In 2018, Engineering senior Barry Chen went to his first and last career fair to look for aerospace engineering internships. Before the fair, he had already done research on which companies would be willing to hire international students.
“When we had a career fair, we had a list of companies, and we could also check if they want to sponsor international students,” Chen said. “I checked it, and turns out very few of them (sponsor), although there are some. Many of them give answers like ‘we may sponsor,’ but it’s not for sure. Maybe it depends on the job they want to offer you, maybe it depends on the spots available for internships.”
Despite the research he had done, after spending his day talking to multiple companies, he realized he wasn’t going to receive an offer because of his immigration status. Chen looked further into companies and realized that many jobs require a United States citizenship or a green card or a higher educational degree.
“I understand it’s not possible for me to find intern(ships) while I’m still undergrad,” Chen said.
International students have a choice of F-1 — or student visa — employment options while they are at the University. The most common are Optional Practical Training and Curricular Practical Training for short-term employment, such as internships.
Currently, the processing time for OPT applications is more than 90 days. In the case of Rackham student María Alejandra Rodríguez Mustafa, the processing time caused her to lose an internship offer during the summer of 2019.
“I got an offer, but I got it very late, so it was very hard to do all the paperwork,” Mustafa said. “So in the end, the timing was not great because I could not start and be continuing with the company for the time they required me. I could not go.”
For full-time jobs after graduation, companies must be willing to sponsor an international student and submit an H-1B, or visa for temporary workers, on their behalf. This visa allows them to stay for up to six years.
However, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there is a congressionally mandated cap of 65,000 H-1B visas and an additional 20,000 “advanced degree exemption” for the 2020 fiscal year. In addition, according to the American Immigration Council, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducts a lottery if the cap is hit within the first five business days to choose which petitions for visas are processed.
Because of his frustrating experience at the career fair and finding internships, Chen said he does not plan to attend another fair. To open up his job prospects and cultivate his interests, Chen said he is planning on attending graduate school and has been focusing on using his summers for research instead.
According to Chen, his struggle is shared by many international students. Though some are able to find jobs at big companies, the opportunities are few.
Some large companies, like Google, have branches in multiple countries. Rackham student Siyin Zheng said she tried applying to the U.S. branch of global organizations but found she was discouraged from doing so by the companies.
“Some specific companies will tell you that they have branches in China or in other countries,” Zheng said. “So, if you are an international student, unfortunately, we encourage you to apply to those positions in your own country.”
LSA freshman Lola Yang is from Canada and said she is already facing difficulties gaining work experience through internships. Yang said she is looking to find internships in the U.S. because there are more opportunities aligned with her interests in journalism and language immersion.
“Canada is a good country, but there aren’t as many opportunities,” Yang said. “For opportunities I’m looking for … there just isn’t an environment like that.”
Yang and Chen both said it is important to find internships in the U.S. if someone wants to continue living and working in the country after graduation. Yang said going home could put one at a cultural disadvantage.
“For international students, once you go home, you can be really out of touch from the country that you attend college in,” Yang said. “If you do want to gain experience and grow, you need to start looking out for opportunities early on.”
Engineering junior Sara Bashir is a Canadian citizen and green card holder. As a nuclear engineering major, she said many of the jobs she seeks are government contracted and require U.S. citizenship.
“It’s just frustrating because a lot of times my advisor will forward us emails about internships or opportunities, and the first thing I do is check — does it say that you have to be a U.S. citizen?” Bashir said.
Bashir is now looking for work in Canada since she is barred from government jobs in the U.S. To open up more opportunities, she has worked at Michigan Medicine because it doesn’t require U.S. citizenship.
“Because medical physics is the least restrictive in terms of clearance levels, it kind of guided me into the field,” Bashir said.
Mariella Mecozzi, senior assistant director of Pre-Professional Services at the University Career Center, said in an email to The Daily that international students face unique challenges during job or internship search processes.
“Job searching is hard for all students, but international students have the additional challenge of having to operate within the restrictions and timelines dictated by their visa type and having to adapt to different cultural norms,” Mecozzi wrote. “As for the reasons why things are the way they are, the U.S. is not alone in having rules governing employment eligibility. U.S. employers are required to check the work authorization of every worker they hire or they can face stiff penalties.”
The job or internship application form can also prove to be a frustrating process for international students. Zheng said her past experiences with these online applications were frustrating because they asked whether she was an international student or not.
“When you apply for a job and fill out a form, there is an option that you need sponsorship in the future or not, are you an international student?” Zheng said. “If you click yes, sometimes the computer will automatically kick you out. You may not even have the opportunity to do the next step.”
Mustafa said she encountered similar experiences and heard that once students check the box marking them as international, their application can get filtered out of the system.
“It’s really frustrating, right?” Mustafa said. “Because you cannot lie, but then you know that by checking that box, you’re probably getting an automatic out.”
Outside of status, international students said they also face another barrier — language.
In an email to The Daily, Kerri Boivin, director of the Michigan Engineering Career Resource Center, said international students often struggle with language and lack of awareness about U.S. business culture.
“We encourage international students to immerse themselves in campus-based cultural experiences such as intramural sports, residence hall activities, student organizations and project teams,” Boivin said. “We’ve seen that those who take tangible steps to step outside of their comfort zone in some of these areas have been able to navigate the U.S. job search with more effectiveness than others.”
Zheng said she has felt overlooked as an applicant because English is not her first language.
“I’m not native speaker,” Zheng said. “In this case, I might not be as competitive as other native speakers. I feel like those companies may feel like, ‘Okay, those native speakers meet my needs, so why bother other international students?’’”
To better improve her prospects, Zheng is involved in Graduate Rackham International and uses the University Career Alumni Network to conduct informational interviews. She also attends company information sessions to network and visits the University Career Center to have her resume critiqued when gearing up for the career fair.
When asked how international students could better improve their application prospects despite the challenges, Mecozzi emphasized the importance of using University resources, creating strong connections and researching the field when job hunting.
“Take a multi-pronged approach to your job search by becoming more knowledgeable about the type of opportunities you are pursuing,” Mecozzi wrote. “But perhaps more important than anything, (leverage) online networks and mechanisms to connect with alumni and other individuals currently working in your chosen industry or job function, like the University Career Alumni Network, LinkedIn, etc.”
While these approaches work for some, Mustafa said the University could do more to help international graduate students. She said she believes the current resources are targeted towards the domestic students rather than international students, particularly when it comes to graduate students.
“I’ve found a lack of support towards my particular population,” Mustafa said. “It’s also interesting to see there is no easy way to find one type of resource at the University that helps with identifying, for example, companies that will sponsor international students.”