Majority Leader Eric Cantor Highlights SEAS Student

Speech addressed immigration concerns for foreign STEM graduates.

February 06, 2013

In a speech that touched on his legislative priorities for the next two years, House Majority Leader and George Washington alumnus Eric Cantor, R-Va., B.A. ’85, singled out Fiona Zhou, a GW graduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

At the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday, in an address titled “Making Life Work,” Rep. Cantor emphasized the need for immigration reform that would, among other things, allow science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students who have come to the United States on student visas stay and pursue employment.

He emphasized the plight that Ms. Zhou, a master’s student in engineering management, faces as a Chinese citizen who is in the United States on a student visa. When she graduates from her program, she will no longer be able to stay in the United States. And that shouldn’t be the case, Rep..Cantor said.

“Each year, our colleges and universities graduate approximately 40,000 foreign nationals with master’s and Ph.D.s, many of whom are then forced to leave the country because there are not enough visa slots in our immigration system to permit them to stay,” he said. “So rather than being able to invent things here in America, grow businesses or start one on their own, they do all of those things somewhere else.”

“[Ms. Zhou] would like to stay here and invest her talents in America, and maybe even start her own company,” he said. “But she has seen too many of her friends with advanced degrees have to go back home despite sharing her same dreams and aspirations.”

Last year, Rep. Cantor said, he worked with a bipartisan group of colleagues to pass the STEM Jobs Act in the House of Representatives, which aims to help fix the problem by allocating 55,000 visas for highly skilled immigrants with graduate degrees in STEM fields from American colleges and universities. During this Congress, he said, he plans to facilitate related legislation, and he hopes the Senate will act as well.

Ms. Zhou, who got her undergraduate degree from GW in computer science in 2012, said her current interests are in optimization simulation, an area in which researchers analyze problems and build systems models using mathematical algorithms to increase efficiency and improve outcomes. Ideally, she said, she’d like to find employment that would provide her with opportunities to apply her mathematical simulations to practical problems.

“If I start working, I need to find a company that will sponsor me,” she said. “Not a lot of companies are doing sponsorships right now. It’s a tough time for students who actually want to do some practical training right after they graduate. We came here for education, and we want to have a bigger chance to do the practical training and apply what we learned in school.”

David Dolling, dean of SEAS, said legislative changes that ease visa worries for students would benefit more than just the students themselves.

“Fiona Zhou is representative of many of our international students,” he said. “She is bright, motivated and possesses the sorts of hard, technical skills that are necessary for creating the technological advances that will continue to help fuel our economic growth.  Like many of her peers, she wants the opportunity to stay in the U.S. after graduation to pursue her dreams, and in doing so, her successes will be our successes.”