As recently as two years ago my close friend got a Fulbright scholarship. This was the first time I became personally exposed to the program founded in 1946 by United States Senator J. William Fulbright: free travel and education in a foreign land, new network of friends and alums, and a high-end line on your resume. The perfect recipe for great opportunities. Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. The recipe may be still intact for American citizens going abroad, but it has certainly soured for hundreds of international students who conquered the Fulbright application process. "I am so happy I declined the Fulbright scholarship with its all-paid tuition," says Natasha (name was changed), a Vanderbilt University's graduate student from Moscow, Russia. "Now, even though I'm paying the tuition and expenses, I can seek employment in the States and in Moscow, and can visit my new American friends once I move back to Russia." Those who accepted the honorable scholarship cannot follow Natasha's footsteps.
In the last two days, at the Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, I met three graduate students from Eastern Europe and Latin America. Two of them were Fulbright scholars who accepted the scholarship and one of them was Natasha who declined it. The Fulbright-sponsored graduate students came to the immigration-attorney session hosted by the university for international students. That's where they learned that, in brief, their scholarship makes them virtually unemployable in America and very undesirable in their home countries. Natasha--who bother to look up the immigration implications of accepting the scholarship and declined it--left the session in good spirit. What's the catch?
Let's go to the source, the website of the U.S. Department of State, that writes the following on the subject:
"An exchange visitor (EV) may be subject to the two-year foreign residence requirement [if]... the EV's participation in an exchange program was funded by the United States Government, EV's own government, or an international organization... If you are subject to the two-year foreign residence requirement, you may not change your status to that of H, L, or K [professional employment visas] or to immigrant or legal permanent status until you have fulfilled the two-year foreign residence requirement by going back to your home country or receiving a waiver of this requirement."
Wow. U.S. taxpayers and philanthropists sponsor "poor" (often not literally) students to come to the U.S. on J1 exchange visas, use American resources, make new American friends, learn American ways of living life and doing business, and get a graduate degree of a prestigious university. Then, U.S. government forcefully kicks the students out of the country without a chance to re-enter the States (even for Christmas shopping) for a minimum of two years.
Such individuals are obviously not employable in the States. Legally, they can jump through enough hoops to obtain a work status limited by a maximum of six years. However, they would not be able to get a visa that would allow them to actually cross the border in those six years. In most cases, the scholars have families in their home countries and are unwilling to sign up for the American-dream imprisonment. Things are really not that bad in the rest of the world, and washing dishes or working at a farm illegally is not a real option for a bright holder of a master's degree. This leaves the graduates with the only option - to go back home and seek employment there. Not bad, right? Well, in fact, it is bad.
A young professional who was out of the workforce for two years in his home country and holds a graduate degree from an American University can be desirable for an international company only if he can freely roam the world, and most importantly America. Additional strength of a young Master in You-Name-It is his new professional network. None of the above applies to the young alums of the Fulbright scholarship program. In most cases, they go back home and look for a job they could have gotten before the Fulbright ordeal. In fact, they make less and are older than their counterparts who stayed and worked in the home country. Once the two years go by, the former Fulbright scholars are settled in new work places and locations, and America becomes a distant memory.
The scholarship worked in the old world where economy was not global and a manager's work did not demand active travel. The world has changed. The current immigrations restrictions discourage the brightest of the world to apply for the Fulbright scholarship. And those who do, either decline it like Natasha, or learn the immigration caveat and become really bad "ambassadors" of America in their home countries defeating the purpose of the program. Did U.S. immigration law fall behind today's global economy?