U.S. with an expired visa. It’s only one-way from here, no other option.

Extend the visa, you might say? On what grounds, if I am technically done with my bachelor’s degree duties here? This is no tourist visa, and MIT would need to approve my seemingly needless request for visa extension. I can change to another visa for my master's degree, yes,, but that will not work out seamlessly since I have to be in the U.S. on J-1 visa status during my upcoming summer internship. In other words, I’m stuck in the U.S. and can’t go home, or else the internship explodes.

Why can’t I ever win with visas?

There are times when I wish a time machine existed. I would go back in time, not take this scholarship, and apply to MIT directly. It could have been a much better situation where I’m not shackled by the Thai government to such a restrictive visa. Go back in time, ask for financial aid the day I got admitted to MIT. Props to those who brainwashed me into thinking that international students cannot apply for financial aid, only for me to realize later that it was a glaring lie to keep me from having the upper hand.

(Note: it is still a common misconception that international students cannot ask for financial aid. Let this be something to assure that yes, we can get aid, and do so now if you are not on aid. I wish Student Financial Services publicized itself more to internationals.)

But a time machine does not exist. The only way I can deal with this is to go forward.

Send help.