STEM certification: what it says about Booth and what it means for international students

On September 9 this year, Dean Rajan sent the school an email saying two of our MBA concentrations, Business Analytics and Analytic Finance, are STEM-certified. My inbox was immediately flooded with congratulations from friends who knew I’d been working on this initiative with Dean Kole for almost a year. But more than the joy of seeing our efforts bear fruit, I was grateful to be part of a school that truly cares about its students and is not afraid of change.

My journey started a year ago when I was elected as the President of Rockefeller Cohort (one of the 10 student-initiated cohorts formed during LEAD). During the election, one of the platforms that I ran on was getting a STEM certification because, being an international student myself, I knew the hardships involved in getting a US work visa.

At the time, there was no talk of STEM at Booth and I was the lone student passionate about it. So, when I first spoke to Dean Rajan and Dean Kole, I half expected them to shoot down the idea—but they were instantly onboard. It did not matter that I was the only student asking for STEM, I still got the same time and attention from them as a whole student group would have. It just goes to show that at Chicago Booth, the idea is most important, not how many people are behind it. If you are passionate about something, go ahead and ask for the support to make it happen.

From our first conversation to getting the certifications, we faced many interesting hurdles. However, in hindsight, I realize that the most important one was convincing people why we need a STEM certification.

Right now, international students have to apply for the H1B lottery, which had 190,098 applicants for 85,000 visas in FY 2019. Students with a US Master’s degree get a shot at 20,000 out of the 85,000 visa slots, which had 95,885 applications in FY 2019. With these odds, not everyone gets the H1B visa. These unfortunate students not only have to leave their jobs and the country as soon as their Optional Practical Training (OPT) is over, they also have a USD student loan in tow, which is much harder to service outside of the US because of lower pay levels.

That is why a STEM-certification is so important in providing international students an opportunity to work in the US for two more years, to get more experience, maybe even a promotion, and to pay off part of their student debt.

On the personal front, students have two more shots at the H1B lottery and can better plan for contingencies. Companies are incentivized to apply for the H1B lottery over the next two years as the students are still working with them in the US. If the first H1B lottery doesn’t work out, and the students don’t have the STEM-based OPT extension, then companies either let students go, or the bigger ones transfer them to another country and try bringing them in on an L1 visa, which has its own pros and cons. I know of families where partners moved to the US to support their spouses at Booth and managed to get a job after a year, only to be torn apart because the Booth student could not get an H1B visa and had to leave the country.

The STEM-certification has far-reaching benefits to both the professional and personal lives of international students, and I am glad we could deliver it for the Booth community for years to come.

In addition to being President of the Rockefeller Cohort, Richa Goyat is an officer in the Graduate Business Council at Chicago Booth.

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