PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — A beloved chemistry teacher from India just took his first giant step toward staying in the United States.
Blue Mountain Community College chemistry instructor Chandra Kunapareddy got the answer he sought at the last of three special BMCC Board of Education meetings.
Community college board of education meetings aren’t usually riveting, high-suspense affairs. However, the trio of standing-room-only special board meetings in the last week featured both angst and passion.
Kunapareddy, 36, faced the expiration in 2020 of his H-1B visa, a document that allows U.S. employers to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require intellectual or technical expertise. The chemistry instructor grew up in a village in southern India, born into a caste of farm workers. None of his family except him has gone past middle school.
In 2017, when Kunapareddy started his job, the college officially notified him that the visa assistance was a one-time deal. On April 17 at the first meeting, the instructor asked for a change in course. He said he loved his job, his student evaluations were stellar and he hoped to raise his children here.
Would the college consider helping him renew the visa and start the green card process?
Board members listened as a string of faculty and students took the microphone to praise Kunapareddy as a personable, qualified instructor with the gift of making the sometimes dry subject of chemistry come alive.
More than one person got emotional as they spoke.
At the second meeting on April 18, board members wrestled with the pros and cons as they decided how to vote.
Jane Hill and Kim Puzey favored helping Kunapareddy, while Chair Chris Brown, Heidi Van Kirk and Anthony Turner worried about overturning the 2017 decision and fretted about an additional financial obligation during tight budget times. Bob Savage straddled the middle line.
The board considered four options ranging from not renewing at all to renewing and helping Kunapareddy navigate the green card process.
The price tag for BMCC is somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 and is the same for Kunapareddy. Puzey initially suggested that the faculty consider raising funds necessary to pay the college’s portion, making any financial objection moot. He offered to throw in $1,000 of his own money.
Vice President of Administrative Services Tammy Parker, who researched the process, quickly quashed the notion as an employer must pay its half of the fees without outside funds according to law.
Mired in complexities, the board opted to push off the decision again until board member Don Rice returned from abroad.
At the third meeting, the boardroom again filled up, this time with members of the public joining in.
Former state veterinarian Andrew Clark stepped to the microphone. Clark, who said he had taken 13 terms of chemistry en route to his veterinary degree, called a good chemistry teacher “a treasure to be nurtured.”
Van Kirk, who originally voted against assisting Kunapareddy, moved to start the green card process immediately and renew the visa.
She, Kunapareddy, Rice, Parker, Vice President of Instruction John Field and Science Department Chair Philip Schmitz had met the day before as a work group to discuss the way forward and Van Kirk had modified her position.
Hill seconded Van Kirk’s motion.
Puzey verbalized his support. Though the school would enter uncharted territory, it is a path worth traveling, he said.
“I just want to keep this incredible person on our faculty,” Puzey said.
The vote was six-to-one, with Brown voting no.
The whole thing could backfire for Kunapareddy. His position must be advertised again to make sure there are no American applicants more qualified to fill his job. If another applicant beats out Kunapareddy, he could be headed back to India.
That gives him pause as he realizes the selection committee determines his future, but he focused on the big step forward.
“I’m really thankful. Lots of gratitude,” Kunapareddy said.
“I’m willing to pay it back with my teaching.”