This October, hundreds of students gathered in Harvard Yard for Concentration Declaration Day. Complete with banners, photo ops, and nearly $4,000 worth of pizza, the event is an opportunity for sophomores to celebrate deciding on a plan of study. But for some Harvard students, Concentration Declaration Day is far more significant — determining how long they will be able to remain in the U.S. after graduation.
In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security implemented the STEM Optional Practical Training extension program, a policy that allows international students who graduate from U.S. universities with degrees in an approved science, technology, engineering, or math field to remain in America for three years instead of one after graduation.
For Harvard international students without permanent residency, this policy provides a compelling incentive to study STEM fields. The opportunity to stay in the U.S. for two more years after graduation massively boosts the likelihood of receiving a green card, which allows holders to live and work permanently in the United States, or an H-1B, a specialty work visa.
At Harvard, tensions arise when the OPT policy does not map directly onto the College’s liberal arts model. From the beginning of their first year, Harvard students are encouraged to take courses across disciplines, study unfamiliar subjects, and experiment with potential concentrations. For international students, however, STEM OPT can limit possibilities.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
Sunshine Chen ’27, an international student from China, says she’s felt pressure to choose a STEM degree ever since she was admitted to Harvard. Much of Harvard’s programming designed to help international students choose a concentration and find job opportunities is centered around STEM OPT.
“If it wasn’t for the STEM OPT and I didn’t have to worry about work visas or anything at all, I would have done Hist and Lit or History and done a secondary in something else,” Chen says. Instead, Chen is considering adding Economics, an approved STEM OPT field, as a double concentration — a move that would strictly determine her future course load and limit electives.
Mitja Bof ’26, a sophomore from Italy, noticed a similar trend of double concentrations among international students interested in Government.
“A lot of these kids would have done just a pure Gov major, and they added Econ because they want to have a three-year OPT extension,” he says.
Luckily, Bof found that he enjoyed Economics and decided to concentrate in the subject. But even if he had chosen Government, he says, he would have factored the visa extension into his plan of study by pursuing a double.
“I want to stay here after graduation,” he says. “Had I stuck with Gov, I probably would have added an easy STEM major.”
Even for students who don’t plan to stay in the U.S. after graduation, the STEM OPT policy is often a source of stress. Abril Castillo Camacho ’26, a Social Studies concentrator from Spain, hopes to work abroad in diplomacy or international relations.
“That can take a lot of different looks right after college,” says Castillo Camacho. She worries that by forgoing the STEM OPT visa extension, she may be sacrificing possible career opportunities.
“Before Concentration Day, I was thinking about it a lot,” Castillo Camacho says. “Even when I know that I want to move around and I want to travel and work internationally, the idea of fully not being able to stay afterward is still kind of scary.”
Willem Ebbinge ’23-’24, an Economics concentrator from New Zealand, hopes to use the OPT extension to stay close to his peers after graduation. Ebbinge chose his concentration prior to learning about the policy, only discovering later that Economics — traditionally considered a social science — qualifies as STEM.
Castillo Camacho feels that the official designations of STEM majors are inconsistent, pointing out that Social Studies students are also required to study economics and have the option to take psychology courses — another STEM OPT-approved social science — for concentration credit.
“It’s so weird because [Social Studies] does have economics,” Castillo Camacho says. “I do understand that it’s because it’s not science-based, despite having economics. I do feel like the economics that it centers more around is more theory, but, to a certain extent, it’s quite arbitrary what degrees can be considered STEM or not.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s list of STEM degrees is 15 pages long and filled with majors that often do not correspond to Harvard’s concentrations. Quantitative Social Sciences makes the list, but as Social Studies allows students to pursue either qualitative or quantitative research, the concentration does not meet official requirements.
For many international students, the STEM OPT program seems to create unnecessary complications with little upside. Bof says he does not understand the rationale behind the policy.
“It strikes me as weird that the U.S. would educate talent, give them financial aid in a lot of cases, and then let go of them after a year,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy.”
Instead of the current STEM OPT policy, Bof says the U.S. should implement a policy like the United Kingdom’s High Potential Individual visa, which allows graduates from top universities to remain in the U.K. for an additional two years after graduation regardless of their major.
Though many students agree the STEM OPT policy needs reform, because the STEM OPT policy operates at the federal level, Harvard’s ability to address it is limited.
“I don’t think there’s much they can do about it besides lobbying,” says Bof. He thinks Harvard is doing a good job advocating for international students within the scope of the STEM OPT program.
“Their career services are just great for international students,” he says. “We have dedicated resources.”
Chen, however, believes Harvard can make the concentration declaration process more transparent. She says she struggled to find out which concentrations are eligible for STEM OPT and which are not. When she reached out to the Harvard International Office, they provided little support.
College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo declined to comment on specific criticisms, writing that he cannot discuss individual student cases.
“In general I would say that there are a variety of services in place and we would encourage students to review all their options,” including the OIE website, Palumbo wrote. “We are committed to working with each student on their specific circumstances and will remain engaged throughout their time at Harvard.”
“It's difficult to understand,” says Chen. She urges Harvard to compile a list of eligible concentrations. “I wish the government, but also Harvard, would make it a bit more clear.”
But in an ideal world, “I would just give everyone OPT regardless of whether you do a STEM degree,” she says.
—Magazine writer Maeve T. Brennan can be reached at email@example.com.
—Magazine writer Adelaide E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @adelaide_prkr.