Customs, But No Check
What the visa lottery means for international students at Columbia
by Julie Moon
A few weeks ago, Omar Abboud, SEAS ’16 and operations research major, got asked to interview for his dream job at a tech company in New York. Just three and a half hours after Abboud received the interview invitation, “I got an email from them being like, ’Sorry, but we changed our mind,’” he says. “Basically, see you later.” The company explained that they were not able to sponsor H1B, the work authorization visa that Abboud needed as a non-U.S. citizen. Abboud never got the chance to interview. This has happened before: upwards of 25 companies have explicitly told him that they could not hire him because he is not a U.S. citizen. Omar holds Canadian and Lebanese passports.
At the beginning of this semester, Anna Hotter, CC ’16, an Austrian citizen who wants to go into the entertainment industry, got a fall internship at NBC Universal. After planning her schedule around work, registering only for 8:40 classes, she got a call from Human Resources about not including a social security number in her legal forms. After the representative realized Hotter did not have US citizenship, Hotter said, “She called me back [after having talked to her supervisor] and her tone was completely different. She in this very rehearsed, legally appropriate way, [told me] that they were not able to offer internships to international students because their internships are very much a pipeline program,” meaning that they’d like to hire after their interns graduate, “and that NBC does not want to sponsor international students.” They withdrew the offer, taking away not just the internship but the job it may well have led to.
This is not uncommon: at my own internship this summer, I watched as a Brazilian student was hired for her ideal job at a top publishing company and then, hours later, had that offer be retracted by the company’s HR department. The problem is especially severe at Columbia, which has the third largest international community of any university in the country. About 10,000 international students are enrolled at the university on F-1 status, a non-immigrant visa issued by the federal government to those studying full-time in the U.S.
As F-1 holders, these students have the opportunity to remain in the U.S. for up to twelve months after graduating by applying for Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization status. It’s optional for a reason: it costs $500 to apply to OPT, which can also be used for paid internships during school, though that time is subtracted from the twelve month allowance. (According to Columbia’s International Students and Scholars Office, about 3,000 internationals at Columbia are on OPT at any given time.) This presents a dilemma: like American students, internationals without US citizenship want to gain work experience before applying for full-time jobs, but they cannot work for pay without using up precious time that could be spent on a full-time job after graduating.
Compensated in Snacks
Hotter has worked more than five unpaid internships over her time at Columbia in order to get around the OPT work restriction. “If I look back now, it’s kind of crazy how there was literally no compensation involved, ever,” she says. “In my current internship I’m being compensated in snacks. That’s the extent of it.”
To evade the OPT restriction, Barnard senior Maya Daver-Massion opted for Curricular Practical Training (CPT) which grants work authorization to students who take a course associated with their internship, such as an independent study. This requires the direct assistance of academic departments but, as Daver-Massion learned, many departments aren’t willing to implement such a policy. Maya approached and was rejected by four different departments at Barnard. One department head told her: “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that to my professors. Asking them to give you CPT is like asking them to teach you another class, and it’s not fair.” It wasn’t until finals week that she found out that she was able to accept her internship with CPT from the human rights department. “It was a lot of crying. A lot, a lot of meetings,” she says. “It was a month and a half full of just intense stress.”
Daver-Massion says that after her fiasco, Barnard is no longer offering CPT. Columbia, meanwhile, currently does not facilitate CPT for undergraduates, but the ISSO is reportedly working on making it a possibility. As well as getting around OPT, CPT is also critical for giving internationals access to nonprofessional opportunities. Without a CPT, I cannot volunteer at a hospital in New York, or even volunteer for the national park system over the summer.
Winning the Lottery
After OPT expires comes the challenge of staying in the U.S. In order for F-1 students to be able to work in the U.S. past the OPT period (12 months for non-STEM Bachelor’s degree students; 17 for STEM, and 24 for M.A. students), they must obtain the six-year H1B visa, which is often a stepping stone for permanent residency in the US. Students can only apply for the H1B through the sponsorship of an employer, but many companies don’t have the financial and legal means to offer sponsorship—or they simply prefer domestic employees to foreign ones. (An extra $1,225 can be paid to process the application in 15 days, rather than the usual six months.)
For many internationals, recent developments have further complicated the situation. Due to a 2014 lawsuit, the current 17-month OPT extension for STEM students, for example, is projected to end. Sponsorship used to guarantee a visa, but now it no longer does: sponsorship puts you into a pool from which a lottery is drawn. Even after getting sponsorship, in other words, you can still be rejected and made to leave the U.S., with no return on your $825 application fee. (Or, if you paid for express processing, your $1,225.) Companies, who also spend financial and legal resources on the process, don’t see the benefit of doing it for someone who may well not work for them afterwards. Hotter notes that multinational companies increasingly encourage internationals here to apply where they have citizenship.
Moreover, the likelihood of obtaining sponsorship varies among industries: Center for Career Education (CCE) Dean Kavita Sharma admits it is virtually impossible to get sponsorship from nonprofit employers in the civic engagement field, unlike in finance and consulting. This frequently influences a F-1 student’s major, and career, selection. “We talk about career exploration—think about what you love, what you’re interested in,” she says. “But if you’re an international student, and that lands you in an industry where, you know what, they’re never gonna sponsor—that’s antithetical to what a liberal arts education is about.”
ISSO Communication Barrier
One thing that made encounters with U.S. employers even more difficult for international students is that they feel inadequately informed. Columbia College senior and Canadian citizen Jack Gross, for example, spent his last two summers working outside the U.S. as he had no idea he could use OPT before graduating. If he had known, he might have. “Ideally you could have every international student have one person who checks in with them every few months, saying, ’Hey, have you thought about how hard and horrible it’s going to be when you have to deal with the immigration system after you graduate?’” he jokes. He thinks they could use more serious language than they do: “This is not about getting a form signed, this is about the difference between illegal and not in this country.”
But when students look to ISSO for information, they may unwittingly be looking in the wrong place. While ISSO offers information to students by describing issues related to F-1 status on its website (which looks like it was designed in 1990) and offering a few workshops about how to apply for OPT each semester, neither is designed to help students with the essential question of finding an employer willing to sponsor a long-term visa after graduating and completing the OPT. As Hotter says, “ISSO has been helpful in cases where I lost my I-20 form, and they sent it to me in Austria; it has been helpful in trying to fast-track an OPT application. What they haven’t been helpful in is creating realistic expectations for what life is like after graduating.” Not surprisingly, the most contact the students I interviewed had with ISSO was getting documents checked before traveling over break.
That could be changing. While ISSO Director and Vice Provost David Austell emphasizes that US Citizenship and Immigration Services policy for internationals is “beyond the control of the university entirely” and “going to play out one way or the other in Congress,” he adds that “here on the ground at Columbia, there are things that we can do.” The ISSO is working to both expand its presence on campus (this semester, it’s piloting a “Fridays in Lerner” weekly session for students to be able to ask advisors questions in the building, rather than going all the way to the main office on Morningside Drive) and re-design its archaic website, so that students can better understand information related to F-1 status. Similarly, in January, the International Student Advisory Board plans to start focus groups for internationals about the job search process, so that students can share their experiences.
But ultimately, it is CCE, not ISSO, that can advise students on remaining in the U.S. after college with a work visa. Of the five senior students that I interviewed, none of them had ever made an advising appointment with CCE because they weren’t aware that CCE would offer guidance on the visa issue. Neither had I.
Like Hotter, this semester, I also accepted a job at my dream workplace, the New York Review of Books. After a couple weeks of work, when I realized that this would use up the 12 months I had after graduating to work, I quit. Had I approached CCE instead of ISSO, I might have thought twice about applying to the position. Most internationals, rather than receiving information from Columbia officially, learn about visa problems anecdotally from other F-1 students, often through nightmarish stories ranging from having job offers withdrawn to being forced to go back home.
Yet Sharma says that “sometimes talking about this amongst your peers can just make it worse.” She recommends “talking to people who have a longer, different perspective that can tell stories, and help contextualize what you’re experiencing.” She urges students to sign up for extensive one-on-one appointments with advisors, all of whom are trained to work with international students.
“We will talk about how they can find employers who sponsor [because] we subscribe to certain resources that allow internationals to identify employers who have sponsored in the previous year,” she says. According to Sharma, this is more helpful to internationals than applying to jobs on LionShare and attending networking events in isolation.
Clearly, there is a communication gap between internationals and CCE. Of the students I interviewed, none were aware of CCE’s 4-year ’action’ plan for internationals, a PDF that outlines visarelated concerns from freshman to senior year, such as the selection of major—which “does play a part in whether you’re sponsored or not.” Neither had anyone used its new app, which allows students to learn which employers at the Undergraduate Career Fair are willing to sponsor. Such a list could have been helpful to Daver-Massion, who recounted wasting hours at various networking events only to find out at the end of the night that employers weren’t willing to sponsor her.
Certainly, it is internationals’ responsibility to seek out resources—but without knowing that such help is available, many F-1 students will feel helpless. Without adequate communication, as Gross puts it, the administration risks being just as much of an “impenetrable bureaucratic system” as the USCIS it’s supposed to make intelligible to students.
Part of advising is to help students build resilience, as well as to establish what Assistant Dean Niamh O’Brien calls “Plan B.” “For example, if you want to be a curator in MoMA—we’ve had an international who wants that. We’ll talk about how you have to do a PhD. You’ll probably have to work at a national gallery in some other country, build your reputation. Because they will sponsor for specialists. But they won’t sponsor entry-level,” says O’Brien. “So we also talk about long-term, how internationals do get sponsorship, not just entry-level.”
Director of Education, Outreach, & International Student Support Chia-Ying Pan says that the new focus groups in January will address questions like, “So is it true that staying in the United States at this very moment is the only way to define me as being successful? How do people come to the decision that I want a job in this country and this is the only thing I want?”
To students like Hotter and Daver-Massion, the answer to the first question is a passionate yes. Hotter says that, having been educated in English since the age of 16, she would not be able to work comfortably in an exclusively German-speaking office. Daver-Massion, who is half-Indian and half-German, and grew up in Japan like her parents, speaks to many other internationals when she says that she doesn’t feel as strong of a connection to her country of citizenship, as she does to the States. “Once you go through college here and you’ve invested so much time and energy into the culture and people, and money into the school—you want to stay in the U.S., you know?” she says.
Being denied work opportunities after getting educated in the U.S. is, for many, a collapsing of their American dream. Says Abboud, “My grandfather was a Palestinian refugee; he instilled in me the value of education as a means to success. So that’s a difficult thing to be thinking about.” As an interviewer for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Abboud worries about incoming students who look forward to attending Columbia. “There are people that are leaving countries that are in extremely bad economic and political situations, especially in the Middle East, and I can’t be the person that tells them, It’s not as bright as it seems to you right now,” he says.
Only time will tell how USCIS policy will change. But until then, as Abboud says, “Either [incoming internationals] need to address their expectations and they need to realize that graduating with a U.S. college degree is different than finding U.S. jobs. Or, Columbia needs to be doing a better job of providing these resources to people so that they understand what their options are, and what they can do and not do.” Clearly, both need to happen.
Illustrations by Kellie Zhao