My name is Farzin Haddadpour, I’m an international graduate assistant from Iran and a second year Ph.D. student in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department. Those of us who are from different countries know we go through a long administrative process to receive the visa that allows us to come here, but what our domestic colleagues might not know is what exactly that visa process entails or what restrictions it puts on us.
Most of us who come from the Middle East are here on a single-entry visa (though I was lucky to receive a two-year, multiple-entry visa) and are limited to working for Penn State while we are here. To avoid any potential interruption in their study, many international students do not risk leaving the U.S. during the summer. However, this can cause serious financial problems because our visa prevents us from working off campus or doing non-school sanctioned work, meaning that if an international student does receive a grant or find an internship or industry-related job that the Graduate School finds acceptable during the summer, they may not be able to earn a wage and are, therefore, unable to afford their expenditures.
This problem is not a new one and I strongly believe that it has not been resolved so far due to the absence of an official graduate assistant representative at the school administration level. At Penn State, we don’t have any avenues besides the university for visa recourse or other issues, but at universities with unions, additional help is available, both here and at the national level. The University of Washington’s graduate union filed documents to block President Trump’s travel ban last year and graduate unions at Washington, Columbia University, and the University of Connecticut take international students’ concerns into account when dealing with fees and grievance procedures. Unions can even help with visa-related issues – the Columbia and University of Washington graduate unions helped protect the 17 month Optional Professional Training (OPT) program for STEM graduates, which provides international graduate students with secure work authorization in the United States after they graduate, making sure their immigration status doesn’t lapse before moving to a different visa category such as an H1-B.
As a final word, I would like to say that, honestly, any chance of resolving international students’ problems by any means, including graduate student unionization, is worth supporting, so this month vote “Yes” for your graduate union.