Applying for a student work visa during a global pandemic

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Leer en español: Solicitud de visa de trabajo para estudiantes durante una pandemia

Editor’s note: Aaron Fitzner worked as the sports editor for the Daily Universe until he graduated with a master’s degree in communications on April 24. He has spent the past five years in the U.S. as an international student.

Daily Universe Sports Editor Aaron Fitzner holds up his Canadian passport. Fitzner has spent the past five years in the U.S. as an international student. (Marissa Liu)

See also: BYU international students face added hardships during pandemic

The spring and summer of 2020 were supposed to be some of the most exciting times of my life — my fiancee was going on her bachelorette trip to California, I would be celebrating my master’s degree with my family that I haven’t seen since Christmas, I was getting married in June before leaving to Hawaii on a honeymoon and I would finally get to work full-time in the United States. These are all big deals for a person from northern Canada.

The sports world came to a very abrupt halt on March 12, sending shocks around the globe and down my spine as we all started to realize the seriousness of this pandemic. At this point, I wasn’t thinking much about immigration or wedding plans, and my devastation didn’t go much deeper than being sad over not getting to watch Connor McDavid make opposing NHL defenders look like they weren’t even skating, or annoyance at not getting to see the Toronto Raptors immediately run it back and make another playoff run. My tunnel vision didn’t see far past that.

As things got more serious and work-from-home orders became the norm for seemingly every non-essential company, the question of our wedding came into play. Eventually, we made the difficult decision to postpone it for a year because we knew a June wedding just wasn’t going to work. This was tough for me because as an extremely extroverted international student, I have close friends in all the places I’ve lived during my time as a college student — northern Canada, Salt Lake City, Minnesota, Nashville and Provo. This would have been the first time that all my close friends and family were in the same geographical location at the same time.

At the end of the day, with everything being canceled, I was grateful that I wasn’t in this situation alone. After all, there were plenty of people who wouldn’t be celebrating their weddings on their desired dates, and even more people with altered or canceled graduation plans. I was happy to know that no matter what, I was lucky to still be working and have a job that would likely allow me to work from home through this pandemic.

International students aren’t like U.S. citizens — well, in a lot of ways — but specifically when it comes to the legalities of holding a job and working with immigration hurdles. International students can’t work off-campus without applying for an extension of their student visas. Even with this extension, international students can only work off-campus for a year before trying to apply for a non-student work visa.

As the pandemic worsened and copious numbers of people found themselves directly affected by COVID-19 in some way, shape or form, I started to fear that my work visa — optional practical training (OPT) — would be delayed. I had diligently applied for OPT on time, but sometimes even the government, or U.S Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) in this case, experiences setbacks.

When an international student graduates from their program, their student visa expires the same week of their graduation. These students then have 60 days to stay in the U.S. before they go out of status, meaning they will no longer be in the U.S. on a visa. For me, my visa expiration date was April 24. Once a visa expires, international students are automatically terminated from their jobs until they leave the U.S. and search for work in their home country, or get an extension of their student visa — OPT.

My OPT was supposed to have been ready on April 24, the day before I was automatically terminated from my job, but it’s been delayed because of COVID-19. The only route I had yet to trod down was the path of appealing for my work visa to be expedited. Expediting a visa only happens in very specific circumstances with strict exceptions, with one of those exceptions being gross financial loss. In my case, going without full-time work for months potentially meant I would be suffering from gross financial loss, so I went ahead and applied for the appeal.

When you call the USCIS office and appeal for your case to be expedited, they tell you that a decision will be made within the next five days. They then — either knowingly or unknowingly, I’m really not sure — change their tone of voice and sternly state that under no circumstance are you to call the USCIS and follow up on your case if you don’t hear back from them within five days.

I appealed for my case to be expedited on April 8, and I have yet to hear from the USCIS as of April 24. I would call back to see where they stand with my case, but their sternness of voice tactic had too much of an effect on me.

I feel a lot like how Patrik Stefan of the Dallas Stars must’ve felt on January 4, 2007, when he found himself on a clear breakaway with no goalie in the Edmonton Oilers net.

The Oilers were down by a goal with time winding down, so they did what any hockey team would do — they pulled their goalie so they could put an extra skater onto the ice, bettering their chances to score a goal and tie the game. By doing this, the Oilers left their net without a goaltender, meaning any shot on the net would count as goal — very typical of what every team does in this situation.

Stefan found himself crossing the blue line on a breakaway with no goalie in the Oilers net. All he had to do was gingerly shoot the puck into the goal and the game would be out of reach for Edmonton. As he skated towards the open goal, he stick-handled one too many times and the puck hit a divot in the ice, causing it to bounce over the blade of his stick. The Oilers gathered the puck with eight seconds remaining and scored a goal to tie the game before time expired.

The Dallas Stars’ Patrik Stefan loses the puck on an empty-net breakaway. The Oilers rush the puck down the ice and score before time expires.

After years of rewatching the video of Stefan missing the open net and laughing as my Oilers earned a point by sending the game into overtime, I now relate to Stefan.

For me, everything was going smoothly. There were no hurdles in sight as I raced toward my goal. As I came closer and closer to my goal of earning OPT, there was a divot, or roadblock, in my ice that I didn’t see coming — a divot in the form of a worldwide pandemic that delayed my work visa indefinitely.

What isn’t shown in the Stefan highlights that still find themselves going viral every year, is that Dallas actually went on to win that game in a shootout. The win didn’t come during their expected time frame — during regulation — but it still came.

People choose to focus on Stefan’s blunder, justifiably as it was an extremely rare play, but most importantly is that Dallas still won and earned what they needed to earn, regardless of the timing. That is still my expectation — to keep my feet moving and learn from what I’ve earned, regardless of the time frame.

Editor’s note: Aaron since has received his OPT after the time this story was written.

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