“You can’t just bum around right after graduation, move to New York, and figure out what you want to do,” said Marta Pisarczyk ’11, a student from Germany. With graduation less than one hundred days away, Pisarczyk now faces the dilemma that international students, who make up seven percent of the Wesleyan population, confront when their F-1 student visas expire: find a way to stay in the United States or go back home.
Students who hold a F-1 visa in the United States are permitted to stay in the country for as long as they are full-time students. Beyond this, they are allowed an additional 60 days to prepare for departure, enter a graduate school, or obtain a job. Gaining employment is often made difficult, however, because of visa sponsorship requirements, which mean extra financial costs and additional paperwork for hiring companies.
Erwin Dwi Saputra ’11, an international student from Jakarta, Indonesia, majoring in Economics and Government, remembers thinking early on in his time at Wesleyan what kind of career his major could translate into.
“I’ve been going to the CRC [Career Resource Center] since my freshman year,” Saputra said. “If I remember, the only kids who went to the CRC at that time were mostly international students. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me there was some sort of anxiety, [and I would think] ‘Oh I have to compete with Americans,’ who in my mind were much more privileged because of their education. I’m from Indonesia, I know that the education I went through is not as good as what people have here, so, I kind of thought, ‘I’m not as qualified as other American students so I have to make it up by working harder than them.’”
Saputra went through five rounds of interviews last year to get a summer internship with The Capital Group. Although Saputra considered returning to Indonesia after graduation, he was hesitant about the uncertainties involved in that decision, including a difference in salary and job opportunities. Luckily, after another 10 rounds of interviews, he was offered a job in September with The Capital Group.
“I don’t want to generalize, but if I didn’t have a job right now, I would feel much less secure than American kids,” he said. “I don’t have the luxury to go back home or stay here to look for a job.”
One option for international students looking to stay in the United States is to apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT allows students to stay in the country and receive practical work experience, usually for a period of 12 months. For students entering the fields of math and science, that period can be longer.
“Since 2007, an average of 35 graduate and undergraduate students per year apply for OPT. All of which have been granted,” wrote Coordinator of International Student Services Janice Watson in an e-mail to The Argus. “OPT guidelines require the job to be directly related to the major that the student has pursued.”
Shirin Sulaiman ’11, a College of Letters (COL) major from Singapore who is also completing the International Relations Certificate, underscored the difficulty of finding a job related to a student’s major.
“It’s weird because this is a liberal arts school, so you have people taking degrees that they are interested in, and they want to work in something that might not be that,” she said. “Like if you want to work at a bank but you happen to be an English major.”
One international student graduate, who wished to remain anonymous, thought about going to medical school before trading in a scalpel for a spatula to enter the hospitality world. The student described the time spent on OPT as “a big turnaround year” that allowed for exploration outside of the student’s course of study at Wesleyan. The student wanted to stay and work in New York City to get “the toughest training” possible.
“The OPT year was actually useful to me,” the student said. “If I hadn’t taken the risk and gone into cooking, I would have never found out that I like cooking.”
The student wasn’t granted OPT status until several months after graduation. The student worked for free for a three-month period because the student feared the consequences of being paid without an OPT status. When OPT was granted the student worked with an employer to create a position that would fit with the student’s course of study, allowing the student to stay and work for a year.
“I tried to follow the rules as much as I could until I had to make a choice,” the student said. “Not following the rules entirely was helpful. I took risks and it was something that I took on knowingly. I think as long as you know the risks you are taking, it’s not so bad.”
The student acknowledged the situational gray area.
“If I got caught, I was meant to be caught,” the student said. “So I took a risk in that sense. It does create stress and a lot of uncertainty… but, looking back, it’s more fun. If things are just so clear cut then I would think it would be a bit boring.”
Johanne Yu Yen Lin ’10, an economics major from Taiwan who also completed the International Relations Certificate, remembers the anxiety that characterized her senior year.
“I was really stressed out by the end of senior year because all of my friends, even though they are from other states, don’t have to worry about where they are going to move their stuff to,” she recalled. “We had to start thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, if I’m staying where am I going to start moving my luggage to? If I’m not staying what am I going to do?’ It’s either go for it or go home. We can’t really go home and decide to hop to New York a few weeks later on.”
Lin looked at jobs in banking and the legal field, and thinks her visa status may have negatively played into the hiring process.
“I’m not sure how much my visa status played into whether I could secure a job or not in the States,” Lin said. “But I personally felt that it was a major factor when the companies were making decisions because a lot of jobs, for example paralegal jobs, have a two year commitment type of clause in it. I’ve had interviews when half way through they asked, ‘Are you okay committing two years to this company?’ and I said, ‘I’m totally fine’ and they said, ‘You’re an international student?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And then we started talking about visa statuses and they said, ‘So you only have one year after graduation.’ And I’m like ‘Yeah.’”
After graduation Lin secured an unpaid summer internship at Legal Outreach in New York City. During the internship, Lin’s family helped support her. When the internship ended, however, she found herself in a difficult situation.
“It was rather tough finding a legit job that would pay for rent especially when it’s New York City,” she said. “It’s hard when you are scraping by for rent with odd jobs, and I was facing pressure from my family to come back home.”
Eventually Lin decided to return home to Taiwan, where she is now working and studying for the LSAT.
“I decided that it’s not worth constantly trying to get my parents to see why it’s so important for me to stay in the States because, by the end of it, I realized that if I can’t find a job that I actually enjoy working for in the States, then there really isn’t much point in staying any more,” Lin said. “I might as well come home and spend more time with family before I go off for grad school again.”
Pisarczyk, who is majoring in history and also receiving the International Relations Certificate, has applied for some jobs in the United States. She is also looking into graduate school programs all over the world, where the cost of tuition can be much lower than in the U.S. Although Pisarczyk thinks the American education system is the best in the world, she sees drawbacks to staying and living in this country after graduation, including much less vacation time than what is common in Europe.
“I think the U.S. is sort of scary as a new place to live,” Pisarczyk said. “The social system isn’t as good as Europe or other countries. For example, in Germany there is support if you lose your job, and health care is free. It’s one thing that definitely keeps me very undecided about the U.S., and the job market is very competitive. I’m scared because I don’t have any family here.”
Pisarczyk, like Saputra, sees the pressure international students experience when making decisions about life after Wesleyan.
“I have experienced that Americans don’t really feel that pressure because they know ‘Oh, I can go home for six months and sit around,’” Pisarczyk said. “But I think internationals that come from a poorer part of the world, they really don’t want to go back.”
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama highlighted the problem that many international students face.
“Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens,” Obama said. “Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. …Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.”
It remains unclear what, if anything, Obama proposes to do.
“I believe President Obama was calling for immigration reform to streamline the process by which international students are able to stay and contribute to our society,” Watson wrote. “A benefit to both the student and to the United States.”
Sulaiman was unsure of what prompted Obama’s remark.
“I’m interested to know what [Obama] was responding to,” she said. “I feel like most international students don’t band together and say ‘Let us stay.’ It’s a very personal thing, and I’m surprised it made it to that level. …It’s interesting because it goes against the trend of Europe in terms of wanting international students to stay [in the U.S.] and get jobs.”
Pisarczyk noted the “brain drain” problem that could result if many students decide to stay in the U.S., while Saputra wondered about the reaction from Americans.
“One thing I was thinking when I heard that was if they are taking more foreigners or international students to work here, that means, in the short range, that there is going to be more competition for American students,” Saputra said. “I don’t know what people would think about that, especially people who are really nationalistic or patriotic. …But I guess in the long-term that is what Americans should do. You can’t just afford to give scholarships to international students and then send them back, because their talents could support more growth and create more jobs in the States and that is a win-win solution for everyone in the long-term.”