Marlene Aniambossou just graduated from Utah State University with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and coaching after two years as a basketball player for USU.
She planned to take a job as a middle school or high school PE teacher and work towards becoming a basketball coach for a Division 1 college, but the international student from Benin said finding work became harder when COVID-19 hit the state.
After graduating, international students can apply for employment authorization called Optional Practical Training (OPT) that lets them work in the United States for 12 months in a field related to their major, and some students with STEM degrees can receive an extension to work for up to 36 months. Aniambossou applied for OPT a month ago but hasn’t been approved yet.
She is one of thousands of international students in Utah feeling uncertain about the future because the review and approval of work authorization applications — which can take up to four months — has been delayed. Aniambossou said not having OPT makes her feel like she can’t justify staying in the United States, although her student visa doesn’t expire until 2022. The 25-year old also said she will struggle financially if she can’t find a job soon.
But having OPT doesn’t guarantee that international students will be able to find work as COVID-19 continues to ravage the economy. Renan Pereira, a recent graduate of the University of Utah from Brazil, received his OPT in March, and has lost his two job offers, one from a startup and another from a bank.
“Both job offers have been canceled or withdrawn, or postponed without a specific day to start,” Pereira said in an interview. “I think this was how coronavirus damaged … my life most, preventing me from getting this job opportunity.”
He said COVID-19’s impact on the job market uniquely affects international students because they have fewer work options to begin with. These students are usually limited to working on campus and can only work off campus in a job related to their major if they have government approval.
Some companies are less likely to hire international students because there is no guarantee that they will get a work visa after they graduate. Once international students have used up their OPT, their employer may sponsor an H-1B work visa — but the government only grants a limited number of these each year. Pereira said this kept him from getting a job two years ago when he was recruited by a company in New York.
Social isolation brought on by the pandemic is also hard on international students, but Pereira is fortunate to have family in Utah. “I know other students who are alone, who don’t have family, who have probably not many friends,” said Pereira. “So for them this social distancing would be even worse.”
Stephen Crook, director of International Student Services at Utah Valley University, said the school supports all 800 international students with mentors. This helps the students feel less isolated during social distancing because they have already formed relationships with peers.
Some international students are also facing challenges because of closed borders. Southern Utah University student body president Nouman Kante said he wasn’t able to return home to Mali and visit family over the long summer trimester because of the pandemic. “I was [planning to take] two weeks or a month to go home and visit family, visit friends, recharge and them come back,” Kante said. “But because of coronavirus there’s no flights and everything just got shut down and I can’t even go home anymore.”
The senior studying business and philosophy said he has a year left on his student visa and was planning to renew it when he went home. Now he will be forced to go to Mali in December to make sure he has time to prepare for the six month process and doesn’t overstay his visa.
Kante said finishing the spring semester online was challenging. “I wasn’t prepared for it, I wasn’t trained for it,” he explained, saying it was harder to get questions answered from home.
Emilie Wheeler, spokesperson for Utah State University, said COVID-19 is also creating challenges for USU students who had made trips home to other countries when the pandemic hit.
“In addition to the possible difficulties accessing online materials in locations with limited internet services, the U.S. Department of State has temporarily suspended routine visa services,” Wheeler said in an email. This means students with expiring visas may not be able to get them renewed in time to return in the fall. New international students admitted to Utah State are also worried they may not be able to get a visa in time to attend classes or start graduate research programs in the fall.
Stephen Allen, associate provost for International Affairs at Southern Utah University, said students who have gone back to their home countries for the summer worry about being able to return to SUU in the fall due to travel bans.
“The pandemic has also taken an economic hit to many families around the world, Allen said in an email, “making it more difficult to pay for their children’s education.”
This impacts international students who are required to show the U.S. government they can pay for their school and living expenses for a year before they are given a student visa.
If you would like to help international students in Utah, here are options to donate resources to colleges and universities in the state.
University of Utah
You can make a monetary donation to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), or you can buy items for emergency kits and donate them. Another option is to donate food and other essential items to the University of Utah FeedU Pantry or the Utah Food Bank.
Chelsea Wells, director of International Student & Scholar Services at the U, encouraged Utahns to learn more about the challenges international students face and contact their congressional representatives to ask them to support bills that would help these students.
One of these bills, the Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act, addresses needs in immigrant communities like access to COVID-19 testing and prevents discrimination in any COVID-19 relief program based on immigration status.
Utah State University
Another way to help is by reaching out to international students and helping them feel connected to the community. International Friends Program connects members of the Cache Valley community with international students and visiting scholars at USU. USU Office of Global Engagement also lists resources for international students and the community.
Utah Valley University
You can contribute to UVU’s international student scholarship fund.
Southern Utah University
You can make a donation to SUU’s scholarship fund for international students by contacting the college’s Advancement Office. The campus food pantry is also in high demand now and you can make a food or financial donation.
LDS Business College