As international students look for work, visa rules shape their experiences

"Everything I have has an expiration date," says one student.

Thamina Stoll ’17 is sharing the sort of story that has sentences like, “In the end, I know that everything will be okay,” right alongside, “You can’t fight the higher system.” It’s a complicated story with an uncertain ending.

It begins in Munich, where Stoll grew up and started her university study. Soon, she explored her study-abroad options. She heard about Duke through the WB series One Tree Hill, and her stepmother, a Harvard alumna, encouraged her to explore the “true American college experience” that only the Ivy of the South could offer. She enrolled at Duke in the fall of 2014 for a year (through the university's Visiting International Student Program). Once here, though, she realized she had no interest in returning to Europe so abruptly. She took the SAT “on, like, four days” of preparation, filed her transfer application, and crashed at a friend’s house in Durham. “At May 14, at ten in the morning, I got accepted, and it was one of the best days of my life,” she says.

The relief was short-lived. Like 14 percent of the undergraduate population at Duke, Stoll is an international student, and by staying a few more semesters, she had merely managed to delay her time of departure. She dreams, now, of working in America long term. But she discovered quickly that a political science student with an Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I+E) certificate, even one with a “badass résumé,” can easily get passed over in the domestic job hunt. When she snagged interviews, she would receive phone calls just before the interview clarifying that, despite what it said online, those positions wouldn’t sponsor a noncitizen applicant.

“There’s this one thing on the job application that you’re always forced to fill out,” says Stoll. “It says, ‘Are you authorized to work in the United States?’ And that one question has come to haunt me for the past half a year.”

Stoll, speaking in Café of West Union, carries an air of both exasperation and nerves; in her waning months at Duke she has a schedule of last-gasp interviews, phone calls, and networking attempts. Graduation day is not even three months away. Since her attempts to earn sponsorship (and a work visa) failed, to remain in America she needs to find, within ninety days of graduating, a job that is both relevant to her studies and with a company that is okay hiring her for just a single year, as her student visa accommodates only that much work post-graduation. Most employers have no interest in such a short-lived hire.

“What frustrates me at this point is that I’m defined by my nationality,” Stoll says. “I don’t own the right passport. And that’s why I probably won’t get a good job, or at least not out of undergrad.”

Many share her story. For noncitizen students, the problem of figuring out post-college plans bleeds into many other calculations while at school. (A quarter of Duke international undergraduates are U.S. citizens; this story details scenarios that are mostly specific to noncitizens.) A fall 2015 survey of international undergraduate—conducted by Duke’s International Association, a student group that addresses the needs of this community—identified career planning as the biggest issue for this pool of students. Their situation builds pressure early, the students grappling with how to tactically choose a major and network (often in a foreign language) to position themselves for a job or internship, let alone a longer-term visa. They encounter, at the end of everything, a Kafka-esque authorization process, all while the signs out of Washington, D.C., indicate that their visa options in the future could be diminished.

They manage this with the dreadful knowledge that if they don’t succeed, they’ll simply run out of time.

“Everything I have has an expiration date,” says Zimbabwe native Talent Chaunzwa ’17. “You’re racing against time, time that has been created for you. Other students might feel they’re racing against time,’s time they’re creating in their own heads.”

Motivations for attending Duke abound, but a few stand out for international undergraduates. Notably, those traveling halfway around the world for school want to attend a namebrand institution like Harvard, Yale, or Duke. These schools get portrayed in movies or, in Stoll’s case, on television; they are known quantities, easy to explain to friends and family. (Duke basketball really helps in this regard.) Top-tier schools often wield big endowments and can offer more financial aid—a huge bonus for less-wealthy students or anyone deciding whether such a geographical shift is “worth it.” (Duke doesn’t guarantee funding for international undergrads; however, funding through the Karsh International Scholarship Program earns a handful of these students full tuition each year.)

Another benefit is American higher education in general: It’s more robust than their local offerings. “I applied to Duke and American universities because of the liberal- arts degree,” says Isabella Kwai ’16, an English major from Australia. “And I think a lot of international students do that because in Australia, it’s a very specialized education degree.” Her Australian peers “are going straight into business school or law school or medical school, but not a lot are going into the arts.” For students who don’t have a set path in mind, a school like Duke, with many divergent academic offerings, can be a place for discovery.

When these students arrive on campus, they have an additional orientation hosted by the International House (IHouse). They can learn from senior internationals— who lead a “what I wish I knew coming to Duke” panel—but it’s not especially career-focused, says IHouse director Lisa Giragosian, and understandably so. After just getting into college, who wants to start thinking about what happens at the end?

Realistically, these students have to. “There are variables we can’t change about the marketplace. And so, time is one of our most valuable allies,” says Bill Wright-Swadel, director of the Career Center. “Because it does allow the student to do the networking, to really understand what the chances are to get the kind of things they need, that increase their chances of staying in the United States.”

Networking, although necessary, brings its own complications. First, all college students must achieve an equilibrium between who they are and who they want to be. But for internationals, it’s a trickier question of how to both assimilate in America and maintain a cultural identity. Second, these students typically are excluded from the most fertile grounds for sprouting a career. International students are underrepresented in Greek life and selective living groups, “which is where a lot of students make connections for jobs,” says Sophia Jamal ’17, the outgoing president of the International Association. “There’s a lack of ecosystem for international students to network.” (Transferring students like Stoll, of course, have even less time and less of an ecosystem.)

Social cues and nuances complicate the ritual of networking. Americans glide through small talk filled with sports references and innocuous fluff, but when the rhythm is lost, it quickly devolves into stilted conversation: What does someone from Colorado say to someone from mainland China, and vice versa? The difference shone through when Jamal went to a company’s networking event for students from her native Malaysia. “I forgot how easy it is to just talk to people who come from the same background,” she says. “Not that I prefer doing that, per se. I love meeting people from different places, but culturally it’s just easier.”

It’s a lot to ask first- and second-years to dive into immediately. Add in the biases that some students encounter because of their accents and, for students who come from poverty-stricken or dangerous areas, the desperation of needing to get out of their home country permanently, and the most cursory elements of job hunting can provoke unease. That doesn’t help.

“Their anxiety makes the search harder,” says Wright- Swadel. “If you’re confident, you present differently than if you’re anxious.”

After acceptance into Duke, international students typically come to America on an F-1 student visa, which permits residency here until the student graduates. The residency can extend after graduation—in certain circumstances.

Within the F-1 visa comes something called Optional Practical Training, or OPT, a pass for twelve months of additional residency in America. It’s for the individuals who have employment relevant to their major field of study. Notably, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors can apply for a two-year extension to their OPT, boosting their total possible time working in the U.S. to thirty-six months. After that, the now-graduated student would need a new visa, likely achieved via grad school or an H1-B visa for highly specialized work.

These stipulations put a thumb on the scale for another college milestone: declaring a major. After students consider both the kinds of companies that tend to recruit at Duke (spread across the consulting, finance, and tech fields) and those with the deep pockets to maybe sponsor a visa down the line (the same), the destination becomes somewhat clear. The most direct way there is a major in economics or a STEM field.

From 2012 through 2016, 33 percent of graduating noncitizen students from Duke had an economics major. For U.S. citizens, the average was just under 11 percent. Noncitizens also major disproportionately in computer science: In 2015-16, 10 percent of all graduating seniors had a first or second major in the field, while 23 percent of noncitizen students did. In each of the past five years, math is one of the eight most-common majors for noncitizen students; it never is in the topten for the entire class of graduates. (The engineering trend is similar but less pronounced and harder to track, given that it’s spread across four majors.)

It’s logically sound: OPT usage must relate to the area of study, and given that right now these fields seem to have all the jobs, choosing another major merely sets one up for a quick departure from the country. “You can’t possibly be, like, an arts major and try to get into finance and apply for OPT,” says Gwen Geng, a rising senior from Singapore who's studying economics. “You could apply directly for a visa [with another major], but honestly which firm is going to do that? You’re someone who’s never worked for this firm, they don’t know how good you are, and now you’re asking for visa sponsorship?”

With that realization, one notion of the American university experience quickly evaporates: The American university isn’t overtly specialized, but for these students, it can easily become so. “I think it just undermines the idea of the liberal-arts education and pursuing our dreams,” says Geng. “The reality hits you that you’re funneled through to these three specific industries,” the triumvirate of consulting, finance, and tech.

The pressures even seep to the level of individual classes. These students need to be employable immediately after graduating; taking a few hard courses can sink a GPA and signal companies to stay away. “I don’t think Duke is about doing what you like but knowing what you can do,” says Chaunzwa, who, with English as his second language, described laboring for an hour per page through his introductory writing course. (His story provides a secondary explanation for the many international students in quantitative majors: Numbers translate easier than words.) Class selection becomes tactical: Chaunzwa retook a chemistry course he had taken in Zimbabwe, rather than claiming the credit and moving into a harder course.

“You have to question yourself all the time: ‘Why am I here? Why am I so far from my family?’ ” Kwai says. “And I think you feel these pressures about making it worthwhile for yourself.”

In some way, dispositions and preferences must play a role. “If I were to pursue a career in economics or finance, I wouldn’t have been happy,” says Kwai, near the end of a one-year fellowship at Atlantic Media in Washington, D.C. But for an individual with myriad interests, a STEM major can still help to postpone those inevitably agonizing decisions. “I really want to use the next three years to figure out if I like engineering or not, and what kind of grad school I want to go to,” says Ting Chen ’17, a double-major in music and environmental engineering. She became enamored with ethno-musicology at Duke, but she doesn’t yet know whether the creative ends justify the pragmatic means.

It’s tricky, navigating these shifting interests during the volatile eighteen-to-twenty-two age. And interests do shift. Duke chooses students “for whom that process is entirely likely to happen,” says Wright-Swadel. “There’s a hundred ways for a student to discover new things, and yet there’s an enormous pressure on the [noncitizen] student to not change that, and that creates conflict.”

For a noncitizen student, switching a major in response to turbulent interests tangibly alters the student’s job opportunities. “Some people realize throughout their time at Duke that they don’t want a career in their direct field of study, so then they’re kinda stuck,” said Kevin Fraser ’17, who selected his engineering major in part because he could “mold” its problem-solving capacity to make almost any job relevant.

Stoll is a prime example: She had planned to go to journalism school before she discovered, among other things, Duke’s I+E program. “Duke kind of changed everything. I don’t want to become a journalist anymore,” she says.

“Obviously, if I could go back in time, I would not have majored in political science,” she says, acknowledging that a major in economics or computer science would be nice. Changing her major upon transferring, however, would have required a slew of courses outside of her interests with almost no scheduling flexibility; she eventually chose not to switch. “But I still have a lot to offer, you know?”

At any given time, Duke has roughly 1,000 international undergraduates. In 2016, the university had 918 students (or alumni) using OPT, which students need to apply for to gain authorization to work. Each application costs $410, a nontrivial sum for any college kid, let alone the students who seek out Duke for its generous financial aid. And the fee is for each application: In addition to post-graduation employment, any paid internships require burning a few months of OPT.

Quickly, two disparate incentives emerge—again. So many employers have a de facto requirement of previous work experience that summer internships seem like a must. But snagging an internship or two cuts into the time left to work after graduation, making it harder for companies to justify the hire. “Few employers are going to hire you if you have one year of authorization, which you might have used for an internship,” says rising senior Henry Yuen, an engineering student from New Zealand. “So you might only have six or nine months left—no one’s going to hire you for that long.”

For some (notably STEM majors with those extra two years of OPT), an internship makes sense. But that plan still contains a hurdle: the paperwork.

Because all OPT applications must be filed within ninety days of the end of the school year, and every student’s application—not just from Duke but from schools across the southeast and east coast—goes to the same U.S. Center for Immigration Services facility in Texas for processing, getting approved takes months. Waiting until late in the spring, after an internship has been secured, to apply for authorization can lead to stressful timing and a photo finish: the authorization arriving in the mail days before the start date. Or after, as it did for Kevin Fraser during his sophomore summer.

“I checked every day, and it was pending, pending, pending. There’s an online tracker, but you get no information from when the card is received ’til when it’s approved. It was finally approved July 2,” he says. “But two days prior my summer employer had called me to say, ‘You missed all the training. We just can’t take you now, it won’t work with HR.’ ” Fraser took a separate unpaid internship, but since he had already completed the OPT application, he forfeited two of his twelve months.

One solution, again, is simply forgoing internships: OPT allows a ninety-day grace period during which an unemployed recent graduate can hunt for employment. (If the graduate doesn’t find work, the OPT and the visa expire.)

Another approach requires a certain boldness.

“Start early, and don’t wait until you get the offer,” says Yuen, who recommends filing for work authorization before knowing, for sure, the internship is secure. “Because the day you get the offer might be too late.” It comes down to preference: Would you rather risk losing your job offer for not having authorization, or being authorized for a job you don’t have?

For these students, every step of the job hunt features a question with no easy answers. And while these struggles seem universal, the nuances mean that there’s no magic bullet. What works for one candidate— who matches with one employer in one marketplace—will be imitable but not replicable.

“That’s the dilemma of the career center,” says career center director Wright-Swadel, on the lack of a broad solution. “Every search is an ‘n’ of one.”

It’s getting harder. America has changed in recent months, and options like the H1-B visa may undergo substantial changes that render them more inaccessible for these students. Other threats remain unquantifiable: Based on his discussions with recruiting managers, Wright-Swadel is skeptical that major corporations will handle applications from international students like they have previously.

Not that this was ever simple. “There’s definitely a bias that domestic students are going to be easier to work for you,” says Kwai. When international students require sponsorship, the company incurs an actual cost for hiring them. And those merely looking to use OPT get ushered into a few industries where the competition ramps up, and students with even slight blemishes can get passed by their stellar peers.

It’s a frustrating system, but these students realize they can’t really complain. “At the end of the day, something that we sign up for by coming to this institution or coming to this country is to play by the rules,” says Henry Yuen. “People are aware that this is a very difficult game to play from the get-go, from applying here when they were seventeen.”

They also know that companies won’t voluntarily complicate their hiring practices. Mostly, the students hope for palliative changes, little things that might eventually make a difference.

“In America, Americans come first, and I understand the idea that you want to hire American talents before you consider internationals. But you shouldn't be blatently rude or punish us for being international,” says Geng, who also had two internship interviews canceled—via e-mail— once the companies found out she was international. “You can make us the second choice. But don’t make it painful for us to be the second choice.”

They also find the silver linings to their disadvantage. It forces them to grapple with what’s important, what’s fulfilling. After graduating, international students can’t, as Talent Chaunzwa says, simply “go home and figure stuff out.” They must be focused, immediately planning with the Career Center to understand and maximize their employment options in America, their home country, even a third country.

In summary, the students have learned how the system works, and they’ve adapted. But they wonder: Why can some—but not all—of these bright minds help America?

“You allowed me to come to your country, and allowed me to get really good at political science, or become a really amazing writer, or become an amazing academic. And then, now there’s no pipeline for me to stay here and use my skills. So now I have to leave?” says Yuen. “There’s that whole idea which doesn’t make sense—you train people, and now you’re just sending them away. Instead, they could be working here and be a huge positive force for [the] community.”

Or, as Stoll puts it: “It’s not as if I’d want to live off social welfare here.” If she wanted to do that, she says, “I’d go straight back to Germany and live a fairly comfortable life. I want to contribute to this country and have an impact.”

A complicated story necessitates a complicated ending. A few endings, actually. In mid-March, Stoll secured a digital communications fellowship at the Sanford School of Public Policy. (In 2016, more Duke students on OPT worked for the university than for any other employer.) She’ll have at least another year in America; after that, she’ll aim for an H1-B visa.

Things are good now, even though her mere twelve remaining months of OPT dictates that she’s “basically already looking for a new job.”

For Bill Wright-Swadel and the Career Center, uncertainty rules the day. “The landscape is changing,” he says. “And as fast as the landscape changes, we have to get ahead of it.” He outlines a goal for Duke to be “the quintessential place from which international students thrive.” But, he says, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

His team is meeting with counselors at various Duke schools—graduate students are certainly not immune from this situation, he notes—to figure out new and innovative ways to help these students. More support, maybe, or greater connectivity, through something like the burgeoning online Duke Alumni Network. But the career business is cyclical, he says, and hard to predict, even in times of greater stability. “Law is hot, and law is not. People hate banks because of the crash; people like banks again. There is an ebb and flow, and the constant is change.” In a business where every student has an inherently singular combination of skills and circumstances, finding a scalable solution won’t be easy.

And for some, like Isabella Kwai, the scenery has changed. In late April, with her OPT almost drained, she moved back to Sydney to work for a new bureau of The New York Times. (“A one-way ticket,” she says, “which is something I’ve never had before.”) It’s a job that seems tailor-made for her, she says, given her familiarity with both the city and U.S. media companies.

Kwai wants to be a writer, and with the election’s outcome suggesting potentially tighter visa restrictions, she says she felt less compelled to remain in America. To advance her career, she needed opportunities; she had to decide to “either stay in the U.S. longer or jump to something I wanted to pursue.” The two goals were exclusive.

Returning home wasn’t a decision made lightly, given that she’d be leaving behind her life in D.C. and all her friends in America. She took a trip to Duke over Reunions Weekend—to meet with mentors, to revel in the “rush of memories” that the campus provided. “It was very sweet to be back in a place that I had considered would always be there,” she says, noting that she’s not sure when she’ll see it again. And yet, she says, “while I drove, I realized that it was okay to leave, and it was just another part of my life.”

Now, her new job provides something that’s almost impossible to attain while on a student visa: calmness. “It’s at least security for a few more years, and I think after going through the fellowship—you knew there was an end date and you’d have to go back and really apply for visas,” she says. “It’s really nice to have just a bit of room to breathe.”

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor