As spring semester approaches, many Amherst students are hoping to land a summer internship or post-graduation job. While the job application process for all students is immensely stressful, international students are among the specific groups of students burdened with extra considerations for the future. In a time when immigration has focalized within political discussion, it’s incredibly important to consider how international students desiring to work in the States must navigate a complex immigration system.
International students first and foremost must decide whether they even desire to stay in the States after graduation. Brian Royes, a senior psychology major from Jamaica, says he is conflicted. “Some countries tend to lose their more educated and qualified workers to more developed countries, just because there are more opportunities abroad,” Royes said. “That’s something I’ve been considering, whether I’d have more of an impact back home or I should pursue opportunities here in the States.” However, Royes recognizes that there are more work options in the States. “Finding jobs in your native country is not always the easiest,” Royes said. “There are definitely more opportunities in the US and less in Jamaica.”
Mia Kaaber, a senior history major from Iceland, says that the liberal arts name does not go as far in Iceland as it does in the States. “If you have an MBA from Harvard, that’s a great thing, but they don’t understand the liberal arts,” Kaaber said. “It’s hard to take any one type of education and translate it to a different world, because even if it’s not that different it tends to be different in how people understand it.”
Given the constraints some students face in their home countries, many do decide to work in the States. Working in the States requires that a student obtain an H1-B temporary worker visa. However, students do not have to get an H1-B immediately upon graduation: as part of their student visa, they are eligible for an additional twelve months of work training called Optional Practical Training (OPT). This employment must be related to a student’s undergraduate field of study; for example, a biology major could use their OPT to work in a research lab at a large institution. However, Kaaber says that the type of employment that will qualify for OPT is often very vague, and that at a liberal arts school, knowing what type of work relates to one’s field is often difficult. “Knowing whether something will qualify or not is very subjective, and it seems to really be a judgment call of whether the government will let you,” Kaaber said.
Royes says that the requirement that OPT employment be related to one’s academic study also presents obstacles for students wishing to change their field after graduation. Royes is a psychology major, but is interested in pursuing a career in the environmental field developing solar technology, and says he is unsure of how to make the case for OPT work in that field. “That’s something that an average US born student doesn’t have to think about, because they can adjust their field however they want without thinking about it,” Royes said.
Further, international students are given only twelve months total for OPT work, a portion of which they may use for a summer internship. However, that portion is then subtracted from the total 12 months of OPT available after graduation. Because many employers often desire their employees to have at least nine months of OPT left upon graduation to provide enough time to apply for an H1-B, many international students are forced to decide not to do internships in the States during their undergraduate summers. “I did not do any internships during college, so now during the job search process it is difficult because I don’t have much to show for the skills I’m bragging about on my resume,” Royes said. “A lot of my work has been volunteer work internationally.”
If an OPT permission is granted, it is during this work period that students apply for an H1-B temporary worker visa. However, international students cannot apply on their own but must find a company or a firm to sponsor their HIB visa. Kaaber said that many companies do not understand the process, or have the impression that sponsorship is quite costly. “Sponsorship doesn’t actually cost that much or is that complicated, but there’s this idea that it is expensive and complicated and not a great thing.” Because larger, well-established companies more often have the knowledge and resources necessary to sponsor a visa, international students may find it difficult to find sponsorship from smaller, boutique companies. Further, many companies are often vague about their own willingness to sponsor visa applications. “Companies will be very unclear about whether you are eligible to apply or not. It can be kind of disincentivizing, because you don’t even know if your application will be considered,” Kaaber said.
Further, Royes feels that although having access to the same networks, some international students may yet face additional obstacles. “As someone who came in with no knowledge of how things or people operate in these spaces, networking is a bit more of a challenge,” Royes said. “Certain people may be able to easily relate because of cultural capital, but we may be missing some of the seemingly obvious conversation points or how to conduct ourselves.”
When an international student does find a company to sponsor their visa, there still remains only about a thirty-three percent chance that an applicant will be chosen to receive a visa because of limits on the numbers of H1-B visas issued. “Just because of random chance, you just don’t get the visa, and that’s it,” Royes said. Graduate school is another option for international students, but funding postgraduate study is often an obstacle for many.
Given the visa system’s complexities, it is natural to expect that advising around international students’ career paths may at times be difficult and unclear. Kaaber says that she often finds advice she receives from the Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning very contingent, which makes planning for the future difficult. “A lot of it is just so unclear, and depends on so many factors,” Kaaber said. “It’s sometimes really hard for [advisors at the Loeb Center] to say.”
However, Royes says that while he hopes the Loeb Center will offer more programs targeted to international students, he feels the Center has done a good job of providing support for international students. “The staff is very welcoming, and I know that they frequently collaborate with the international students. I’ve also gone to other [Loeb Center] things that aren’t targeted to international students but they still have been accommodating for our perspective in that space.”
Emily Griffen, director of the Loeb Center, says that while they already try to provide resources to international students in their first-year, they are increasingly focused on early engagement.
“Overall, our focus in the Loeb Center is increasingly early engagement with students, so that students know their options and the best use of their time,” Griffen says. “That’s especially true for international students.”
While the current staff member specializing in advising for international students, Associate Director for Career Advising Laura Litwiller, is currently on maternity leave, advisors at the Loeb Center are briefed on international concerns. The Center co-hosts multiple information sessions and workshops with Rebecca Counter, the International Student Coordinator. The Loeb Center also provides online resources, and works to build partnerships with potential employers and provide as much information as possible to students.
“In this specific scenario, we can work with the employers to make sure they’re being upfront about their policies,” Griffen said. “We actually require employers to note whether or not they require work authorization or are willing to sponsors, so that international students don’t waste their time pursuing job leads.”
Rebecca Counter, International Students Coordinator, says that the ISO currently focuses on helping students weigh their options and navigate through the Optional Practical Training (OPT) application process. In conjunction with the Loeb Center, the ISO offers workshops, advising, and an annual networking brunch for international students and alumni. The ISO also offers their own group workshops and advising sessions throughout the year. Counter says the College is currently still reviewing potential avenues for resource expansion, and is welcoming student input and feedback to help inform this process.
Further, Griffen said that given the new political climate, the Loeb Center will be keeping closer tabs on employer relationships and talking with peer schools to understand how proposed immigration policies could affect hiring policies.
“For now, it’s status quo, but there could be changes to H1-B rules,” Griffen said. “I know that there’s discussion on the part of Congress to raise the salary floor, on who would be eligible for an H1b visa. That would really shift our advising because it would shift what type of opportunities are available for our students. But for now, again, it’s status quo.”
Kaaber says that she expects increasing uncertainty after the presidential election, both on the side of applicants as well as employers. “One thing I’m definitely concerned about is that employers are probably also going to be feeling the uncertainty about hiring international students, especially given the conditions,” Kaaber said.
Royes as well as Kaaber will be spending their next few months applying for numerous job opportunities. Kaaber says that as she applies for jobs for the future, she finds it difficult to even talk about her plans to stay in the US after graduation.
“It feels like you’re doing something bad,” Kaaber says. “When people ask me what my plans are for after graduation, I can’t say. Obviously I want to be here. But it feels like I’m violating something.”