More and more foreign students are seeking an education in U.S. colleges and universities. A recent report by the Institute of International Education shows that last year, for the first time ever, the number of foreign students enrolled in U.S. schools topped 1 million. That’s 50 percent more than in 2010.
It's great news for schools, which benefit from the full-tuition that many foreign students pay. But for the students themselves, making it in the U.S. once they graduate can be tough—and may get even tougher.
If they don’t find a job, they may have to leave the country. And even if they do, many will need sponsorship for a work visa.
Courtesy: Institute of International Education, 2016 Open Doors Report
Kai Ju Chen is an engineering grad student at Columbia University. Chen is originally from Taiwan. And at a recent campus career fair, he was on a mission to find employers willing to sponsor work visas. He wasn’t having much luck: “When I get the flier of the company some of the companies say they do sponsor international students. But when I get in and ask them directly some of them say ‘No, we don’t actually sponsor it,’” he said.
In addition to visa worries, foreign students face obstacles that Americans don’t. For instance, many don’t have family here, so the whole “my uncle knows a guy” networking strategy often doesn’t apply. Others must overcome language and cultural barriers, which may cause some employers to think twice before investing the time and money to hire them.
“Employers are saying, ‘Can this person represent me and my company?’” said Cindy Parnell, Executive Director of Career and Professional Development Services at Arizona State University. ASU’s international student population has more than doubled in the past five years – from nearly 5,000 in 2011 to over 12,000 in 2016.
“I always thought as an international student it's almost impossible to get a job here,” said Steve Chi, who’s originally from South Korea. “But I always wanted to stay in the U.S. and have some working experience here.”
So last spring, before graduating from Boston College, Chi started looking for work. Asked how many jobs he applied to, he said: “Oh God, countless … I would write 30 apps per day.”
People told him to go to job fairs and find a mentor, “but how do you do that in like an hour with like 50 people in a room?” he said.
Anxious and frustrated, Chi turned to an online career coaching startup, Paragon One, that caters to international students. In addition to providing the usual advice on resume writing and interview prep, Paragon gives its clients one-on-one access to American professionals from a variety of industries (like consulting, medicine, entertainment) who coach clients on how to land a job in their chosen field.
This sort of mentor-on-demand service isn’t cheap. According to the company, on average clients pay $2,000 to $4,000. Still, Steve Chi said that after a couple months of coaching, he snagged an interview, and then a job, with a consulting firm in New Jersey.
“I first thought it was a miracle,” he said. “If it wasn't for this interview I probably would have gone back home.”
Still, if Chi wants to work here for more than a year, he’ll probably need to get a type of high-skilled worker visa called an H-1B. But those are increasingly hard to get. Since 2015 the U.S. has received close to 500,000 H-1B visa applications. Only a third have been granted. Jason Finkelman is a lawyer who specializes in work visas. He says since the election, he's been getting dozens of calls a week from clients wondering if president-elect Trump will make it harder to get an H-1B.
“We don't know what he's going to do,” said Finkelman, who is in Austin, Texas. “I just have to answer it and say, 'I don't know.'"
The Trump transition team didn't respond to requests for clarification. In the meantime, Steve Chi says he's happy at his job, and he's planning to apply for an H-1B visa next year, even if he's not sure whether he'll get it.