My friend Curien recently got a call for an unpaid internship with Merrill Lynch. Like I expected, he did well on his interview and will start in May at their Jenkintown branch. We went to Old City to celebrate, and over rum and cigars I thanked God that I wasn’t in the same situation as he was.
International students’ real ordeal begins as their graduation draws near. The U.S. government allows international students to stay and work in this country for one year after graduation as part of the Optional Training Program, but these students are forced to return to their countries in the event that they do not get a job at a company that agrees to sponsor their working visa, called the H-1.
Most companies choose to hire only eligible American citizens instead of going through the process of paying for the visa, which can cost a business $3,000 to $5,000. Unless a student is exceptionally brilliant and there is no match for his skills, a large number of American companies refrain from sponsoring employees who are not citizens.
Curien, who chose not to use his real name for this article, has been postponing his graduation for the last three semesters by adding majors, adding minors and taking extra classes. He said he is buying time. And at $10,000 a semester, he’s buying some really expensive time, but he doesn’t have a choice. Though he entered Temple as a business major and has two internships under his belt, he has been delaying graduation because no company wants to bear the costs of sponsoring his visa. At least not yet, he said.
As a rule, most companies require international students to mention their visa status on their resumes. But Curien has stopped mentioning that he is not a U.S. citizen.
“If they see that you are an international student, they don’t cast another look at your resume,” he said.
Curien is not the only student struggling to find a job and stay in this country. In 2002, Temple University claimed to have more than 1,700 non-immigrant students from more than 100 countries and the number has steadily increased in the last three years.
Also, according to the Office of International Students, this month an estimated 252 international students will graduate from Temple. But like Curien, they might be better off prolonging their graduation than entering an uncertain market place and risk getting sent home.
It’s sad to see these American dreams get trampled on even before they grow. The Department of Homeland Security forbids non-citizen students from holding any non-university affiliated jobs and students without their citizenship are only allowed to work on campus at university affiliated jobs for 20 hours a week. With the limited jobs available on campus, some of these students resort to taking up illegal jobs that pay under the table.
For example, Curien helps fellow Indonesian immigrants translate their immigration papers in English for a meager amount. To save money, Curien hasn’t returned to Indonesia since 2000. A round-trip ticket costs him anywhere from $1,500 to $1,700.
“That’s my rent for four months,” he said. “I want to go back for a few weeks but only after I get a job. It’s too risky otherwise.” Risky, because if he leaves the United States, chances are American officials won’t give him another visa and he may not be allowed to return to the U.S.
The life of an international student is complicated. Through a stroke of sheer luck and my father’s foresight, my family and I got our green cards in 1999. My permanent resident status qualifies me for federal aid in the form of Pell Grants and Stafford Loans and thankfully lets me work off-campus.
Even though I was born and raised in India and think of myself as no different from my international friends, I have never once taken these gifts for granted. When I see my friends struggle to find ways to prolong their stay in this country, I silently say a prayer of thanks.
Jinal Shah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.