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Making The Most of Your OPT: Planning For an O-1

Graduates throwing through graduation caps in celebration

Image Credits: Vasily Koloda

International Students graduating from US Universities are often granted an additional stay in the United States after they receive their degree called “Optional Practical Training” or “OPT”. Generally, OPT stays are limited to a year, although in STEM fields, they can be extended for another two years. This blog post will address the question we often hear from students enrolled in arts programs in the United States:

What should I do during my stay in the US on OPT to prepare for and strengthen my O-1 Petition?

While everyone is different, and what they should do while on OPT is different, there are a number of things to do that are generally applicable. The following is a summary of the advice we often offer:

Develop your OPT/O-1 game-plan as early in your OPT year as possible and keep working on it as the year moves forward:

Become Educated: To prepare for an O-1, you have to know what an O-1 Petition includes. You are on the right track if you have read this far! Here is what you need to think about if you are a person in the arts, and you plan to go for an O-1 after OPT:

LEADING ROLE IN DISTINGUISHED PRODUCTIONS (Pre-O-1): Your Petition will need to show that you played a leading role in a number of distinguished production/events: This means two things:

1. Your role is a leading role. This means a central role. With some exceptions, we need to avoid productions where your title was “assistant” or “intern”.

2. The production/event was distinguished. This does not mean it was the top production or event of the year, but rather that it was artistically valuable production or event with some good press with serious artists, venues or production companies involved in the event/production.

Summing this up, your O-1 petition will need to present productions in which you were a big fish, in a decent sized pond. People often ask if they could play an assisting role for a major production. (e.g.- Assistant Director of a show at Shakespeare in the Park). While it is always possible to persuade USCIS that, in a particular case, the Assistant role was still leading/starring, this is a distinctly difficult challenge in an O-1 petition. We would prefer that you served as the Director for a smaller yet still distinguished production.

Evidence: What do you need to keep? We strongly recommend that you save everything about your work for a production in PDF form, and then, protect that information with your life! This includes:

o Your work, drawings, notes, etc.

o Promotional material relating to the productions—programs, publicity materials.

o Press for the show. Keep everything even if it is not from major outlets.

o Documentation which confirms the distinguished nature of the production, in indirect ways.

o A comprehensive artistic CV which includes a list of all of your distinguished productions/events in which you played a leading/starring role.

o Signers and Supporters: Also, please think about who might be a good person to sign a letter about your work in a production. Keep their name and email. See if you can discuss the fact that you are going to be applying for an O-1 in the future, and ask if they would be able to support the case. Many people in theater will gladly volunteer to help. (Don’t do a letter unless you have to… there will be time later.)

CRITICAL SERVICES TO DISTINGUISHED ORGANIZATIONS (Pre-O-1): Your Petition will need to show that you played a leading or critical role for a number of distinguished organizations or establishments: Here, the USCIS is looking for a sustained relationship with an organization. More than 1 or 2 productions. In the words of one of our clients, we urge you to “marry an organization.”

1. What works well here is a title, such as Resident Set Designer, to show that you are the leading set person in the organization’s core creative team, playing a role in all of its productions, not just those in which you are credited.

2. If you can’t get a title, then try and make sure you work with the organization several times.

3. The smaller the organization or establishment (while still being distinguished), the greater the likelihood that you will play a critical role within it.

But, we also encourage everyone to think broadly about what is considered an Organization: Of course, theater companies are organizations. But, we have done many cases in which we have defined “organizations or establishments” to include:

  • A director.

  • A producer.

  • A playwright.

  • As long as the person has a strong record, with a lot of productions, we might be able to pitch them as an organization.

Evidence: Same as above: PDF everything you can about the organization and your role, and start to think about which of the people you work with can support your case.

Expert Recognition. Your Petition will also include letters of recommendation from colleagues who can attest to your work, and from experts in your field who can state recognition for your overall achievements. Try to stay in touch with people, and keep them close. You should feel free to share with them that you hope to apply for an O-1 in the future, and would be so thrilled if they would support your Petition. People know what this means, and many will offer to help. (Make a note in your game plan).

Finally, think about your future work: In addition to the above, your Petition will need to establish that you are coming to the United States to continue to do work in your field of an extraordinary nature. Your Petition also will need to show that you have engagements for your full 3 years that are consistent with your “extraordinary ability”.

  • Your Petition will need to show that you will play a leading role in a number of distinguished productions.

  • Your Petition will need to show that you will play a leading role in a number of distinguished organizations. As mentioned above, stay "married" to that organization.

  • Consider what or who will be your Petitioner. Any US Citizen, Green Card-holder or company can serve as your petitioner. If they are a prestigious company or person in your field, that helps with your case too.

  • Meet with a lawyer, to become educated and start work on a tailored game plan, so that you can use your OPT year as best as possible.

Please visit this link to find a skeleton OPT/O-1 game-plan form, that you can use to create a written strategy for your year, and to keep track of your plan as it develops.

We strongly advise students who wish to transition to an O-1 visa to take the following steps:

  • First, if you haven’t already, revisit the courage and audacity that brought you to the US in the first place. Remember the reasons you came here. This will fire you up for the challenges ahead.

  • Talk to the international students' office at your school so that you fully understand the OPT process. They are experts who are there to help you!

  • Note that recent USCIS policy changes preclude the use of testimonial letters as proof that you have played a leading/starring role in distinguished productions. You must present "pubic facing proof"of your role: contracts, web sites, promotional materials and the like.

  • Next, seek the guidance of the right lawyer to handle the petition. Find a lawyer who is highly experienced in O-1 visa petitions, experienced in representing clients in F-1/OPT status and sympathetic to F-1/OPT students in the arts and film. An experienced attorney who is supportive of you career achievements is critical.

If you have questions or concerns, or would like guidance on what to look forward to in transitioning to O-1 status, please contact our office. We wish you a wonderful OPT year and look forward to hearing from you!

April Harris and Kevin Dyer

Dyer Harris LLP


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