Pandemic pushes some international students to abandon post-graduation program

Many international students have given up their OPT application or have not applied. Even those who still chose to apply for OPT might encounter employment difficulties due to the limited spots open for hiring.

Illustration by Eva Berezovsky

Illustration by Eva Berezovsky

Jiang Li

University of Minnesota senior Julie Lee, an international student from South Korea, planned to stay in the U.S. for another year as part of the Optional Practical Training program and apply to graduate school. However, the pandemic ruined her plan.

Following her parents’ wish, Lee gave up OPT and left the U.S. a month ago. She is now focusing on her last semester at the University and preparing for graduate school at home in South Korea.

Lee is one of many international students whose post-graduation plans have been affected by COVID-19. 

The OPT program, which many international students apply for after graduation, is part of a U.S. F-1 visa employment regulation that allows students to do work in a field directly related to their major for up to 12 months after completing their degree. Many have given up their OPT application or decided not to apply at all. The OPT program is one of the few options international students have for working legally in the U.S. 

In fall 2018, there were more than 900 students on OPT and Academic Training, according to data from the University’s International Student and Scholar Services.

Even those who still chose to apply for OPT might encounter employment difficulties due to limited spots open for hiring.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the department in charge of OPT affairs, will continue to process petitions and applications for immigration benefits that do not require an in-person interview. But there may be some delays due to the pandemic, according to a USCIS spokesperson.

In 2019, USCIS approved more than 150,000 OPT applications and about 70,000 STEM OPT applications across the U.S. Approximately 8,000 applications were denied that year, according to data from USCIS.

The University’s International Student and Scholar Services staff has heard concerns from international students, said Barbara Kappler, the assistant dean of ISSS. Some University students are still staying to apply for OPT, but job openings are harder to find, she said.

“For particular major or industry-related job search questions, we encourage students to contact their college career office,” Kappler said in an email. “ISSS has an FAQ [to] address OPT and many other types of international student questions.”

ISSS created a guide about COVID-19 updates to help international students. Students currently can still apply for the OPT program by electronic application, the guide said. However, OPT students are expected to be “physically present inside the United States.”

ISSS will provide updates from USCIS through its FAQ and announcements sent via email, according to Kappler.

Though anxiety about contracting the coronavirus in the United States continues, some University international students will continue forward with the program.

University computer science senior Panglei Xu got approved for OPT by ISSS on Wednesday. Before then, he had received a work offer from the University’s Office of Information Technology Department. Xu is now waiting for approval from USCIS.

Zheyang Yuan, a master’s student at the University, just got her work offer and was originally able to start the job on March 18, after which Gov. Tim Walz announced a ‘stay-at-home’ order. Yuan has not started her work so far.

Before she can begin, Yuan said she chose to take some time for herself.

“Within a week [of the stay-at-home order], I had discovered the uncertainty in my life and work,” Yuan said. “So, I decided to make a plan for myself to continue my research, learn some new skills, network for my career interests and study for the next three years’ worth of qualifying exams. [It] has been enjoyable and fulfilling.”