Visa Vie: Two Portraits of the F-1 Experience

Row upon row of the white and hard plastic tablet armchairs found in L or M, carry them for a good four hours per class. Some of the students in these rooms have just begun while others begin again. The mature and the callow, the lonely and alone, men and women, Nigerian and Colombian, Iraqi and Russian, they sit elbow to elbow here to speak a second tongue; write in a second hand: the American, once a world away.

College-wide there are approximately 885 students within the English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) program at Oakland Community College (OCC). Eight hundred international students on F-1 visas represent a portion of those within the ESL curriculum who must pass its language requirements before advancing to their desired concentration.

“ESL is not my major,” Mike Amorim said. Yet when faced with the possibility of losing his visa after neglecting his studies, he admits almost dispiritedly that, “If I’m to stay here, I’m to study ––nothing else.”

“Here, the teachers want you to think ––not just memorize,” Soyoung Hong said. “It’s not like Korea.” ESL lessons for her are lessons in learning itself; ones she will take back overseas ––all the more wiser.

The experiences of Amorim and Hong in America are a thousand miles away from that first step taken in their home countries. The experiences start with a plan and some paper.

The F-1

Before entering the U.S. most international students apply for an F-1 study visa after admission to college. When the visa is finally granted, it is always done so within the home country. As students not seeking citizenship in the United States, they become temporary legal residents.

A second document, the I-20, is issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and serves as a legal “Certificate of Eligibility” usually acquired in advance of the student’s admission into the United States. A U.S. immigration agent at the point of arrival assesses the prospective student’s passport, F-1 and I-20 forms. If allowed entry, the college’s International Student Advisor becomes the student’s link between both the college and the DHS.

Orientation: Knowing And Understanding

One week before either the fall or winter terms begin, college-wide orientations for F-1 visa students are held. During the six-hour session, orientation leaders cover policies and programs for the international student to follow, such as employment issues, academic requirements, and the English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum.

“During orientation we let them know what directions are available to them concerning career, academic, or personal choices,” said Nancy Nicholson, International Student Advisor at Orchard Ridge. “We also let them know what choices are available to them, including personal counseling, and that the counseling is kept private by law.”

For 13 years Nicholson has led F-1 orientations that address the practical and personal needs of OCC’s international students by pointing them in the direction of academic and non-academic counselors.

Although much of the F-1 orientation stresses the student’s legal obligations that come with their visa and I-20, Nicholson adds that the student must also take hold of the reigns that govern their individual direction.

“The key to success is recognizing that you have to ask, ask, and ask for help. If a student doesn’t speak up at the time he’s having academic problems, and he comes to me after the fact, well it just breaks my heart. I tell them, you’re responsible to know the rules.”


For the past few Fridays, Mike Amorim’s been missing. Now, after four consecutive absences, he returned for his ESL class ––one week prior to the Christmas break. After class, he and his instructor are found in the hallway discussing what the young man at last returned to: a failing grade.

Amorim pokes an amiable, slight face out of the canary yellow hood of his sweatshirt. A few ambitious jet-black hairs recline on his chin and jowls. When he speaks his hands are often hidden within his sweatshirt’s pockets.

“She told me that I can’t take an incomplete; that I have to take an F,” Amorim said of what his ESL instructor told him. “She said that getting an incomplete is not good. I don’t know what an incomplete means but my advisor said I should get one.”

A native of San Paolo, Brazil, Amorim’s first year as an OCC F-1 student has already been compromised by a cultural conflict: whether to stick to a demanding schedule in English or play soccer. The eighteen year-old is quick to point out that he understands what value an American diploma brings to him and his family. Yet he believes that the soccer practice that takes place miles away, and on the same day as one of his ESL classes, provides another value; one wherein his career options may be determined.

“I have three options. The first is to play soccer professionally. The second is to go to school and play soccer, and maybe I can get a scholarship to a four-year school like University of Michigan and play there. If I can’t play, the third option is to focus on business administration.”

His passion for business administration, however, is clearly outweighed by a desire to play soccer. Excitedly he paints his recent past and possible future with the same sports aspirations as many young men in America do for basketball or football. The fate of not being able to play has now been raised in the mud of strange academic terms like “failure” and “incomplete.” By not understanding the difference, as well as receiving conflicting advice between instructor and advisor, the foreign student seems at a loss of what, or whom, to believe.

What also concerns Amorim is the impact of a failing grade upon his visa status. Despite the adequate progress made within three of the four ESL classes in which he is enrolled, there is uncertainty as to how the grade will affect his ability to leave and enter the U.S. If ––he worries–– a return is possible.

“I feel the F isn’t going to change my visa, but I don’t know. If you lose 15 hours of class or more, you fail the class. I’m going back to Brazil on the twenty-third (December), so I don’t want to have a problem coming back to America (if the F grade stops me from studying at OCC). I’d like to speak to someone here before I go.”

Falling Through

“We review every student file at the beginning and end of their term,” Nicholson said. “There’re no opportunities for them to fall through the cracks. We do, however, have a system of academic sanctions for students who are failing their courses.”

Nicholson describes a sanction system identical to any applied to an OCC student. Those with a grade point average lower than a two-point will first face an academic warning. If the student continues to underperform for a second term, they are issued an academic warning with an intervention. A third term with continued poor performance results in academic suspension.

“It’s rare though that a student can’t continue here at OCC,” Nicholson said. “The ASC (Academic Support Center) and ACCESS program gives lots of ESL support. The Women’s Center also offers support for students who find themselves in unhealthy domestic situations, for example. If the student can’t ultimately continue, however, they can transfer to another institution in the States, or go home.”


At the far end of one of the narrow halls in L-building, Soyoung Hong sits cross-legged upon an armless chair with her back to the window. Her eyes fix toward the other end of the hallway as she traces aloud her experiences with, and observations of, students, teachers, tests, and the quirks of culture between her native South Korea and the United States. All the while, Hong is steeled with a glint-swept confidence as the paths of these thoughts merge at the frontier of her goal ––her purpose here.

“In Korea I plan to run a kindergarten: an English institute for early childhood. They’re very popular there. I don’t know much about child education now but this coming (winter) term, I’ll go into the early childhood development program.”

Hong expects to graduate from the program in three years. Upon returning to her native country, she intends to incorporate some of the positive aspects of American education into a Korean curriculum. While comparing how the two cultures approach learning, she is quick to admire the natural American disposition towards open expression in the classroom.

“In Korea, if you go into a top university you will be successful and work for a leading company. High school there is very difficult for students because parents know it is important that their children must do well on the college entrance exams. Many parents pay for special tutoring schools that concentrate on making students memorize. In Korea, we’re not educated to think creatively.

Sometimes I find it difficult to study here,” Hong said, “because Americans want you to think critically. In class, teachers will ask you, ‘think, what is your opinion?’ This is why next term I elected one ESL class to improve my critical writing.”

Hong possesses a tangible admiration for her OCC instructors. “The teachers here seem to study hard, but they enjoy the work. They’re really focused on the quality of their students’ work.”

The disparity between cultures, with regard to expectations in education, is a topic Nancy Nicholson raises during the F-1 orientations.

“International students will find themselves adjusting to the cultural differences in how Americans approach education. Some who have already taken classes here (in the U.S.) won’t be surprised by how American teachers conduct their classes, whether it’s their demands for critical thinking or finding their teachers in shorts. But the teacher still has knowledge to the majority of students. Yes, the experience can be very different and we do speak to that (in orientation).”

On Task

Hong’s ability to study in America ultimately rests with being granted an F-1 while in Korea. Getting one, she said, is “not difficult if you have a specific goal [stated on the admissions application].”

As a mature student she represents another layer of difference among the international student body. It is perhaps inevitable to compare the experiences of Hong and Amorim as a matter of age influencing academic commitment. Nicholson, however, disagrees with this assessment.

“I have young people ‘on task’ that are really focused. I’m sure there’re older, unfocused students but I think it’s rare. I don’t know if it’s like that at four-year colleges where you get in based on (previous) grades. OCC has open admission: all we want to know is your age, if you meet ESL qualifications, and if you have financial support.”

If the thousand-mile journey for the international student begins with a single step, the collective efforts of the International Student Advisor, teachers, and staff at OCC must ensure that the last step is not a misstep. Academic safeguards and proper counseling have retained international students at the five campuses. More importantly, they have allowed the ambitions of thousands to seek a better life for themselves through continued education.

With his eyes on this prize, Mike Amorim may heed his own advice. “It’s better to focus on one thing,” he said. “It’s not easy to study and play sports. I know you can do both but you don’t want to start wrong on the left foot.”