Xi Zhu, a Chinese international student, graduated from the University of Florida with her Master’s degree in Mass Communications about six months ago.
She is now doing her third internship in New York City, but she said it is unlikely the company will offer her a job.
The position pays $800 a month. Her living expenses are about $1,500 per month in the city. She shares a four-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Queens with three other people.
“I thought America is a place where everyone can pursue their own dream freely and use their hard work to earn good opportunities equally,” Zhu said. “There is a huge imbalance between reality and dream.”
Many international students like Zhu imagine their own versions of the “American dream” before coming to the U.S. Students’ families usually cover the tuition fees. Sometimes, they take out loans to pay for the education. The students then get their degrees, only to have a very tough time finding a job.
Finding an employer willing to sponsor a job visa is the major problem for those wanting to work in the U.S.
Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn, a student from Thailand, wrote a blog on Policy.Mic last year titled “The U.S. is the Land of Opportunity, But Not So Much for International Students.”
Vongkiatkajorn described an experience with a telephone interview she had. The interviewer said she thought Vongkiatkajorn was a good fit for the position, but ended the conversation after learning that Vongkiatkajorn was an international student.
“I could feel my stomach sinking. I tried my best to hold onto my chances,” Vongkiatkajorn wrote. “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.”
International students are granted a 12-month Optional Practical Training (OPT) period after graduation, during which they are authorized to work in the U.S. Individuals holding a qualified Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) degree may apply for a 17-month STEM extension.
A H-1B work visa is required for those who wish to remain in the U.S longer. International students must find an employer willing to sponsor their visa before the month of April of their OPT period. This is when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) begins accepting petitions for the H-1B visa.
USCIS uses a computer-generated random selection process, or lottery, to select petitions. The USCIS must limit selections to a 65,000 general-category cap annually and a 20,000 advanced degree exemption cap, which is for the first 20,000 petitions filed for an individual holding a U.S. Master’s degree or higher.
For the 2015 fiscal year, USCIS received about 172,500 H-1B petitions. Half of them will not get a visa.
Because of this, many employers choose not to accept international candidates at all if they don’t need to.
Dalton Ferdinand, Vice President of Sales for Bit Cauldron Corporation, said that helping international candidates get a job visa is really challenging and expensive for employers.
Bit Cauldron Corp. has been hiring international students because their business has close relationships with Asian factories. The international employees can do translation and communication work.
It usually takes a little more than 12 months to get the sponsorship work completed for each international candidate, said Ferdinand. However, employees who hold non-STEM degrees only have 12 months of OPT.
“It is like a gamble,” Ferdinand said. “Once it [sponsorship work] starts, the money is gone.”
Greg Siskind, an immigration lawyer, gained a huge number of followers on Twitter after tweeting that the extension of international students’ OPT period would be among President Barack Obama’s immigration reforms, before Obama announced changes to the immigration system via executive order on Nov. 20.
Siskind tweeted later that night, “Apparently I broke the Internet. Someone in China translated my summary, and it has been retweeted 15,000 times – will hit six figures 2nite.”
Ferdinand thinks that time is the major concern for employers and said that the possible extension of OPT will benefit both international candidates and employers who wish to hire them.
“They will also have enough time to determine whether the job is a good fit for them,” Ferdinand said.
According to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Data, with 36,249 international students studying in Florida, it ranks no. 7. UF has more international students than any other institution in the state — about 6,135.
Debra Anderson, director of International Student Services at the UF International Center, said she thinks that the employment rate of international students is related to the economic and political climate in the U.S. She said she sees a huge decline in the number of international students being hired when the economy goes down.
Anderson said 18 international students were hired from UF by Microsoft about 10 years ago.
“For any country, employers will hire their own citizens when the economy is down,” Anderson said. “It really hurts our international students when some employers publicly post that they don’t hire international students at job fairs.”
For some international students, especially those coming from countries where life is not easy, all they want is to find a job and make life better.
Madhav Ayyagari is from India. He is a Master’s student majoring in information systems and operations management at UF. Like many Indian students, his family is taking out bank loans to support his education in the U.S.
For him, the pressure is high. He must find a job in the U.S. after graduation to pay off the loans. One U.S. dollar equals about 63 Indian Rupee. It is difficult to make enough money to pay back the loans if he goes to work in India. His degree will not have much value either, because positions in his field rarely exist in India.
Ayyagari wants to work in technology consulting, but said he is worried that he will not get a job he likes from an employer willing to give a job sponsorship.
Ayyagari said one of his friends who is getting a degree in mechanical engineering has to work in IT in order to secure a job visa because that field has the most promise of a getting visa sponsorship.
“But that is not why he came here,” Ayyagari said. “That (IT) is not what he likes.”
Ruinan Sun received his Master’s degree in chemical engineering from UF about six months ago. Sun worked as a process engineer for three months after graduation. However, he will continue to be an intern unless someone leaves. This means that there is a very small likelihood the company will sponsor a job visa for him. Sun decided to leave the job on his own and search for a company willing to sponsor him.
Sun said graduates like himself make an average of $1,000 per month in big cities like Beijing. At least half of the money goes toward housing expenses. Young people don’t make enough to sustain a decent life. Here, however, he can live what he considers a pretty comfortable life.
Sun has no choice now but continue to submit as many resumes as possible.
The pressure is more intense for graduates like Zhu because she only has 12 months of OPT for her non-STEM degree If she cannot find an employer willing to give her the sponsorship before next April, she will have to make a difficult decision.
Language and culture are other barriers for Zhu. All positions related to her major require strong communications skills. For this, employers prefer natives. However, she said she finds employers are willing to accept children of privileged immigrant investors. The employers do not need to worry about those individuals’ statuses, even though those international candidates are not always more qualified for the position.
“After months of job hunting, I am totally confused now,” Zhu said. “I don’t know whether I’ve chosen the right major.”
Zhu said if she cannot find an employer willing to sponsor her visa, she might have to go back to school and major in a field that will help her find a job faster. She said she does not want to give up.