Opt for OPT

Optional Practical Training (OPT) provides a way for international students to work in their area of study, even off their U.S. university campus.

For students aspiring to go to the United States for higher education, applying for the student visa is an important part of the whole process, and so is choosing a school certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Only such schools and universities can legally allow students to use the student visa and enter the United States. Most well-known U.S. universities are SEVP-certified, but it always helps to crosscheck at the Department of Homeland Security-approved website https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/school-search.

Students need to familiarize themselves with three crucial aspects of studying and working in the United States. These are the visa, the updating of the SEVIS (Student Exchange Visitor Information System), and OPT (Optional Practical Training).

The F-1 visa, as the student visa is called, is a rather comprehensive one that makes a student eligible for studying in the United States, for scholarships awarded by U.S. universities and working on campus. Besides the F-1 visa, there is also the M-1 visa category, which includes students in vocational or other nonacademic programs, other than language training. The F-1 visa allows students to work on campus and at university-affiliated centers, while M-1 does not.

But remember that students on the F-1 visa cannot avail the “work-study” option. This is an oft-used term on campus job advertisements. Work-study is a federal and, sometimes, state-funded program that helps college students with financial need get part-time jobs, and is not for international students. So, international students should look for positions that ask for “student worker,” which is open to all. All volunteer positions that do not involve payment, off-campus and on campus, are open to all students, irrespective of the visa category.


Working while studying
U.S. universities, especially those specializing in humanities, often offer teaching fellowships which involve working as a teaching assistant or instructor to cover all fees and health insurance and includes a stipend. “Students on a F-1 visa can work for limited hours on campus,” says Priya Rai, a final-year computer science student at The University of Texas at Austin. She suggests looking for hours with the tutoring centers of the universities. At The University of Texas at Austin, for example, the Sanger Learning Center that provides tutoring and writing help to undergraduates and graduates, employs graduate students from different fields to serve as tutors and mentors.

Himanshu Sharma, a computer science Ph.D. student at The University of Texas at Austin, says, “International students can work for 30 hours in summer and for 20 hours in the spring and fall semesters. But, they can work only if they are enrolled for classes.” Some positions on campus, like 10-hour research or graduate assistant positions, do not pay tuition or health insurance, and require international students to be registered for classes.


Off-campus work and internships
While the F-1 visa might seem limiting in professional options, the OPT makes up for it, says Gurpreet Singh, a postdoctoral fellow at The University of Texas at Austin. OPT, or the Optional Practical Training, as the name suggests, is optional. As explained on the U.S. citizenship and Immigration Services website, “Optional Practical Training (OPT) is temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. Eligible students can apply to receive up to 12 months of OPT employment authorization before completing their academic studies (pre-completion) and/or after completing their academic studies (post-completion).”  Students must be aware that all periods of pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the available period of post-completion OPT.

OPT allows international students to work off-campus. For many, this means doing prestigious internships in different organizations. For example, Singh did his internship after his OPT was approved. Usually, OPTs are for a period of 12 months, but for STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), OPTs can be extended by 24 months. Off-campus employment must be related to students’ areas of study and must be authorized by the Designated School Official, the person authorized to maintain the SEVIS and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

SEVIS is an important aspect of the F-1 student visa and the OPTs. As the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website explains, “SEVIS is the web-based system that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses to maintain information on Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified schools, F-1 and M-1 students who come to the United States to attend those schools, U.S. Department of State-designated Exchange Visitor Program sponsors and J-1 visa Exchange Visitor Program participants.”

Updating information on the SEVIS is important. While this may sound complicated, all the information needed is available on the 1-20 forms, which all international students have. The I-20 is the document that is mailed to all accepted students by SEVP-certified schools. I-20 is updated as students enter and leave the United States. It is only after paying the I-901 SEVIS Fee that students can apply for the F-1 visa. Students are approved for OPTs on the SEVIS system, so they should make sure that all information is correct.

As Singh says, making sure your paperwork is up-to-date is important. “Your international office is your ally,” he says. “Ask them about updating your SEVIS and other paperwork.”

Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.