International students are on visas that limit their ability to work legally. What are the limitations and is that changing in the Trump administration?

By Max Goodman, Medill, Immigrant Connect

[Listen to companion story – Crunch time for Northwestern’s international students stays with them]

Finding and securing a summer internship or a job post-graduation is an arduous task. Attending the job fairs, conducting interviews, formulating cover letters and constructing that crisp resume for prospective employers – even with a helpful boost from networking relationships, is a daunting process to successfully navigate.

Imagine searching for employment as an international student.

To South Korean native Chloe Heo, a sophomore Communications and Dance double major at Northwestern University, finding work while on a student visa is incredibly difficult.

“There’s a big threshold I need to go through so it makes it so much harder,” she said. “Between the international student with a visa and the American student without a visa, [companies] would rather choose the American student.”

As of fall 2016, Heo was among a total of 815 international undergraduate students enrolled at Northwestern, marking the highest international student body total in school history, up five percent from the previous year’s total of 769, according to the University’s International Office.

To put those numbers in perspective, according to the LA Times, New York University tops all schools by educating 15,543 foreign students. Although Northwestern is nowhere near the top of the rankings, the state of Illinois sits fifth in the United States with more than 50,000 international students in total.

As they attempt to plan for the future, international students must deal with their official and limiting temporary status in the U.S.

Julie Kim on the steps of Northwestern University

Julie Kim, a native of South Korea and sophomore at Northwestern, majoring in economics and computer science, shares Heo’s grievances.

“It’s really stressful seeing all of my friends looking for internships and all that while … I have no idea what I’m doing,” she said. “Because of this, I’m going to be behind and won’t have as much on my resume.”

The underlying issue for Heo and Kim is this: While an American student needs to worry about securing a job position, students from outside the U.S. have a few more logistical limitations they need to take care of.

International students fall under what’s known as an F1 visa, issued to foreign students who attend an academic institution in the United States. Under F1, students must maintain the minimum course load for full-time student status They can only work up to 20 hours per week if they chose to do so – but only within on-campus employment options.

The restrictions don’t stop there.

Upon completion of their academic programming, students have the option to partake in OPT (optional practical training) and are allotted an additional stay of 12 months to work in their field of study. But after that year is up, explained Heo, you’re on your own.

After the expiration of the OPT visa, the students-turned-alumni, must apply for a different visa than what they had in college. The process is complicated and uncertain. The H1B visa needs to be picked up by the employer – an additional step and cost that perturbs companies and that often sways them to look for workers elsewhere.

“You can get a job and then after the one year, [your] OPT expires and then that’s when we need help from the company to get [a new] visa,” Heo said. “That’s the hard thing to get because it’s a lot of money to secure a lawyer and it’s a lottery system so you can win or not.”

Kim added, “Unless I’m extremely skilled and highly desirable, that [company] will not be willing to put in that work to get me. It probably won’t happen…So, it’s a lot of trying to make major life decisions right now.”

Although international students like Heo and Kim are young adults and capable of making their own decisions regarding their futures, the consensus among international students is that their respective institutions are also responsible to lend a helping hand.

In Northwestern’s case, aid for international students is spearheaded by the International Office (IO), a hub for Wildcats from around the world, providing advising and supportive programs for students navigating their new lives in Evanston and beyond.

Ravi Shankar, director of the office, said that while most students who come to his office are in search of

Ravi Shankar, Director, Northwestern University’s International Office.

guidance regarding their visa status, the office does so much more, and they’re not alone in doing so.

“It’s not just this office that supplies the support network,” said Shankar. “It’s a whole slew of support services that’s available to them as it would be for any student. So, for careers, they would go to career advancement, for counseling they would go to CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services). We kind of serve as a conduit to these students depending on what their issues or problems are and if the solution lies with us, then of course we’ll take care of that.”

To Stavros Agorakis, however, a sophomore from Greece studying journalism, Northwestern certainly could do more.

“It’s not that people here don’t have good intentions per se,” he said, “I think that sometimes it just slips their minds that sometimes we might be facing a little more difficulties in terms of finding [work] … International students don’t really get as much attention in terms of career opportunities.”

Agorakis believes that those in positions to help lack the abilities and supplies to do so.

Stavros Agorakis

“I just think that university advisers might not have the right resources themselves and they might not be as knowledgeable as they’d like to be,” vented Agorakis.

Shankar, a former international student himself, understands the pleas from Northwestern’s international student body and tries to assure them that the IO is ramping up their programming, doing everything in their power to make lives easier for students like Agorakis.

“The main goal is for them to come and study and get a degree and they do this very well, as any other student – but we think that’s simply not enough, that they really need to understand this country and culture particularly during these turbulent political times.”

So, what can international students do to get their collective feet in the door and pursue employment in the United States?

Today’s system is set up in a way that automatically puts international students in a disadvantaged position. To a frustrated Julie Kim, the restrictions toward international students don’t make much sense.

“Sometimes it feels just a little unfair that my friends worry about finding a job and that’s it … whereas I need to find a job that will support my work visa and then I have to go through so much paper work … it’s just a lot of additional stress and sometimes makes me wonder if working in America is even worth it.”

Furthermore, the confines of OPT prevent students from exploring other interests, a luxury that domestic students take for granted if they choose summer jobs and internships in fields that have nothing to do with their degrees.

In the end, Kim, Heo and Agorakis, along with thousands of other international students may be squeezed into opting to return to their homelands despite big dreams of finding work and establishing a life in the U.S.

As the new administration under President Donald Trump settles in, a 21st century xenophobia only exacerbates the situation.

In Trump’s first hundred days alone, he has already cracked down on how many immigrants can enter the United States, with even harsher restrictions for Muslims in an executive order infamously known as the “Muslim ban,” that calls for the temporary exclusion from entry into the U.S. of people hailing from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

If the recent executive branch memos and public addresses against foreigners are any indication of what’s to come, Heo and her international student cohorts have reason to distrust the future, compounded by what’s already hard enough.

“My friends and all international students are always in the fear of planning the future because we don’t know what’s going to happen … But the options will be narrowed down [even further because of President Trump],” explained Heo. “That’s I think why some of my friends are talking about going back to our home country more frequently than before.”

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