By Sandy Kuntz
Momoka Nakajima, an international student from Japan, always knew she wanted to study and work abroad. Her first step was to improve her English at American Collegiate English at Grossmont College, a two-year community college in San Diego, California. While there, she learned about a student work opportunity in the U.S. called Optional Practical Training (OPT). She set an exciting goal: to obtain an associate (two-year) degree in hospitality then work in the U.S. tourist industry using her new bilingual skills.
What is OPT?
OPT is a way for international students to work for pay or to volunteer with a U.S. company for 12 months after completing their educational program. For community college students, OPT is available when they complete a certificate of achievement (usually two to three semesters) or an associate degree (usually two years). OPT is exclusively for F1 visa international students; students don’t change their visa status.
How does OPT work?
When students are in their final semester or term, they meet with the school advisor to learn how to submit the forms for temporary employment authorization for off-campus work. The advisor makes a notation in the students’ records with U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). Next, the students properly submit the OPT application and required documents to USCIS. When approved, they receive an Employment Authorization Document, known as the EAD card. They also apply for a social security number. Now the job search can begin.
Community colleges provide OPT assistance
Most community colleges offer assistance with the OPT application and the job search. For example, Grossmont College offers an OPT workshop every semester. College counselors explain each page of the application and the eight required documents. Next, they meet with students individually and view their transcripts to ensure the courses meet the OPT eligibility rules. Finally, and most importantly, the counselors offer information and resources for finding a job.
International students at community colleges are encouraged to use the campus Career Center. They can attend free classes on how to create a great résumé. They can practice for job interview skills with a mock interview. At Grossmont College, there are special job search classes specifically designed for international students.
What are common majors and jobs?
The OPT job must be directly related to a student’s area of study. Popular community college majors for OPT are Business Administration, Marketing, Culinary Arts, and University Studies. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Child Development, and Humanities were top choices, too. Most likely, these will be common again. With many jobs being virtual now, Computer Science and Digital Art are great choices. The position can be part time or full time.
For business and marketing majors, students usually work in an office setting, online, or in customer service. With a hospitality major, students typically obtain jobs at hotels, restaurants, or with parks and recreation. Momoka received her associate degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management. She is a sales representative for a major tour company providing student trips to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Yosemite National Park.
Culinary Arts students at Grossmont College in El Cajon, California
Benefits of OPT
OPT exposes community college students to the world of work and creates opportunities for networking. With OPT, they discover areas of specialty within their major or career and gain confidence. As Momoka expressed, “I decided to do OPT because I wanted to challenge myself to see how much I learned can be useful, and I also wanted to experience the ‘real world.’ The benefit of doing OPT is that I not only get experience, but also I am able to know about myself. Until I did OPT, I had no idea what my abilities are in the business industry."
Another exciting element of OPT is the chance to discover new parts of the U.S. The job does not have to be in the same state as the school’s location. A college student in Maine can attend an online job fair and seek employment in faraway Hawaii!
Now that she’s working with OPT, Momoka’s employer may sponsor her to continue with the company in the U.S. via a work visa. Or she can transfer to a four-year university to complete a bachelor’s degree. After obtaining the four-year degree, she can apply again for another 12 months of OPT. (University STEM students can work for a total of 36 months after graduation.)
All this experience is added to the résumé and is of high value when a student like you returns to your home country. Most U.S. community colleges offer international students this great OPT opportunity. When looking for the right school and program for you, be sure to ask your prospective school advisor if OPT is available for your chosen field of study.