Limited opportunities and visa hell for DKU students at Duke

kunshan report

Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University in China are contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle.

Duke Kunshan University students coming to Duke’s Durham campus face a number of difficulties and limited access to opportunities— the worst of which is built into the visa, and acts to jeopardize post-graduation career plans and entangle us in a hellish maze of navigating legalities for a long period. This article describes the entire arduous experience, including interviews with students whose futures have been actively harmed by it, and argues for the simple solution which DKU students are currently pushing for - switching to F1 visas.

Non-American students from DKU, under normal circumstances, would study abroad at Duke for a semester in the spring or fall of their junior year. They would do so on a J1 visa, a visa category meant strictly for exchange visitors. However, this visa category comes with a number of drawbacks—based on technicalities that pose serious harm to our futures—and especially to those of us for whom studying at Duke is the only in-person education option while we cannot return to China.

The most serious of these is a caveat that a majority of non-American DKU students will be subject to: a two-year home country physical presence requirement. This requirement states that J1 visitors, upon the completion of the program, must return to their home country for a period of 2 years before they can pursue any kind of employment in the United States. This requirement is imposed by specific countries for the sake of culminating cultural exchange, in the spirit of the J1 visa; but its application and implications, in ground reality, are significantly damaging and detrimental to DKU students’ future prospects on the basis of brushed-over technicalities and careless decisions that end up being costly to our futures.

The requirement is imposed by China, India, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan and a number of other countries, but only for specific majors;  for example, the requirement is not supposed to be imposed on engineering and other degrees (for certain countries). However, with the way that the Duke semester for DKU students works, every student will have the requirement imposed, regardless of their major or field of study—simply because of the fact that Duke lists the field of study as “interdisciplinary studies.”

Personally, as a STEM major from India, I am subject to the requirement due to this technicality,  even as STEM majors on J1 visas to other American universities from India are explicitly not subject to it.

However, perhaps what is most egregious is the fact that most DKU students were not and still are not warned of the two-year requirement until it’s too late. Speaking to a DKU student who wishes to remain anonymous, they were not warned of the fact that this visitor program can jeopardize their future plans of working in the U.S. until they were well underway in the process. They were only informed that they indeed would be subject to it after reaching out and specifically inquiring with a long string of emails. Even personally, I only found out about the requirement from personal research of the J1 visa, and then expected to not be subject to it as a STEM major— and then got the nasty surprise when it was too late and the visa was already issued. Even currently, almost all DKU students coming to Duke are not informed of this caveat, and do not find out until it is too late.

Moreover, the J1 visa itself is fundamentally limiting in terms of access to opportunities while we’re in the U.S. With COVID-19, most non-Chinese-national DKU students are unable to return to China, and are left with a difficult choice: study at Duke, or do remote online classes. With Duke being the only reasonable option for many of us, and with some of us having been a part of the Duke community for a year and a half (and counting), it’s only natural that we desire to pursue opportunities in our time here;- it’s also natural that DKU students in general and from anywhere, would be interested in both internships and post-graduation career opportunities in the U.S. But here the J1 rears its ugly head again.

The J1 visa is strictly meant to be for exchange visitors, to “facilitate cultural exchange,” and Duke and DKU have interpreted that limitation literally. A DKU student who wishes to remain anonymous told us the story of their experience applying to summer internships. Having already secured a summer internship with Amazon in the U.S. for this summer, and currently on a J1 visa at Duke, the normal way for them to do the internship would be to use Academic Training (AT), a special provision of J1 visas to pursue opportunities not strictly within the University. It’s the analogue of OPT for F1 visas, which allows normal Duke international students to pursue summer opportunities and post-graduation employment in the U.S.

Duke would simply need to sign off on approving AT to allow them to work at Amazon in the summer. But they flatly refused to do so, citing the nature of the visa - “it’s an exchange program, and you’re expected to return to your home country at the end of it.” Another DKU student that wishes to remain anonymous had a similar experience of having secured a full-time offer with IBM in the U.S., but being prevented from working due to Duke not approving AT.

When another DKU student that also wishes to remain anonymous emailed the Duke visa department asking whether Duke will support approving AT at all, in general, the answer was a strict no,  with another indignant copy-pasted “you’re expected to return to your home countries at the end of the program to facilitate cultural exchange” in the reply they received. The message received by DKU students is clear.

Beyond the J1’s limitations, DKU students are discouraged from many opportunities at Duke. The J1 visa does allow for working up to 20 hours a week in an on campus job, an essential mechanism that allows for DKU students to better afford semesters at Duke, which are many times more expensive than DKU in terms of living costs. However, DKU students are generally discouraged from applying to them, and misinformed of what they have access to.

Darpan Barua, a DKU student from Bangladesh currently at Duke for spring 2022, inquired about working at Duke on a J1 visa before arriving. He was told that it would “pose significant challenges” and was generally discouraged from applying. The process for getting a job is identical to the one for normal international students on F1 visas at Duke—but DKU students are often discouraged from many such opportunities. Students have also been wrongfully told that DKU students aren’t generally eligible to join certain clubs, despite most being open to accepting DKU students. Some were also instructed not to even apply to work opportunities in the US over the summer, as Duke would not approve of AT; “you’re here to study, not to work.”

But the fact remains that the most significant limitation of the visa is in blatantly preventing employment in the U.S. after graduation with the aforementioned two-year requirement. We interviewed Tang Lan, a current Chinese senior in her final semester at DKU. She secured a full-time offer for after graduation with a highly ranked management consulting firm in the U.S. Just like the situations of the students mentioned earlier, Duke did not approve the AT facet of the J1 visa that would allow her to work temporarily in the United States, forcing her to leave the United States at the end of the program. The company is eager to have her, and is willing to sponsor a H1B next year, but this system is literally a lottery, with a less than 30% chance of being selected as only an undergraduate degree holder. With an F1 visa, Lan would have had OPT to temporarily work for two years, in which time she could secure a work visa to continue employment.

And then comes the two-year requirement itself: to even qualify to apply for the H1B lottery next year in the first place, Lan needs to either physically spend two years in China, or get a waiver for this requirement (there is no other way around this; even if you did a master’s program in the U.S. after, or even were on the path to becoming a U.S. citizen, you will be prevented from any long term stay or permanent residency in the US until you complete either of the two). The process for a waiver involves getting approval from specific ministries in your home country (China, in Lan’s case) and the US government, and is a long, complicated and expensive process that takes six months at least, with no guarantee of success. In this process, waiver applicants will have little help from Duke or DKU in navigating the minefield waiver approval process from their home countries and in the U.S. Duke Visa Services explicitly told us that they “do not assist with the J1 two year requirement waiver.”

It would be unsuitable to call the above anything but a nightmare. However, in Lan’s words: “Working in the States is a dream come true, regardless of the odds that I might not get a working permit to start my career after graduation, I decided to do everything I can to make it happen.” Lan even turned down full time offers in China, and is still busy figuring out the visa and waiver process in pursuit of her dreams.

In conclusion, DKU students at Duke are discouraged from applying to opportunities, are prevented from accessing any extracurricular or internship opportunities even if they already secure job and internship offers with top companies like Amazon and IBM, and have their future career plans jeopardized if they plan to work in the U.S. Thus, it’s no surprise that we have actively demanded that DKU switch to F1 visas, which would remedy a number of these limitations. It should be noted that students of NYU Shanghai—an analogous China-based joint venture institution to NYU as DKU is to Duke—provides F1 visas to its non-American students when they attend NYU, and it’s clear to see why. DKU and Duke offices are still hesitant to switch to F1 visas from J1 visas, citing technicalities, like how DKU students don’t quite belong to Pratt or Trinity, and a cynic might even say that DKU, with a majority internal say from the Chinese Kunshan government, has a vested interest in keeping its Chinese graduates within China, but us DKU students will not relent, and have been pushing for both administrations to switch to F1 visas, and recently signed en masse a letter requesting the same. I am sincerely hopeful that with enough pressure, and with the support of the Duke community at large, DKU students will be given the freedom to simply pursue our dreams.

If you’re a member of the DKU or Duke communities and would like to support our petition to switch to F1 visas, please sign at the bottom of our letter here.

Aryan Poonacha is a junior in the second-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’ undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China.


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