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Esther Jang: On being an artist, a teacher, and securing an O-1 visa

interstride logo by Interstride
December 1, 2023

International alumna Esther Jang is an O-1B visa recipient, a successful artist, and a public school teacher living in Queens, New York City. She came to the US 13 years ago to earn her undergraduate degree in photography from Parsons School of Design. After a career in the arts for six years, she earned a Master’s degree from Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Esther’s unique background and career path serve as inspiration to other international students interested in pursuing the arts or humanities in the US. 

What did you do before you transitioned to a career in education?

I worked for six years in the fine art world, very deep in it. I had my own photography business, and I worked at Alfredo Jaar’s studio for six years. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the industry in ways that are hard to access, like working with international museums and also, local museums like the Met MoMA and art fairs, like Freeze Basel. We were represented by Gallery Live Long in Chelsea, and our office was there in the Chelsea area. 

Why did you choose to pivot to education?

I have been researching visual literacy and pedagogy for ten years since undergrad. My mom is a veteran teacher, so education has always been in my blood. I wanted to teach kids how to read images, so I found the why behind photography, the why behind Visual Arts, and the why behind education. The overarching theme was that I wanted to teach the next generation to be creators, not just consumers, and give them the agency and power to read images, dissect images, and put them back together. 

I love teaching. It’s super tough because 90% of my students are immigrants, and a couple of them don’t speak English. I’m using Google Translate every day, but we get by, and we have a lot of fun. The whole reason why I went into the Bronx to teach immigrant students is because I grew up in six different countries. I was born in South Korea, but I lived in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, and the States. I’m a third-culture kid. Therefore, I understand what my immigrant students are going through, and I’m passionate about helping them and being embedded into the world that they’re living in right now. 

I wanted to teach our next generation to be creators, not just consumers, and give them the agency and power to read images, dissect images, and put them back together.

How did you decide to pursue an O-1B visa?

If people are interested in the O-1 process, I’m assuming that they’re interested because they are artists. I’m assuming that because O-1 is called the Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement visa, and the visas are given to artists who have extensive experience in showcasing their talents in the US.

An H-1B visa is through a company, while an O-1 is proving that you have art shows, publications, articles published, or works being bought. You need to prove certain criteria of your artistry and your activities in the US. I knew that as an artist, in order for me to stay here and build my career, I needed a sponsor. Sponsorship is the hardest thing to get in the O-1. You can’t just prove that you’re extraordinary. You also need an external sponsor to vouch for your extraordinary talents. Alfredo Jaar, my sponsor, is not a company, therefore, the visa that he could provide for me was only the O-1 visa, not the H-1B.

So, a sponsor is not the same as an employer?

It doesn’t have to be, but they are usually because you need to prove to the USCIS that you have a working relationship with your sponsor. It doesn’t have to be full-time, but mine was full-time. If you work with a good lawyer, he’s going to give you a chart where you fill out what you’ll be doing for your sponsor, when and how, and how much you’ll be earning. The sponsor also has to hit certain criteria to be able to sponsor your O-1 visa.

Can you describe your O-1 process?

I did the O-1 visa process twice. The first time was very difficult. I was just fresh out of college. I didn’t have money saved, therefore I had to find a relatively cheaper lawyer. I only spent $2,000 as opposed to some lawyers who go up to $7,000 or $10,000. I did all the legwork. I got two or three RFEs (request for evidence) which is when USCIS deems there needs to be more evidence to prove that you are an extraordinary artist. It’s a pain in the neck to get the RFEs, but I got them two or three times. 

The artist visa lasts for three years, and then you have to reapply. The second time around it was really quick. I got it. Then, I got the travel stamp in Paris instead of Korea because my new lawyer was more competent and a little bit more expensive, but it was worth it. He had experience working with O-1, so he said, “Don’t go to South Korea to get a travel stamp, because if they reject you, even if you have an O-1, you can’t go to the States anymore. Just go to Paris because they give you travel stamps really easily.”

I have a dear colleague who’s Chinese. He got his O-1 visa approved in the US, but the Chinese government declined to give him a travel stamp. It was during the Trump administration. He couldn’t come to the US even though he had the O-1, because he left to his home country for the travel stamp, and the visa got revoked. Some of my other Chinese friends who did the artist visa just chose not to go out of the country. 

That’s my six-year visa journey. And then I went to grad school, so I didn’t need to have a work visa anymore. 

I knew that as an artist, in order for me to stay here and build my career, I needed a sponsor. Sponsorship is the hardest thing to get in the O-1. You can’t just prove that you’re extraordinary. You also need an external sponsor to vouch for your extraordinary talents.

What was the timeline like starting from applying to the O-1 to getting the RFEs to finally getting the visa?

The OPT (Optional Practical Training) expires in a year, and my OPT started in June or July. You need to start the application before the OPT expires. I got hired in September, and then I started the application in February of the following year. I prepared all the documents and then submitted them right before the OPT expiration date. As long as they receive the document before the OPT expiration date, then you’re good to stay in the US. Even if OPT expires, because your application is in the system, they allow you to stay and continue to work until the result comes out. 

I submitted it in May or June. I got the first RFE within 15 days. There are two routes. If you pay $1,500, they do an expedited response. I think it was 15 days. But if you don’t pay that amount, it could take up to 90 days for them to reply to you, as in it could take them 90 days for them to give an RFE instead of 15 days. I chose the expedited route. I got the first RFE around July or August. 

If the USCIS says you don’t have enough shows, or your evidence is too weak, then you have to talk with your lawyer and build up a better case and give firmer evidence. I took about a month to prepare more documents, and then I submitted them around September, and it took about another 15 days to get another RFE. It dragged on until way past December and into the new year. 

What tips do you have for someone applying for an O-1 visa?

  • Find a good lawyer who is experienced in international visas like the O-1. Due to the inability of my lawyer, there were a lot of complications, but I managed to get my visa. 
  • If you leave the US and plan to return, you need the visa, but you also have to go out of the US and get a travel stamp.
  • If it’s the first time someone is proving themselves for an O-1, USCIS scrutinizes their application, but the second time around it was very easy. If you’ve already established your ground as an artist, the USCIS just checks the paperwork and gives you the visa.

You gotta self-advocate if you want to do an O-1 or any other visa. It is a very rare occasion in which the employer knows about sponsoring international talent, so you have to educate them and do some research as well.

What are some of the general takeaways that you want to share with international students?

My biggest takeaway as an international student establishing a career in the US is to really go after your career with no shame or no hesitation. Many international friends, including my friends, have always commented on how the American friends in our classroom are always raising their hands and they’re going after things and they’re always loud. We would jealously talk about their abilities to BS their way around their grades. But there’s something to be learned about that attitude. I think going after what you want and practicing how to sell yourself and brand yourself and believing in your career and yourself and the artistry is very important. 

Step into that belief that what you have made in your career is worth recognition. Pave your own way. My heart goes out to all international students trying to make a career in the US. The legal system here is way tougher than in other places, so hang in there. I want to be as helpful as possible and show international people that you can do it. There are pathways and there are people who are willing to help you. I hope I was able to shed some information and some hope and light on your career.