High school senior and tennis scholarship recruit Andjela Vukcevic from Serbia is looking forward to beginning her undergraduate studies this fall at Rockhurst University in Missouri. Like other international students studying at U.S. colleges, she will need to report to the school's designated school official, or DSO, to maintain her immigration status.
"My international education consultant has advised me to keep in close touch with my DSO," Vukcevic says.
What Is a DSO?
Designated school officials serve as liaisons between international students, the school and the U.S. government. DSOs issue necessary immigration forms, guide students through the process of studying in the U.S., maintain records in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, known as SEVIS, and more.
"Students coming to the U.S. through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program to study at an SEVP-certified school generally must apply for either an F or M visa with the U.S. Department of State," Jonathan Moor, public affairs specialist with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in an email.
Typically, prospective international students apply for an F-1 academic student visa or M-1 vocational student visa at a U.S. embassy or consular office in their home country. To do so, they need a Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, a key document that is issued by their university's DSO and normally physically mailed to students. However, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, DSOs are allowed to email a student a scanned copy of the I-20, Moor says.
"ICE has extended the guidance allowing electronic issuance of the Form I-20 through the duration of the 2021-2022 academic year," Moor says. This means DSOs can send the I-20 – a form used throughout an international student's studies in the U.S. – via student emails listed in SEVIS, or if the student is a minor, to his or her parent or legal guardian, he says.
Moor says international students seeking to defer their program start date listed on their I-20, "should speak with their designated school official as soon as possible to receive an updated Form I-20 with a new program start date." He says international students cannot defer their program start date once they've entered the U.S.
To ensure a smooth educational experience in the U.S., international students must plan to speak to their DSO before doing any of the following:
- Applying for a driver's license or Social Security number
- Making changes to degree, course of study or school
- Taking an absence from classes or traveling outside the U.S.
- Working in the U.S.
Applying for a Driver's License or Social Security Number
International students are required to contact their DSO when they are changing their address or even their name, experts say, and also when applying for a driver's license or Social Security number.
"Our office and DSOs provide numerous resources and advisory services to international students to help them better understand and maintain their immigration and visa requirements while in the U.S.," says Ravi Ammigan, associate deputy provost for international programs at the University of Delaware.
He says the school's DSOs and international student advisers provide guidance to students on how to apply for a Social Security number and advise them on other required documents for the driver's license application process.
"We also recommend that international students wait a minimum of 10 calendar days from the date of entry into the United States and check with their international office to make sure their SEVIS record is registered and in active status before applying" for a driver's license or Social Security number, he says.
Ammigan says the school covers this information during orientation and often organizes bus trips to the Social Security Administration office for international students and scholars.
Making Changes to Degree, Course of Study or School
At some point in their studies in the U.S., international students may seek to change their major, program or degree level; withdraw from courses; ask for an extension on a program; or seek to transfer to an entirely different college or university – all of which require connecting with their DSO first.
Ammigan says U.S. federal regulations require international students to maintain full-time status in their program and that the school's DSOs "advise regularly on these requirements and circumstances in which students may need to make changes to their enrollment status."
Per government rules, undergraduate international students are required to take a minimum of 12 credit hours per term.
"Reduced course loads – including withdrawals – must be authorized. International students should contact their DSO regarding any changes to their course of study to ensure that they remain in status," says Nevena Martinovic, director and college counselor for Serbia-based YouGrad and a member of the Higher Education Consultants Association.
Martinovic says if a student changes majors, a new Form I-20 will need to be issued to him or her. To stay in status, the student must get the form signed annually by his or her DSO to indicate that the information on it is up to date and to ensure that the student can use the document in tandem with a visa to re-enter the U.S.
"In the event that a student forgets to have their I-20 signed, the U.S. port of entry officer can issue the student an I-515A. This gives the student 30 days to talk to their DSO and get their documents in order," Martinovic says.
Taking an Absence From Classes or Traveling Outside the U.S.
International students planning to take a leave of absence from their school or to travel outside the U.S. must notify their DSO in advance, experts say.
"We work directly with students to advise them on full-time enrollment requirements and help them understand the process for obtaining authorization for a reduced course load or leave of absence," Ammigan says.
For travel, he says the University of Delaware provides guidance on the school's website and through email reminders. Advice on case-specific questions is offered via one-on-one advising, virtual walk-ins and email communication.
"We provide travel signatures to those who need them before travel. This has been a particularly difficult and stressful academic year for international students, so we have done intentional and individualized outreach and communication to students to check on their well-being and support their academic progress," Ammigan says.
He says the school's DSOs have also worked closely with students and their academic advisers to keep them updated on temporary COVID-19 guidance issued by U.S. government agencies.
Working in the U.S.
International students seeking to work in the U.S. must consult with their DSO first, experts say.
"Work authorization in the U.S. is subject to specific federal regulations and we advise students to consult with our DSOs for guidance and approval before engaging in employment. This includes Curricular Practical Training; Optional Practical Training; on-campus employment; and entrepreneurship, start-up or volunteer opportunities," Ammigan says.
International students who plan to work on campus can complete a Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, and apply for a Social Security number, Martinovic says. "The student will in this case be required to file taxes. Universities usually provide resources to help international students understand the U.S. tax system," she says.
Curricular Practical Training, or CPT, refers to off-campus employment authorization in which the work must be related to a program of study and completed before a student graduates. CPT requires approval from the DSO, who will issue a new Form I-20 for the employment, Martinovic says. She adds that any changes in the nature of the employment should be reported back to the DSO.
"Following their studies, international students are eligible for OPT. This, again, should be related to their major and needs to be approved by the DSO – who again issues a new I-20 – and by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Forms I-765 and I-766," Martinovic says.
She says students can apply for 12 months of OPT after completing their bachelor's degree, and for another 12 months after their master's degree. International students who earn degrees in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – may qualify for an additional 24 months of OPT.
If Vukcevic decides to work while a student in the U.S., she already knows who to contact: her school's DSO. She's currently in contact with several people from both the athletic and academic departments at Rockhurst University, she says, to help her get all of her paperwork in order so that she may receive her I-20.
"Everyone has been really nice and super supportive," Vukcevic says. "I'm eager to get started on my degree and study in the U.S."