Considering attending university in the United States? That’s great! College is the perfect time to get out there, experience new things and meet new and diverse people who can help shape your future and professional career. However, there may be a few things to keep in mind as you chart your course through school and into the workforce.
Choosing your School and Degree(s)
Having a plan from the get-go can be really helpful to avoid “If I had known’s” down the road. As you’ll learn throughout this post, a lot about your professional experience and what you are able to do while in the US, as an international student, will depend on your course of study. Here are a few tips to help you decide what direction to take:
- Although in-person campus visits may not be possible for you, the pandemic has made virtual visits much more available. Always check out the websites or chat forums for the schools you are interested in and see what they offer to prospective students.
- Use your international status to your advantage. Especially since Covid has impacted new applicant numbers to colleges worldwide, many universities are actively seeking to add diversity to their campuses. Don’t be afraid to make a phone call to admissions explaining your situation and enquiring about what options there are for you. You’d be surprised how many lesser-advertised opportunities exist for international and minority students. You may also be surprised at the lengths the admissions team is willing to go to make the process smoother for you.
- Look for scholarships!! Don’t be resigned to the ridiculously high costs of out-of-state education in the US. Some schools will offer better scholarship opportunities that may include room, board and even a living stipend. Do your research and talk to people who have been there.
- Consider what you may want to do when you complete your degree. Would you like to get a job in the US and work there for a few years? Are you thinking of transitioning from undergrad to a PhD and perhaps entering academia? Or is the plan to get in and get out - complete your degree and return home to the Caribbean? If you’d like to get some work experience while in the United States of America, even just a year or two, beware of fields where most available careers are with high-security government organizations (Biomedical Engineering and Aerospace are both notorious for this). The issue is that Non-Citizens are not typically able to be granted the required security clearances needed to hold positions with companies such as Boeing, NASA, or Johnson & Johnson. Mind you, while nothing is impossible, it may take quite a bit more forethought, networking and elbow grease to land yourself a solid spot in certain industries.
- This should be a no-brainer, but READ the course outlines. A biology degree at one institution may have a different focus than one with the same name at a medical school, for instance. The quality of your education and the jobs it sets you up for after graduation can greatly depend on the course structure. Make sure that the topics they will be covering resonate with your interests, and if there’s something you aren’t too sure about - ASK QUESTIONS!
Working While in School
Let’s talk about money-making. As an international student in the US, you can only work part-time (20 hrs max per week), on-campus jobs throughout the school semester. These are typically minimum-wage jobs. The caveat to the ‘on-campus’ portion would be if you are able to secure a Fall, Spring or Summer internship, which is called CPT or Curricular Practical Training. Check to make sure your school allows this - your CPT may count towards course credits for that given semester. Also, the internship you complete while on CPT must directly relate to your degree (if you’re a Physics major, getting a job as an Admin Assistant won’t count and won’t be allowed). Both you and your employer have to provide proof that what you are learning in your courses is being applied to the tasks you carry out on the job. Still, keep in mind that with any jobs or internships you pick up, you must maintain a full-time student status during the school term in order to keep your F1 visa valid.
During the summer, you can work full time (30-40hrs per week) in a CPT position and maintain on-campus jobs if you feel you can handle them both. Summer is also a great time to travel for work, getting more experience and exposure to life in a different state (or even country!).
Now these off-campus work opportunities don’t just get dropped in your lap. You have to put the work in. Network, network, NETWORK! Corporate America is all about who you know and who knows and trusts your level of commitment enough to hire you or to vouch for you with another employer. Step out of your comfort zone a bit and put yourself out there at job fairs and mixers. Talk to your professors - they will most likely be industry professionals or, at the very least, have contacts with a few people. Getting involved in professional student organizations is also a great way to get to know people in your field (and often, to travel for free or cheap to other states for conferences ;) )
Getting Out Into the World
Once you’ve made it through the degree and are starting to think about graduation, a whole new list of questions will start coming up. You don’t want to be taken off guard with the requirements for transitioning out of school. If the plan is to remain in the US for some time in the hopes of transitioning to an H1B work visa, you may want to strongly consider getting a Master’s degree first. This will increase your chances of being selected in the H1B lottery.
In a nutshell, how this works is that once you secure a full-time offer from a company, your employer-to-be will have to be prepared to sponsor your H1B application. In March/April of each year, the application pool opens and employers can submit applications for any international students still on an F1 visa within their company. The responsible US government bodies will then run the lottery, which first picks from qualified students with a master’s degree and upward, then runs a second batch which picks from all qualified bachelor’s students, plus any graduate students who were not selected in the first round. This is why having a Master’s degree gives you better odds.
Keep in mind that this requirement to sponsor you (through legal aid in the process and monetary funding if you are selected) can be a major deterrent to some companies. There are a few (as I mentioned in the beginning) who will outright state they do not hire international students. This is unfortunate, but entirely up to the company. That said, these obstacles make networking and proving your worth as a candidate that much more important when trying to land a job. It also makes it nearly crucial to complete internships during your school years, even before leaving your country for the States. An applicant who has experience in their field of interest and has demonstrated the ability to gain a work position previous to seeking a full-time job will always be more appealing to employers than a top student who has no previous experience.
If your plan is not to stay in the US long term, but just to get some experience and move on to the next adventure, you may have a bit of an easier time, as your employer does not need to sponsor you. However, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- If you graduate with a degree that is designated as a STEM degree in your school, that automatically gives you a chance to complete 3 years of OPT (Optional Practical Training) after graduation.
- If your degree is not designated as STEM, you only have 1 year of OPT available to you. This distinction is important because with non-STEM, you only have one chance to be entered into the H1B lottery and one year to gain work experience if you are not selected. With a STEM degree however, you have 3 chances in the lottery and at least 3 years to work.
- Most employers do not hire just to give you experience. They are hiring for the long term growth of their organization. That means that if they know your time with them will be limited, they may still be wary of hiring you.
Hopefully this post has been helpful to someone out there considering moving to the United States to pursue higher education. Although there are many barriers that exist for international students and those of us coming from the Caribbean, being well-informed of those barriers can help you make plans around them.
Use the International Center at your school to your benefit. They are there to provide assistance for you and help connect you to the resources you need to be successful. Reach out frequently and if ever you are in doubt.
Asking questions and networking along the way is critical to your success in the wider world. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, experience new things and test your limits. The hardest boundaries to overcome will be the ones in your mind!
Submitted by Arlene Hayes
Note to readers:
Podcast episodes S01E10, S03E02 and S03E05 go into some detail about various aspects of the immigration process and securing internships in the US. Check them out for more insight from the professionals.
Feel free to reach out to the team at Grenadian STEAM if you’d like to discuss your thoughts or need help knowing where to go and who to ask.
Disclaimer - the information provided in this article is not legal advice and does not take the place of seeking immigration counsel if you have questions about maintaining visa status while in the US.
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash