Chinese Student Joins Army, Gets Citizenship

A military program gives Chinese international students like Peng Liu (second from left) an opportunity to stay in the U.S. – and become U.S. citizens – after their student visa expires. (Photo by Vicky Law via World Journal)

A military program gives Chinese international students like Peng Liu (second from left) an opportunity to stay in the U.S. – and become U.S. citizens – after their student visa expires. (Photo by Vicky Law via World Journal)

Some Chinese international students who graduated last year and couldn’t find a job due to the economic downturn found a way to remain in the U.S. before their student visa expires.

They joined the army through a recruiting program called Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI), which they discovered by chance. Within two months, they became U.S. citizens. Twenty-six-year-old Peng Liu is one of them.

Liu, together with officers from the army’s recruiting center on Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan, came to the Silk Road Caféon August 14 to share his story with the Chinatown audience and to promote the MAVNI program.

MAVNI was launched by the Pentagon in early 2009. And it was resumed and expanded in 2012 after a year-long suspension. Its purpose is to recruit soldiers who can speak 41 foreign languages including Chinese or those who have professional certificates in health care.

The program allows soldiers to skip applying for a working visa and green card, and directly get citizenship through naturalization. Liu said he came to the U.S. to study from Liaoning province, China, in 2010 and graduated last year from the University of Texas with a master’s degree in finance. He then moved to New York to try to find a job but didn’t get much luck.

Normally, in order to stay in the U.S. permanently, an international student has to go through the process of finding a job while on the Optional Practical Training (OPT) status, transferring to an employer-sponsored H-1B working visa, and applying for a green card. It could take as long as 10 years.

“Big companies were all laying off people. Small companies didn’t like to sponsor the visas,” said Liu about his situation last year. His OPT required him to find a job within three months of its effective date, or go back to China. The clock was ticking. Luckily, Liu found about the MAVNI program through Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter).

Liu said he likes life in the U.S. and his parents supported his decision to get on the express train to citizenship by joining the army. Liu plans to sponsor visas for his parents for them to come to the U.S. to reunite with him. But he won’t do it until a year after he finishes his duty in South Korea.

Liu applied for the MAVNI program last November. It took the army two months to process the contract and three months to do a background check. After that, Liu was sent for 10 weeks of basic training. He was then deployed to Fort Jackson, N.C. After finishing, a soldier has to receive job training for about a few weeks to 1 1/2 years. He took an 8-week training.

After the training, he came to New York to help with recruiting for two weeks. He will be sent to a South Korean base next week and serve there for a year. Capt. Stephen Gerry, who is in charge of six of the recruiting centers in New York, said in a year later Liu can choose to remain stationed in South Korea or do other jobs in the army that suit his skills.

Having been with the army for four months, Liu said many Chinese joined the service through this program, including a female Chinese soldier in his unit. He said the two of them often help each other. He speaks fluent English so there was no communication problem during the trainings. But he noted he had to learn some military terms in the beginning. Most of his fellow soldiers are high school graduates in their 20s.

Sgt. Tiffany Dixon, director of the recruiting center on Chambers Street, said anyone who has been living in the U.S. with legal status for at least two years, didn’t leave the U.S. for more than 90 days in the past year, and is between 17 and 34 years old is eligible to apply.

The position Liu took was one of the 60 Chinese-speaking openings in the 2013 fiscal year (FY). Most of the openings have been filled now. There will be 100 new openings in New York City in 2014 FY. But the starting date for applications hasn’t been announced yet. One of the advantages of the MAVNI program is the applicants can get citizenship within half a year. But participants have to sign a contract with the army for 3-6 years.

For more information, visit the recruiting center at 143 Chambers Street in working hours, or contact Gary Qian at Gary-Qian.mil@mail.mil or 212-233-5770.

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