Amid national delays, VCU international students continue to obtain temporary work cards on time

By Mario Sequeira Quesada

Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — International students across the U.S. are facing delays in seeking and starting jobs after graduation due to a holdup in processing the necessary paperwork to obtain temporary work authorization. But students at Virginia Commonwealth University have avoided this problem. 

In the past year, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The University of Chicago, Stanford University and others reported that the United States. Citizenship and Immigration Services is taking up to seven months to approve applications for international students to obtain Optional Practical Training — a temporary employment status offered to students after graduating college — making it harder for them to pursue and start jobs on time. VCU representatives say with workshops and individual counseling the approval timeline has remained steady for its foreign students .

“It has always taken somewhere between three and five months for students to get their approval,” said Paul Babitts, associate director of the International Student and Scholar Programs at VCU. “Some universities have reported that their applications are taking much longer, but we haven’t seen that many here.” 

Changes in immigration laws and policies during the Trump administration concern students, but Babitts said the timelines for reviewing OPT haven’t changed from previous administrations.

International students can apply for OPT up to 90 days before their graduation date and no later than 60 days after receiving their degree. While the USCIS reviews the application, students can stay in the country legally. Once they receive approval and are mailed the OPT card, they can work legally for 12 months; STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students may receive approval to work for up to 36 months.

Babitts said that one of the biggest problems students face applying for OPT is that universities don’t help them through the process early enough to ensure they apply three months before graduation. 

“The longer it takes for students to file the paperwork, the later they will be able to work, even after graduation,” Babitts said. 

But VCU works differently. “We tell students they can start their documentation process with us four months before their graduation date,” Babitts said. “It’s going to take them up to a month to get their paperwork together and then be able to go on the 90th day [before graduation] and file it.”

More international students are applying for OPT in the U.S., and Babitts said that could be affecting the time for approval. From the 2013-2014 academic year, the number of OPT cards issued increased 92%, according to the Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education. During the 2017-2018 school year, over 203,000 international students received approval to work in the country under this program, 16% more than the previous academic year.

More than 250 students from VCU have applied for OPT each year since 2014, and only a few face troubles in their application, according to the university’s Global Education Office. 

“Each year we might have two or three students that get their OPT denied and most times it’s because they filed wrong, usually a student error,” Babitts said. 

He believes the success behind these numbers is due to VCU’s effort to offer workshops and individual counseling to international students. The workshops are free and open to international students. In these sessions, VCU advisers explain the application process, give students key recommendations regarding documents and applications steps and then answer questions. Once students attend a session, individual counseling is offered to guide them throughout the process.

The university encourages international students to apply for OPT, as it gives them an opportunity to work in their field of study without having an employer sponsor them for work visas. 

Babitts said some employers find it easier to hire international students who already have an OPT card because unlike other work authorizations, employers don’t have to pay money or be involved in the initial paperwork to hire immigrants. “Even if your employer decides to sponsor your working visa right after you graduate, applying for OPT won’t conflict in that process and will guarantee a safety plan,” Babitts said.

Babitts suggests that every international student apply for OPT because it opens up more possibilities. Students seem to agree.

“It seems like the natural next step after graduating from school,” said Shuyi Wang, a Chinese student pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy at VCU. “Hopefully I can get a job for that year and then get a working visa.”

Costa Rican student Reinaldo Brenes, now working in Tampa, Florida, said the workshop made the OPT process easier. “The people at VCU that helped me throughout the process and in the workshops made it very simple for me,” he said. “It is a great resource and got me to understand everything I first struggled with.”

Workshops last between 45 and 60 minutes and are held every Wednesday at 1 p.m. and the first Friday of each month at 11 a.m. VCU encourages students to attend as early as possible and not delay their paperwork, as it may affect them after graduating. 

“Start early and be careful,” said Amanda Hallesjö, VCU alumna from Sweden. “The earlier you start applying the easier it will be.”