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Being an International Graduate Student and OPT Candidate in the Midst of the Pandemic

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Seda Acikara

Northern Arizona University

Hi, AAAL Grads!

As we are living through this pandemic, we still have to keep moving forward as graduate students. Some of you are maybe applying for PhD programs, and others might be working on job applications. In this series of blog posts, AAAL GSC invited several fellow graduate students to share their advice and tips for moving forward and transitioning to the next stages. In this last blog post, Seda Acikara shares her experiences of applying for OPT and navigating opportunities.

Being an International Graduate Student and OPT Candidate in the Midst of the Pandemic: Changing Identities

As you might probably already know the answer to this question: it is not easy. However, I am grateful, and here comes the why.

Challenges in professional life

I came to the US to pursue my Master’s Degree in TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) after 3 years of full-time teaching in Turkey. In May of 2020, I successfully graduated from my program. My intention was to apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) which allows international students to work full-time upon graduation for up to 12 months (with a possible 24-months extension for those in the STEM fields). The reasons for this decision are that a) I believe experience is as valuable as education, so I wanted to reflect on my teaching after receiving my MA degree, b) I needed a break from graduate studies, and c) I wanted to save some money for my PhD. My international advisor recommended that I apply early because the process takes a long time, and also in case the Immigration Office (USCIS) requests further documentation. I applied 90 days before my graduation date, which is the earliest possible option, and got my employment authorization document (EAD) card in April. I was thrilled that the process was smooth, and that I did not come across any challenges. However, the world during COVID-19 was not nice to the people in the job market, especially to international job applications. There were not many job postings, so I got excited every time I found a suitable job. However, I got disappointed with every application. No one wanted to hire me. I was not even invited for an interview. I knew OPT would be challenging as I could work only for a year, which is not desirable for many institutions. Yet, the pandemic made it more disadvantageous for me and many other international graduates in the job market. The application price that I paid (410$), which is not a negligible price, was just a waste. What is worse was that I was planning to pursue a PhD degree after my OPT. If I went back to my country, I would not come back for a PhD as moving from one side of the world to another is extremely difficult. My days were full of anxiety, stress, and feeling depressed. I did not feel this much stress even in my MA program. This was a different kind of stress.

I would like to clarify that the OPT process is just a formality. What is difficult is the job search. I started looking for a job as early as December and January; however, I did not anticipate a pandemic when I applied for OPT in February. After submitting several job applications, I had to make a decision in late June as I was running low on money: to go back to my home country, Turkey, or to apply for a PhD degree right away although the deadline for applications already passed. I chose the latter. Luckily, my faculty said they would consider my application despite being late. After a few weeks, I was accepted! Towards the end of the summer, I was also offered an assistantship, which made it financially possible for me to come back to the US. This was the background of my PhD study. I also wanted to share this experience for those who might be interested in applying for OPT in 2021 although your experience will likely be different than mine (hopefully more positive). Right now, I am in my first year of PhD at the school that I graduated from in May 2020 and dreamt to come back for my PhD. I am also teaching English to international students at the University’s Intensive English Program (IEP), which is fully online. While most of my doctoral classes are also online, I have one in-person class.

Challenges in graduate studies

I am grateful for being back; however, I have to admit my classes are different. It is not because of my professors and classmates. Indeed, I have a very supportive faculty and an amazing cohort full of brilliant colleagues. But I cannot interact well on Zoom because when you speak on Zoom, you are on the spot, which adds up to my anxiety of speaking in public. It is not similar to the classroom chats where everyone talks in their small groups. I realized how much I was enjoying the interactions before and after class with my classmates. We would talk about some assignments, updates from our lives, or some trivial matters. I can’t do it anymore as I feel very anxious to speak in Zoom classes. I used to be very responsive and participate a lot. However, now I question every bit of the word I am using in Zoom classes because I do not feel comfortable on Zoom.

Additionally, I had a really great MA cohort. We used to hang out together as much as we could and do fun things together; things that were not related to school. I want to get to know my PhD cohort as well; however, it does not look quite possible. I personally do not feel comfortable dining in a restaurant or going to a pub. Although I feel safe spending time outside while we can still be at a safe distance, it is not an option especially now that the weather is getting colder and colder every day. Most of my classmates, including me, do not want to add more screen time to our lives with Zoom hangouts, so virtual hangout is not an option either. Also, given the workload of doctoral classes, I feel obligated to work constantly now that I do not have the socializing option in my life. I feel lonely and depressed. I am already a bit introverted, and I feel like the current situation of the world made me more introverted and less confident about my personality and work.

Challenges in teaching

As mentioned earlier, I also teach some classes at the IEP. My students are currently taking all their classes online from China due to travel restrictions and not being able to get a visa. All my classes are online with a majority of them being asynchronous. In my second year as an MA student, I taught almost the same classes with the same student population. I used to play a song before my class started to help reduce anxiety. Later in the semester, I would ask my students to suggest a song every day, something they like or want to share to create a community where they could feel more comfortable. Now, I feel that I don’t even know most of my students. I can’t attach a face to a name. Most of my students are unmotivated to come to my one-hour live Zoom sessions. The ones who attend do not turn on their camera or unmute themselves to participate for various reasons ranging from technical difficulties to feeling shy (just like myself). I have tried numerous ways to engage them more, but none of them worked so far. So, I usually have one student with their camera on, and the rest either does not attend or does not participate. With 15 hours difference, they are confused, and I am confused about something all the time. Even when I am setting a deadline for an assignment or reminders of our class time, I am nervous of making mistakes and creating further confusion for my students.

I shared my brief story with the purpose of telling you that if you are experiencing any of these, you are not alone. What made me more comfortable recently is hearing that other people are having the same experiences whether they are international students or not, which encouraged me to share my situation. I often remind myself of how stressful it was before I started my doctoral program. I am grateful that I am where I am and have the opportunity to share experiences with other people. So if you are reading this, remember why you wanted to be here. Remember that other people are going through similar experiences and have difficulty keeping up with the changing world and responsibilities. It is a challenge, but this, too, will pass one day.

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