I lived in the US from when I was 17 to 23 years old, from high school through college. That’s a big chunk of life for a not-yet-thirty-year-old. The US was home to many of my first’s: first job, first kiss, first car, first bill under my name, first saving account, etc. For a long time, I thought that was it, America was where I destined to be. I would graduate, build a career and settle down here. But every international student understands the struggle: getting residency in the US can be a real challenge. Even after spending a long critical period of life, I was never American. Most legal documents called me “alien”, although I would much preferred “foreigner.” So how did I stay after college and why I left (and haven’t looked back)?
OPT was a temporary solution for those who want to stay. It’s basically a 12 month extension to the F1 or J1 student visa. You get full employment benefits working under OPT. The international student department at my school held many workshops and consulting sessions on OPT: how to do it, what requirements they are and what deadlines not to be miss. They really guided us through this whole process. Your school should be doing the same thing. So don’t hesitate to seek help from your universities.
Why didn’t it work out long term?
There are more factors to the equation. After a year of OPT, you’ll need your company to sponsor your stay in order for you to change your status to a work visa. A lot of companies don’t hire foreigners because they do NOT want to go through the sponsoring process. They would need to prove that there are NO other Americans qualified for this job and that you are not taking any American citizen’s employment opportunity (although it’s no secret that immigrants are hard working and loyal.) In some interviews, the first thing any company could ask you is whether you have permission to work without needing their help. Don’t be discouraged, keep on trying if this is what you want.
Back to when I was on my OPT, I went to countless of job fairs, cover letters and interviews. I eventually got offered to a manager trainee program for a department store and allowed me to eventually become a merchandise or operation manager. I felt really grateful to have landed a job with good pay & benefits fresh off college. The catch was, although my company didn’t discriminate when they first hired me, unfortunately, they refused to sponsor.
When the deadline to renew my visa was about two, three months away, I sat down and had a serious talk with my company about my situation. They liked me, they said. They would do anything to keep me but… sponsoring. “We don’t do visa sponsorship there’s no exception to anyone,” they told me, “but if you need some time off to sort out your situation and come back, you’re welcome to.” Fair enough! In my head at the time, I thought I needed to find every possible to stay. The United States was home, and my comfort zone. Spoiler alert, magics happen outside of comfort zone.
Weren’t there more options?
I didn’t know where else to turn for help, my immediate community was either a US citizen or in the process of getting a green card already. So I spoke to two lawyers to see if there would be any alternative. “Get married, I’ll help you do the paperwork,” was their suggestion to me. Funny enough, two good friends actually offered to marry me so I could stay in the US and they could also be benefit from the tax cut. Apparently young singles pay more tax than married couples. I had friends who had successfully gone through this process or arranged marriage for paperwork. I respect their choice; however, it wasn’t for me. The idea of dealing with a “divorce” in my 20s wasn’t too attractive. Yeah, that was me thinking ahead if my permanent residence had got approved.
My other option was of course to start from scratch and search for another job that will sponsor my visa. This would take time. In my situation, however, time was what I crunched on. I could become illegal for who knows how long before finding an opportunity that works. I was trying my luck anyway. Maybe someone could see my potential and how it out-shined any of my American counterparts. Maybe, I prayed. In the end, I didn’t find anything soon enough.
What happened after?
Going home to Vietnam seemed to be the only option left! I felt so lost then. My life was over, or so I thought. I was scared that I had given up the “American dream”, the opportunities, the life and career I meant to build. It was my parents’ dream and needless to say, they were disappointed! The conversations of “how Mr. A’s son got a flying offer in Manhattan from a prestigious company” or “that Mrs. B’s daughter is about to buy a house after x amount of years spent in the US” just never ended. My parents thought I didn’t try or fight hard enough.
“I’m sorry” was all I could say.
Before the big move, I went backpacking in South America, took Spanish lessons and explored the unknown. Six months later, I was back in Vietnam for good. For a while, I thought I moved backwards in life. Nope! Sometimes good things fall apart for better things to fall into place. I slowly started a new life with a career in business development for a European Union project that was challenging and rewarding. I’m now based in Spain working for another international company, and I have not stopped traveling since, for both business and leisure. None of this would have happened if my job in the US had given me the sponsored I thought I needed.
4 years later since the day I left the US for good and let me tell you, I might have given up the American dream but am living an international dream. I have found opportunities, careers and love outside the US. I’m not saying the US is not a good place to be, because it is. I miss the open-minded peeps (in certain states), the breath-taking nature, and how easy to have vegetarian options at restaurants, etc. in the US. Butttt, it’s by no means an exclusive place for your dreams to come true. Opportunities are up to you to make regardless of where. So keep on looking!