OPT: Beyond Your Graduation

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Completing your bachelor’s degree graduation in the US is very nerve wrecking. College seniors begin to ask themselves a very important question: should I stay or should I go home? That was also what I experienced when I was about to graduate a year ago. I kept going back and forth, asking myself whether to stay and leave. The answer is simple, I can do both. I can work here to gain experience, and then go back home. Thankfully, the US government provides us, international students, with Optional Practical Training, or OPT for short.

I’ve heard of ‘OPT’ since my sophomore year of university, but I have never really researched about the topic until my senior year. The initial question would be: what is OPT? OPT is a period where United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) allows F-1 visa holders, both undergraduates & graduates, who have graduated or are in the process of graduating to work in the US for 1 year. These individuals will maintain their F-1 visa status throughout that period. You get one chance of OPT for each of your academic level. So if you do your bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree in the US, you have three opportunities to undergo OPT. Also, you can choose to do your OPT during school (pre-completion), following graduation (post-completion), or even both (they will deduct your post-completion duration with your pre-completion duration).

So, how do you start? For me, I was 100% sure that I was going to do a post-completion OPT. I started by determining the starting date, a date when I wanted to start working, which was two weeks after my graduation date (I deserved a break, didn’t I?). I started my application process about 90 days before the starting date. This is the earliest you can apply, the latest you can apply is 60 days after your graduation.

International program counselors play a crucial role in the whole process. They will help you get what you need and they will gladly explain the process, as well as the details. The application process is not a complicated one, but you need to make sure that you have fulfilled the requirements. Generally, you will need a copy of your new I-20, which will be provided by the international programs office that endorsed your OPT; copies of your previous I-20s (yes, all of them!); the 1-765 form, an application form; a copy of your passport photo page, visa, I-94, passport pictures; as well as the processing fee in the form of a check. Most of the details should be available at your school or institution. Once you”ve prepared all the documents, you will need to send them to USCIS. They will send back a case number, which you can track online.

The review process takes about three months. After they approve your application, they will send an EAD (Employment Authorization Document) card to you. Congratulations, you can now work legally in the US for a year! But, wait! There are some things that you need to know before you continue.

Unemployment. Employment is not a requirement for you to apply for OPT. You can apply even before you get a job offer. However, you have to be employed by 90 days after your starting date. Otherwise, your OPT will no longer be valid.  You may ask, how will USCIS know if I work or not? Each student has to report to their school of their employment status during their OPT.

Work Field. Your work has to be related to your major. Again, USCIS will keep track of this through the report that you submit to your school. However, you can change your job during your OPT, as long as the field is still related. You have to submit another report when you do this. It’s also important to note that your work doesn’t have to be paid.

Travelling. It is highly recommended for you to stay in the US after you graduate if you haven’t received your EAD card. This is because once you graduate, your I-20 is no longer valid, and therefore your EAD card is the “replacement” for that document, which authorizes you to enter the country. After you receive your EAD card, you can travel outside of the US and come back with the card, valid passport and F-1 visa, as well as proof of employment (letter from your employer, pay stub, etc.). If your visa expires before your end date, you can still stay in the US, you just can’t re-enter.

Extension. Some people want to work for more than 1 year in the US. They have 2 options: apply for an H1B visa, or apply for an OPT extension. Students with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) majors can apply for a 17 month extension on their OPT. The application process is similar with the regular OPT, but you will also need to include your proof of major (diploma or transcript) as well as your employer’s information. I am currently in the process of extending my OPT, which has taken a longer time than expected because I passed my end date but I still haven’t received my new EAD card yet. For cases like mine, a 180-day grace period is given, so I can still work while waiting for my new EAD card. This grace period is only given to those who apply for a working visa or an OPT extension. For all others, the end date is the absolute final date they can work in the US.

Useful Resources:

My personal advice, for all of you fresh graduates, is to apply for OPT regardless of your situation. Most companies do not offer H1B visa sponsorship immediately, and even if they do, there’s always a chance for you to be rejected due to the high volume of visa applications and limited space. There’s no quota for OPT applications; if you send in a complete application within the allowed time frame, you will definitely get your EAD card.

Working in the US for a year has been a great educational experience for me, that’s why I decided to apply for the extension. The working environment is very different from Indonesia, and so working here is a very valuable experience that I can take home. I have been given the chance to study here; I might as well take the most out of it! By taking the opportunity of working in the US!

The image was supplied by the author.

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Jessica Budiman
Jessica Budiman is an alumna from Cornell University, graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Food Science in May 2013. During her time in Cornell, she was active in Cornell University Chorus, president of Cornell Indonesian Association, as well as participating in a research team with the United States Department of Agriculture. After she graduated, she moved to Seattle, WA to work for Flying Food Group, an airline catering and retail supplier company. She can be contacted through jessicabudiman@rocketmail.com.