On Saturday, as I watched my friends and classmates walk across the stage to accept their hard-earned diplomas at SUNY Plattsburgh’s commencement ceremony, I couldn’t help but imagine myself dressed in the same cap and gown next year.
That’s when I’m expected to graduate with my master’s degree in mental health counseling.
But the milestone likely will be bittersweet. Although I will be celebrating the realization of my dream to study at an American university, like many international students, I might not have the chance to see the rest of my dream come true.
I want to remain in New York state after I graduate.
My goal, ever since I came to SUNY as an undergrad from my native Dubai in 2013, is to specialize in trauma counseling and offer group therapy to refugees or sexual assault victims.
However, the U. S. government is making it hard for international students like me to stay here after we graduate and contribute the skills we have learned to our field.
Not only is this frustrating for us who have invested a lot of money and hard work to study here, it doesn’t make sense for these schools to invest resources in us and not see us use our knowledge to benefit the local economy.
Following graduation, international students can take advantage of what’s called Optional Practical Training to stay in the United States for one year.
That’s hardly enough time to gain any meaningful work experience. Also, it’s increasingly difficult to get an H-1B work visa reserved for highly-skilled immigrants.
Those visas are in short supply — last year, there were more than 190,000 applications filed for 85,000 slots — and the Trump administration has made the already-tedious application process even more difficult, creating a backlog.
Those aren’t the only hurdles international students face; delays and denials of student visas, coupled with the current anti-immigrant political and social climate have caused our enrollment numbers to drop.
Between 2016 and 2107, the rate fell by 6.6 percent — double the previous rate of decline, according to the Institute of International Education.
For the fall 2018 semester, international student enrollment was down another 1.5 percent.
Although we make up only 5.2 percent of students at U.S. colleges and universities, these institutions benefit from our tuition dollars.
At SUNY, for example, international students pay $19,548 per year, compared to $8,478 for in-state residents.
Nationally, we contribute $39 billion in earnings and support 455,622 jobs annually through our day-to-day spending and tuition payments.
At New York colleges and universities, we account for 8.2 percent of the overall student population. This equates to $5 billion and 58,095 jobs the state would not have were it not for foreign-born students like me.
Losing our talents also hurts the economy.
The United States is facing workforce shortages in STEM fields as well as health care. These two industries are expected to experience some of the highest growth rates in the next decade.
And yet there aren’t enough American students entering these industries to keep up. Roughly one out of every three people earning a graduate-level STEM degree is foreign-born, according to the immigration nonprofit New American Economy.
There’s also a real demand for mental health professionals, especially when more than 60 percent of U.S. counties have little to no access to mental health professionals.
If it were easier for us to remain in the United States after graduation, many of us would happily help fill those jobs.
As well, I have an emotional argument to add: America feels like home to me now.
I desperately don’t want to leave for good, but I may have no choice but to move to another country that makes it easier for me to use my U.S.-taught education and skills.
Don’t let a dysfunctional immigration system lead to a brain drain for the United States. We want to stay here and give back what we have learned.
Vrinda Arun is an international student from Dubai studying mental health counseling at SUNY Plattsburgh.