The U.S. is the Land of Opportunity, But Not So Much For International Students

A few weeks ago, I received one of the most exciting phone calls a recent graduate interested in trade publishing could ever hope for. A representative from a very reputable publishing house called me about an editorial assistant position at one of their imprints, known for producing some of the best literary fiction and nonfiction today.  

Do you have time for a quick phone interview? She asked. I said, yes, absolutely. She told me that someone had forwarded her my resume, and that I seemed like a good fit for the position. We talked for a few minutes. She asked me where I was from. Once I said that I was an international student from Thailand, the interview ended.

My interviewer told me that my visa status would be "a problem." I reassured her that I had already applied for OPT and would be eligible to work in the U.S. for a year, but she explained that they were looking to hire someone longer term. Visa sponsorship, in that case, would not be possible.

I could feel my stomach sinking. I tried my best to hold onto my chances: I reiterated my interest in the position and asked if there was any other information I could provide about my qualifications, but my interviewer had no other questions. For her, there was no point in talking further. My visa status had already ended my candidacy.

Though I had been aware of some of the difficulties I would face in finding a job after graduation, never had I so distinctly felt and understood the limitations of being an international student. I always knew there would be extra paperwork, extra costs, but for the first time, I finally understood (and experienced) how being an international student could actually reduce my prospects for employment – a realization that, in many ways, contradicted several of my initial motivations for deciding to study in the U.S.

Coming from a relatively small town in Thailand, I had always looked to the U.S. as a land of opportunity – as a new beginning and, even, as an escape from what seemed to me a place of few prospects. I wanted the liberal arts education, I wanted the challenge of being away from home, and I wanted the cultural experience. And while coming to the U.S. certainly afforded me these opportunities and more, I've now realized – especially upon stepping out of the university context – that there's a trade-off: I have new skills and experiences, but I also have new restrictions and limitations.

So what, exactly, are these challenges? Though this may already be familiar to international students currently wrestling with their work visas or applying for OPT, international students face different challenges than those of many recent graduates entering the job market. If international students decide that they want to remain in the U.S. after graduation, they have the option of either going to graduate school, or finding work by extending their student visa through Optional Practical Training (OPT), or through a sponsored work visa. OPT allows you to stay in the U.S. for another year, but with this condition: you must find a job or internship that is related to your field of study, and you cannot be unemployed for longer than 90 days – any longer, then you will have to return to your country. This means that for those who graduate from college without a job, the job search has a time limit – and that café job isn't going to count for employment.

Furthermore, employers often take international student status into consideration during the job application process, adding an extra layer of difficulty to finding employment. After a year of OPT, international students will need work visa sponsorship to remain in the country, a requirement that many employers, especially in this economy, are reluctant to initiate. Not only is visa sponsorship an expensive process (costing at least $1,000-$1,500), the government also caps the number of H1B visas offered every year at 85,000. This year, the cap was reached within the first week of the filing period, resulting in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducting a lottery for distributing the visas (check out this Bloomberg Businessweek article for commentary on the lottery). Employers also tend to have such a lower rate of hiring international candidates, that some U.S. and UK business schools have reportedly discouraged international students from applying to their programs for fear of being unable to place them.

Finally, let's not forget that these kinds of restrictions are not concentrated in the post-graduation period: it begins as early as trying to get into college with enough financial aid. Take into consideration that only a handful of universities in the U.S. offer substantial financial aid to international students (around six offer need-blind admissions, and you'd be surprised at how many elite universities offer little to no aid), and perhaps it's time for us to reconsider the paradigm of studying abroad in the U.S. – is the U.S. actually a land of opportunity, or are you actually lowering your chances for finding gainful employment by coming here?

This article certainly isn't meant to be a complaint against the restrictions that international students face in looking for opportunities in the U.S. – I certainly chose to attend university here because I believed (and still believe) that being here affords me opportunities that I would not have otherwise had at home. And for some, it seems perfectly understandable that these visa restraints are in place. Many Americans seem to see foreigners as snatching up the jobs that they rightfully deserve; why should Americans be "losing" their jobs to foreigners? Why should the government allow the sponsoring of H1B visas, when the unemployment rate remains so high?

Overall, as much as I've found the U.S. to be a relatively accepting place where one's education or fluency in English could easily lend the image of being a citizen, my experiences have shown me that one's international student status matters, especially when you're looking for jobs. However, what I've come to realize is that all I can do is accept the constraints for what they are, and recognize that I'm on a different playing field than other recent grads. After attending a number of career forums and panels, I've realized that oftentimes the  advice that career centers or successful professionals give me just doesn'tt apply. They may say that the job search takes time, that it's okay to move back into your parents' house for a while – but that's not the case when your closest relative lives some 8,000 miles away and your visa has an expiration date. The restrictions are there, and it’s important for international students to recognize that they don’t have the same kinds of securities that citizens do. On my end, I’ve come to see my visa constraints as a motivating factor – for finding a job faster, for making concrete future plans, even if I’m not necessarily ready for them. It’s a challenge, but one that I am definitely willing to face.