Got education?

As promised, I am going into a little bit of detail in terms of this student movement in Montreal. The gist of the matter is that the Quebec Education body decided to double the tuition for all universities in the province, from ~$1500 to ~$3000, roughly. Before we debate the numbers, which is triflingly low if you apply the US standards; the heart of the matter is what we should consider a society’s responsibility to its citizens. Should we, as denizens of a particular city/state/country, support free and accessible education to our young?

I happen to believe the key to a society’s success in modern world is a well educated and adequately informed population. Maybe I am just a nerd, maybe I belong to the minority, but I firmly believe education should be high on the list of priorities for any governing body. The US boasts the largest and most influential economy in the world, and it is, as US self-proclaimed, largely driven by innovation and its high tech industry. However, 39% of the US science and engineering PhDs are foreign born (2000 data, compiled 2004 by National Bureau of Economic Research), up from 23% in 1966. I would venture a guess that the number may be higher now. Is this a testament to the quality of US higher education, or the failure of its college education? I would leave that debate to you.  But more importantly, with the advancement of world’s economy and increasingly competitive environments, would US be able to maintain its attraction for foreign brain power?

This debate can go on and on, when you look into total expenditure on education as % of GDP, public vs private, developed countries vs developing ones. I don’t know if there is a clear indicator(s) to use, but I am just going to park my thoughts here and see what you guys think.

Montreal awakes from hibernation

Throughout the months of January and February, the temperature hovered around -10C during the day and went as low as -30C at night (14F to -22F, that is, for you Ferenheitly inclined). My neighborhood, near the west end of downtown, cleared out after work hours. Streets were deserted at night with icy sidewalks glistening in the neon lights. Weekends came and went, the quiet inactivity lingered. I started to wonder why people rave about Montreal’s charm, the city that’s supposedly full of liveliness.

Then came March, unseasonably warm, and piles of snow started to melt. St. Patrick’s day arrived on a weekend of 20Cs. It is like dropping water into a hot oil pan, the streets came to life. I missed the St. Patty’s parade, which was supposed to be quite a scene. But I did witness the aftermath: a full street block carpeted with crushed beer cans;  never seen anything like it.

The week after, came the student protest. 150000 students took to the street to voice their opposition to the tuition hike (more on that later). For someone without a daytime job, I was happy to be an aimless gawker. It was a well organized event with police cars blocking off streets for the protesters to march. Dozens of city blocks filled with costumes and effigies, almost like a sober Halloween parade.

Why I had to leave and how I can get back

Nov 2011

It has just occurred to me that some of you haven’t had a chance to understand why I had to leave. Honestly, I confuse myself sometimes explaining it to people. Therefore, this email is aimed at clarifying that big question in your head -“how did Xiang fuck up so badly?”.

There are many types of visas granted by the United States State Department to foreigners. Mainly there are “non-immigrant” and “immigrant” visas, which are self-explanatory. The non-immigrant visas include student visa F-1, exchange scholar J-1, and business/tourist visitor visa B-1,2, etc. They are meant to be temporary and have a time limit , i.e. 5 year maximum for the J-1. The immigrant visas are aimed to obtain the permanent residency status, aka, the green card. One basic type is the employment based H-1, which can be used as a basis for applying for green card.  There is also O-1, a visa for people with extraordinary abilities in entertainment, sports, trade or science. Then there are investment visas, where you can throw in 250k-1mil to get yourself a 3 year investor visa that can be converted to green card down the road. So on and so forth.

I came to the States in ’96 to attend college, followed by grad school. So I had F-1 student visa continuously for almost 10 years. When I graduated, I was aiming to find an industry job but the market condition was souring at the end of ’06. Merck took an interest but quickly said no because the H-1 paper work couldn’t finish on time (there is an annual quota for the H-1 for certain nationals, like Chinese and Indians). Normally a postdoc position in any university or independent institutes will also offer an H-1 work visa. However, NIH, being a government agency, doesn’t offer work visa for postdocs. Therefore, when I arrived at NIH for my first day of work, my only option was an exchange scholar visa, J-1, which is truly a bitch to get out of. I was seriously considering backing out of the deal, but I relented because it was NCI, THE place to do cancer research and there was hope to convert out of the J-1 down the road.  Now, the J-1 is a bitch because there are many stipulations attached to it. The main hurdle, a 2-year home residency requirement, is that the holder of J-1 from certain nations (china included) has to return to home country for 2 years before being converted to other visas; because J-1 is set up mainly as a training apparatus for foreign scientists. However, I had no academic associations in China whatsoever, so returning for 2 years wouldn’t make any sense in my case.

The regulation at NIH states that if I can get a full time employee (FTE) offer either within the NIH, or from an outside institute, I may be able to convert the J-1 to H-1, by the way of a waiver for the 2-year residency requirement. The waiver consists of 2 parts, first the Chinese embassy will issue a no-contest opinion (which usually happens unless someone is sponsored through official government business), then NIH will attach a “favorable” comment before sending the waiver to state department for approval.

My boss was the director of NCI. He stepped down in the middle of 2010 as expected since that position is a presidential appointee. He expressed interest of staying on to continue the research. So I was working hard on papers and hoping for a FTE offer from him or within NCI that would solve my visa woes. In September 2010, my boss announced that he was offered a CEO position at Inova (a hospital management company) and he’s leaving immediately (literally the same day). That just threw everything into chaos. I had 2 projects with 5 papers in various stages of preparation and submission. I can’t just drop that and move on because there isn’t anything else to move on to.

There are no accurate words to describe the past year.  There were experiments to finish, papers to write, jobs searches to follow up with the timer ticking down. I managed to get 2 papers out of the door, 1 was taken over, with 2 more hopelessly on hold. My futile job search ended with an offer from the National Library of Medicine as a reviewer for clinicaltrial.gov (an online depository of trial data within the States). However, since that is a contractor position through an outside company, NIH doesn’t consider it a FTE, and therefore refused to provide a “favorable” review, which would certainly not pass the state department. I hired an attorney in an attempt to file an O-1 petition (to bypass the residency requirement) but the contractor company dragged their feet and eventually rescinded the offer. Understandably, with the unemployment rate as it is, it wouldn’t be hard for them to find someone equally qualified without all the legal hassle.

My efforts for other FTE positions within NCI turned out fruitless. Because of the federal budget crisis, NCI initiated a hiring freeze, a number of labs that were interested in taking me couldn’t move forward. No better news from outside institutes either.

I am not completely without fault. My initial desire to stay at NCI delayed my serious effort for outside jobs search until January, with the economic downturn, that was way too little time for someone who needs extended visa and legal work.

Eventually, my visa expired, so I had to leave.

Canada is the only place I can go besides China. I was granted residency here after 3 years of application process.  I initiated that route after receiving my J-1 visa at NIH. Because J-1 is renewed annually or biannually, there wasn’t enough time in between for me to squeeze in a green card petition for the US without screwing up my status. So Canada became the backup plan.  That’s why I am here now.

I hope that was clarifying not more confusing. I can’t go back to the US without a visa. I will be applying for a tourist visa soon so I can come visit. I will be able to move back if I can get a FTE position in the States. Therefore, I am still job searching. So if you guys come across anything, please don’t hesitate to let me know. “Operation backup plan” is already in effect, now let’s work on “Operation get back in”.

John, I know you are saying I deserved it because I didn’t love it enough while I was in the US. I have learned my lesson and I vowed to love it to the max from now on. I have been defending US positions in Canada, including the stoppage of keystone pipeline, for starters. also I have been advocating the Canadians to import US goods, such as Pepperidge Farm products and unadulterated fine automobiles (more on that later).

Cheers and as always, feedbacks are greatly appreciated.

Xiang