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Finding a Legal Way to Work


For some international students, finding a way to work is so difficult that they work illegally.

**Ashley’s last name is not included due to her illegal status working in the U.S.

Ashley was 18 when she met Ai Weiwei at his studio in Beijing with a group of her friends. Ai is famous for his artwork and outspoken criticism of the communist regime, something she and her friends admired. When they knocked on his studio door early in the afternoon, Ai invited them in for lunch. Over their meal, Ai spoke to her group and another man that had shown up claiming to be a fan as well, about the government. He confided in them about the subjects he had been tweeting about and informed them of his flight to Hong Kong the next day, something he hadn’t told anyone else. When she and her friends left, Ashley was so happy. She felt like she just met a celebrity.

The next day as Ai got ready to board his plane to Hong Kong, he was arrested for tax evasion but it is suspected that the real reason was his activism and political views. When Ashley got the news, she realized journalism was not a career to have in China.  

“I couldn’t stay in China,” she said.

Ashley’s aunt had been an international student herself and now manages her own franchised company in New York and China. Her aunt is married to an American, whose sister studied at Ball State and informed her about Ball State’s journalism program.  

The decision was made. Ashley, an international student from Beijing, China, would study journalism in Indiana, in a country that allowed her to have freedom of speech.

According to a study by the Institute of International Students (IIE), for the 2014/2015 school year, 854,639 international students were enrolled in U.S. schools.  The recent study shows a steady increase of international students studying in the U.S. since 1979. More than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate international students enroll at Ball State University each year.

Ashley’s family supported her from the start of her studies.

Wow, I’m in an American T.V. show, Ashley thought as she stepped off of her plane in Indiana. Then came the nerves. The uneasiness of walking through a terminal by herself in a foreign place where she knew no one. Ashley wasn’t scared, though.

This was her dream.

Executive Director of the Center for International Development Kenneth Holland says that international students play an important role in the U.S. economy. According to a study by the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA), three  U.S. jobs are created or supported by every seven international students enrolled in an American school.

“International students are known for getting degrees in American universities and then staying in the U.S.,” Kenneth said. “They have a very high rate of new venture start ups. They create employment by starting companies.”

According to Kenneth, more and more companies are searching for students with a global perspective, something Kenneth said international students have.

NAFSA’s study shows that international students and their families brought around $26.8 billion to the U.S. economy.

Kenneth says there are three main reasons that companies prefer international students.

The first reason is the many languages that foreign students know. Most international students can at least speak their native language and English. Ashley can speak three languages: Chinese, English and Japanese, the language she took at Ball State to fulfill the foreign language requirement of her degree.

The second reason is the global perspective that many international students have that Kenneth says American students don’t. International students tend to think of the whole world as the bigger picture. According to Kenneth, many international students have connections in their foreign countries that allow companies access to many trading opportunities.

Kenneth’s final reason is based on an international student’s work ethic. He says that many international students are used to working with people from many different backgrounds having come from a foreign country and learning to interact with American students in the U.S. He says that companies search for  this type of work ethic now because it can be used in interactions  with other countries and expand the company.

While studying at Ball State, Ashley worked at the McKinley Grill in the Atrium 20 hours a week because international students are not allowed to work off campus.

“All international students I know prefer to work 20 hours a week during the academic year and then 40 hours a week in the summer. That’s the traditional pattern for an international student,” Kenneth said.

Due to the terms of international student’s F-1 student visa, international students are not allowed to work off-campus. Over the summer, international students must have permission from the international office to work off-campus if they would like to. Internships are a different story, however, because they are considered part of the academic training an international student is to receive.

From the end of May to the end of August, Ashley interned at Scott Cunningham photography in Columbus, Ohio. There she learned the proper way to pack her equipment, set up the lighting, and manage clients. Ashley had a hands-on experience with her true passion.

Ashley graduated from Ball State University last July with a degree in photojournalism.

According to NAFSA, in 2013-2014, international students and their families at colleges and universities contributed $26.8 billion to the U.S economy and supported 340,000 jobs.

Ashley held a plan that several international students hold when coming to the U.S. to further their education: to graduate with their degree and continue on the path to becoming a citizen. However, her dream was quickly brought to a sudden reality when she was two days late to submitting her Optional Practical Training (OPT) forms and was denied access to an OPT.

After the student graduates, he or she has up to 60 days to start an OPT to extend their training in a job related to their major for another year. An OPT is an extended student visa that prolongs the student’s training in the U.S.

In Ashley’s mind, her internship, not her graduation date, signaled a finish to her education. So, she figured she didn’t have to submit her OPT forms until her internship was completed in August. The day she finally did turn in her forms, right before her internship was complete, she received a call from the international offices at Ball State. She was two days late.

“You are two days late. You have to go back to China.” the woman on the phone said to her.

Blank. Ashley’s mind was lost for the split second that those words registered in her mind. And then she became frantic. I cannot go back to China. I cannot go back to China. The words repeated in her head as she tried to find a solution. Her internship was ending, she was late turning in her OPT, and she didn’t know what to do.

She had a one year lease on her apartment. She had already set up all of her banking. She had bought all new furniture. Her roots were in Ohio now.

There was no way she was going back to China.

She decided to wait it out until she got the information back from the international offices in China.

Ninety days later, she received the letter stating that her OPT request was denied. Her first thought: to reopen her case.

Reopening an OPT case, though, is not simple, Ashley says.The best idea would be to get a lawyer.

But I have no money.

The lawyer option was out. Ashley was on her own.

International students have 30 days to respond to the denial letter before the case is completely closed and they are shipped back to their foreign country. Within a week, Ashley had filled out the forms, gathered statements and evidence to state her case as to why she was late, and sent in another application for an OPT. She was going to try again.

During the 90 day wait for her application to be processed, Ashley had to find a source of income. One problem: she was now here illegally. Her student visa may expire in 2019, but Ashley is not a student anymore and does not have an OPT.

“I need money,” she said.

She found a small diner that pays her cash every night at the end of her shift. Oftentimes her shift starts at 9 p.m. and ends around 4 or 5 a.m.

Another 90 days after Ashley submitted her second application, she was denied again. This time, she decided she had to get a lawyer. Her lawyer helped her apply a third time and Ashley enrolled into a couple classes at Columbus Community College to keep her student status available.

Just like Ashley, over 854,639 international students study in the U.S., some facing similar financial challenges. It is not uncommon for students who face difficulty working due to restrictions to find illegal work.

“I hope to work for a newspaper someday,” Ashley said.

Ashley will start her schooling this fall. She will hear back from the international offices in July about whether she can stay in the country.

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