Ariful Islam, an international student in the US, shares his journey from being an F1 OPT student who lost his job during Covid-19 to securing a dream job and obtaining an H-1B visa
By Ariful Islam
Editor’s note: The pandemic and the subsequent post-pandemic era have presented significant challenges for individuals across the board. Professionals, international students on visas, and immigrants, in particular, have faced unique and arduous circumstances during this time.
As numerous individuals holding work-based visas grapple with job cuts, immigration policies, and the pressure of securing employment within their visa timelines, a young Indian H-1B visa holder has come forward to share his story of resilience with the American Bazaar.
Ariful Islam lost two jobs, met with an accident, and survived on meager. In the midst of all the gloom, he persisted and finally found his dream job and secured an H-1B visa. His story of courage and hope may inspire many undergoing similar situations.
In the summer of 2019, I proudly donned my graduation cap, having earned a master’s degree in Pharmaceutical Science. It didn’t take long for me to secure my first job in a multinational company, despite it being an entry-level position.
The experience was pleasant: my colleagues were supportive, the work environment was great, and the job itself was easy. However, I couldn’t help but feel that it lacked the challenge and scientific creativity I craved. During my time in grad school, I had led a groundbreaking new drug discovery project funded by the NIH, and I longed for a role that would allow me to engage in research once again.
And fate seemed to be on my side as I was offered three job opportunities within two months: a choice between two esteemed academic research positions and a contract-to-hire role in a biotech/pharma device company. Opting for industrial research, I embarked on a new adventure.
Read: H-1B community bracing for job losses, uncertain future in the wake of Covid-19 economic meltdown (April 7, 2020)
Little did I know that just a month earlier, whispers of a new Coronavirus outbreak began to circulate. Uncertainty loomed as we grappled with the limited information and wondered if the virus would make its way to the United States. Nonetheless, in February 2020, I joined my new job with a decent salary and a sense of excitement.
The initial experience was positive—my co-workers were helpful, and my reporting boss was pleased with my performance. They entrusted me with a new collaborative research project, and I dove in, fueled by excitement and self-motivation. Life seemed to be aligned with the American dream—I even treated myself to a pre-owned car, an Apple watch, and shared a comfortable two-bedroom apartment with a roommate. Everything felt good, or so I thought.
Towards the end of February, news broke that someone in our county had tested positive for Covid-19. As the situation rapidly unfolded, New Jersey declared a State of Emergency on March 9, accompanied by a deluge of rules and regulations, including social distancing measures.
A few days after the state of emergency, I found myself in regular meetings with my reporting boss. Fear and confusion permeated the atmosphere as uncertainty gripped not only the employees but even those in decision-making positions. I vividly recall a particular meeting: I had just finished a task and was enjoying a lighthearted conversation with a co-worker during lunch when it was time for our one-on-one meeting.
As my boss tried to make some points about my performance, I found myself passionately defending my actions, having diligently fulfilled my responsibilities. And then, out of the blue, my boss uttered those words that would forever leave an imprint on my memory—”The whole Covid situation is messy! I hope you can find a new position somewhere!”
The world spun around me, and I felt a wave of dizziness and sweat. It was as if my dreams were crumbling before my eyes. I turned to my hiring boss, desperately expressing my concerns about the pandemic and the shrinking job market. How could I find a new job when companies were downsizing, and time was slipping away?
Read: H-1B visa holders seek extension of 60-day grace period after job loss due to pandemic (March 11, 2021)
Being on Optional Practical Training, or OPT, I had already lost precious days in my quest for employment, and I had only 50 days left to secure a job. The weight of bills and the unavailability of government benefits, such as healthcare and unemployment benefits, added to my worries. In response, my boss shared a story of their father’s struggles and eventual success, assuring me that I, too, would be alright.
Back at home, I reached out to my MS supervisor, hoping to contribute as a volunteer in their research remotely. I immersed myself in writing and editing the research we had previously conducted, working toward publishing a paper.
Despite the challenging circumstances, my understanding roommate offered whatever support they could. However, a sudden accident turned my world upside down. I slipped in the bathtub and sprained my right hand so severely that it took six months to fully recover. While the world focused on the threat of Covid-19 and governments striving to protect their citizens, I found myself grappling with worries about finding affordable housing, securing a job within the limited timeframe to extend my OPT, and obtaining even a sliver of affordable health insurance coverage for emergencies.
I began by addressing my living situation, sharing a meager space with friends where no one lived, but it served as a lifeline during these challenging times. I reached out to my credit card companies, pleading for reduced APR, and approached the bank that gave me car loan to suspend monthly installments until I could find employment. I explored every possible avenue to make ends meet.
Simultaneously, I continued applying for jobs and tirelessly worked on my research papers. Finally, after 2-3 months, I started receiving interview requests. Months passed, and I found myself torn between job offers from both the industry and academia.
This time, I chose academia, elated to have received a hiring email from the academic supervisor. I excitedly shared the news with my loved ones, only to have my hopes shattered two days later when the supervisor informed me of the hiring freeze. Devastation washed over me as I realized that time was slipping away rapidly.
Nevertheless, fate smiled upon me, and I managed to secure a job at a prestigious medical school just a month before my OPT expiration. I promptly applied for STEM OPT, which ushered in a whole new set of challenges.
[Students pursuing degrees in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields can avail of a 24-month OPT extension, meaning they can work in the United States for up to 29 months.]
The process was arduous, peppered with requests for evidence (RFE) from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), but after a long five-month wait, I finally received my STEM OPT card.
As the pandemic continued its relentless grip on the world, my responsibilities in the medical school entailed setting up new labs. The delays caused by disrupted shipments posed additional hurdles, impacting our research goals. The pandemic touched every aspect of my life, directly affecting me in myriad ways.
In response, I made the decision to join an established lab at the University of Pennsylvania at the beginning of 2021. As a research specialist, I not only led assigned projects but also lent a helping hand to others. It took time to acclimate to the new environment, as is the case with any new endeavor. Yet, through sheer dedication and hard work, I managed to carve out my place within the lab.
The fruits of my labor manifested in achieving significant milestones—obtaining my H1B visa last year and recently receiving approval for my National Interest Waiver (NIW). While my story may seem like a happy ending, a twinge of sadness persists as I recall the sacrifices made, leaving behind my parents and only sibling without ever having the chance to visit them.
However, the progress made and the significant improvements in my life since arriving in the United States cannot be understated. This country truly is a land of opportunity. However, as international students, we must continuously learn, endure difficult times, and adapt to ever-changing circumstances to reach our goals.
My heart brims with gratitude as I reflect on my arduous journey. I extend my deepest appreciation to my university, friends, lab mates, supervisors, and all the incredible people who stood by me during my moments of hardship. Their unwavering support has been a beacon of hope, guiding me toward a brighter future.
In the end, I would say that navigating a career when you are on a visa, the systems can be complicated but you can excel if you have courage and knowledge. America offers possibilities and opportunities you have to just believe in yourself.