Abhijit Tagade's Facebook profile picture tells you nothing about the F1 visa anxiety levels in Trump's America 2018. Tagade's toothy grin hides a constant gnawing about the US visa page on his passport. You'd think Tagade, 26, armed with a dual Master's degree in Economics and Education at Columbia University and a job at Harvard Business School in Boston should have nothing to crib about but he does - his student visa times out in six months.
Welcome to the dystopian F1 hamster treadmill in the US for students outside the hallowed circle of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
Tagade's F1 visa was stamped in 2015 for his Master's degree which cost him approximately ~ $60,000 - a conservative number not including living costs and overheads, he funded this with a loan which carries a 11% interest and will begin paying back this month.
"USA is closing doors on foreign students. The message is clear that we are unwanted in the US. Many of my friends are turning to Australia, Canada, Europe and even China where the costs are lower and the nuisance value is less. The only hope for the US is the students in tech who study at the top 20 universities and contribute to the frontier," says Tagade.
Tagade has a job and venting; others have not even gotten this far. "I know so many of my own batchmates who waited it out for a few months after graduating and just couldn't find jobs," says Tagade, who we first met at Columbia University when he was waiting for interview calls before he landed his job in HBS.
The switch from an F1 to H1B is wearing people out, keeping fresh graduates on the tightest leash for the longest outer time limits with every consecutive hoop.
"After I finished my study, I applied for my OPT (Optional Practical Training) and I got that only at the outermost possible time limit", says Tagade who moved to a rural outpost to cut costs during the wait. An OPT stamping extends the lease on the student visa for temporary employment.
But not all OPT journeys end well, even for STEM students with a double Master's degree.
There are those like Swati who has a double Master's degree in STEM subjects and yet stonewalled by the F1-H1B chasm. Here's what she told us over phone from the West Coast: "I moved to US 5 years ago. I hold a Bachelors and Masters degree in Engineering. I had a well paying job in India, which I decided to leave to live with my husband because he came to the US on an H1B. I did not want to leave India but you can imagine the family pressures. I had a baby and I focussed on raising my daughter as I did not have any work permit. I enrolled for my second Masters and did a change of Status to F1. I found an internship and was relieved. I went to India in January and I had to go for stamping. My F1 visa was denied. I am back to US on H4 and still studying. With the chances of H4 EAD getting revoked, I will not have any option to work in the future. My husband is willing to move back to India because we don't see any point in living like this anymore....With a Masters degree in Engineering and another Masters almost done, I have been out of a paid job for five years now. I don't want to look back at age 40 and realize that I spent 10 years just doing the dishes."
Tagade tells us that he and his batchmates found that interviews were simply drying up for international students. "They didn't want to touch us. Nobody is going to say that to your face but we can see what's going on."
Two of Tagade's classmates from Columbia went back to India and Dubai. Are they upset? "Of course they are. To be forced by the system to go back so soon means you're paying off a US dollar tuition fee with Indian earnings straight after graduating which is just one reason to be upset," says Tagade.
On the supply side, has this changed how coaching classes in India, which cater to the qualifying examinations of GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, are hedging their bets?
K P Singh, chief of IMFS, an exam training hub for outbound Indian students, says he is looking at "America with renewed interest" because of intake numbers in the US dropping from the Middle East region which means potentially "better admission decisions" for Indian students. Even the numbers point to US keeping its lead in the worldwide spray of Indian students with 186,000 incoming students last year. "That's a jump of 12%," says Singh.
At the same time, student traffic from India to other conutries is also ticking up. "Indian student numbers to Canada have shot up from 49,000 two years ago to 76,000 last year. New Zealand has remained constant at around 29,000 kids from India, Australia is doing well and UK has gone up too - especially the last year. "
"Companies in America, especially the IT giants will lobby hard and not allow Trump and his government to take decisions that will hurt them. The H1B will stay, despite its problems. We've reached the bottom, it can only get better from here", is Singh's outlook for the India-led academic market in the US.
Plotting the dots together so far, a STEM course remains a better bet against political dystopia than at any other time in America.
We will be updating this blog with more first person accounts. If you're a final year student on an F1 visa in America trying to switch to an H1B or on the verge of aging out on an H4, share your story with us. Tweet to @byniknat.