Behind and Beyond the Barriers
By Gabriela Knutson
An international student’s battles before and after graduation.
Graduating from college or university and starting your life in the real world is a major transition for students all over the world. Some graduates immediately get a great job and move to a new city. Others go to graduate school, take a gap year, or live with their parents until they figure it out. But what if you are an international student, and some of these options are unavailable to you?
I met with a recent international graduate, to recap the struggles she has faced in the last few months.
It’s been over a month since Ukrainian student-athlete Anna Shkudun graduated from Syracuse University with two masters degrees. Anna, 23, will soon move to New York City, where she will begin her career as a professional tennis coach.
“I really want to make New York City my second home,” Shkudun said. Her first home is in 7,946 kilometers away in Energodar, Ukraine, where her sister and parents are --- but that is not where Anna wants to live.
“I understand that if I want to be with them, I have to live in Ukraine. But If I live in Ukraine, I will not reach the goals that I have in my mind and where I want to go in the future,” Shkudun said.
Anna’s goals include being a professional tennis coach and possibly owning her own tennis club in the future. This dream is much more achievable in New York City, because people in the States are more interested in taking tennis lessons than in Ukraine. The tennis culture in the States is much higher, and many more people want to pay to learn how to play the “high-class” sport. There is more interest in the sport as a hobby, as opposed to the expensive commodity that it is in Ukraine. As a tennis coach, she would not nearly make as much money as she can in New York City. Therefore, her only option is to stay in the US after graduation.
To achieve this goal as a recent college graduate, Anna had to jump over many legal hurdles, the biggest one is getting an OPT (Optional Practical Training for F-1 Students) visa. This is a visa that SU offers to graduated students to work in the US for one year.
“The visa process is probably the most problematic after graduating. The OPT will be a good start,” Shkudun said.
Anna says that American students don’t realize the luxury of time they have after graduation. There’s no such thing as time off, a gap year, or relaxing after college for international students. The only option is to get a visa and start working at a job that can pay for your living expenses, and if you’re lucky, maybe you can make enough money for your flights home. There is also a catch; the temporary employment must also be directly related to the F-1 student’s major area of study. If it is not, the visa will be declined.
“It’s tough, I know that a lot of Americans can just go home and chill and figure out their work and life. They have so much more time than I do. I have to figure things out right now, find out what I like to do, decide if I’m making the right decisions really quick, and get a good job and be able to finance myself for life,” Shkudun said.
After her one year OTP visa ends, Anna will need to find a more permanent method of staying in the States.
Hopefully her employer will help her get a work visa to keep her employed. This is complicated, because the employer has to prove that they really need that individual international student.
“They need to prove that they can’t just find some American to do that job, and that they need my skills specifically. This is the trickiest part,” Shkudun said. If you do not have an employer that is willing to do this for you, an international student’s only option is to go home.
Other than the logistical hardships of beginning a new life by yourself halfway across the world, international students fight an even harder inner emotional battle. Leaving her family over winter break to go finish her last semester, was one of the hardest goodbyes Anna has had to face. Now, she knows that with her new job, she won’t be able to go back home for a very long time.
“I was crying because I understand that I might not come home for at least a year or so. It was really hard, I didn’t want to leave at all,” Shkudun said.
Anna says American students don’t realize how lucky they are to be able to get into a car or hop on a plane and be with your family in a few hours.
“You get used to it, but you can never really get over it,” Shkudun said. “It’s your life, it’s your family, it’s something that is an integral part, that you can’t just forget about and live your life on your own if you know your family is all the way on the other side of the world.”
Anna knows that she is and will never be truly on her own, but she argues that friends can never completely fill the gap of not having your family close to you. Nonetheless, she knows that she made the right choice to come to the United States for university and to begin her career. Like many international students that chose to come to an American college or university, she has been greeted with amazing experiences, good people, and positive opportunities, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.