The May 18th graduation date is looming over Antonia Green’s head. When the Swedish senior turns her tassel on Commencement day, she’ll cut her ties from the United States.
“I just assumed that once you got into a country you could stay,” she says.
It’s easy for international students to believe that once they step on Locust Walk, they’re here to stay. While some are able to stick around, others face deportation. At the end of four years, many international students wish they had the gold and blue passport to freedom—freedom to stay in the United States.
After graduation, Antonia will be returning to Europe, this time to London, where she hopes to get a job in marketing or PR. “If it was a more seamless process, I would love to stay,” she said.
You don’t get to pick where you were born. And yet, your birthplace has the power to determine your professional career more than any degree. An Ivy League education doesn't open nearly as many doors for international students as you'd expect.
Just look at PennLink: 72 out of 86 companies participating in the Spring 2015 Career Fair are “not interested in speaking to international students.” Gap Inc., The New York Times, Comcast and other powerhouse American corporations make up the 84% of recruiters who refuse to acknowledge the international talent on campus.
On the other hand, Penn makes a substantial effort to admit a diverse student body. Over 1,000 international students hailing from over 100 different countries diversify Penn’s undergraduate population.
International students, like Antonia, come to Penn thinking their diplomas will guarantee them a spot in the American workforce. As their academic worksheets fill up, they realize that to stay in the US they need to do much more than the standard 36–credit curriculum.
Forms, applications and paperwork extend long hours in Van Pelt already dedicated to problem sets and midterm papers.
After graduation, international students can only stay for twelve months under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization. The OPT falls under the student visa that allows international students to study in the States.
Some students, like Bharat Ganju, a College senior from Abu Dhabi, turn to the Curriculum Practical Training (CPT) to complete summer internships. The CPT allows students to obtain academic credit from Penn for their internships in the States. For Wharton students, it’s easy to get courses approved that relate to the internship they’re completing. For Bharat, however, to intern at an investment bank as a College student, he had to balance long hours at the office with writing a 25–30 page research assignment.
In order for a student to stay for a year under the OPT, an employer files an application for a full–time work visa on his or her behalf. From there, getting a visa is a long shot. The government grants these visas through a lottery system. The odds of getting one are usually one in two, and if graduates don’t hit the jackpot, they have two months to leave the US.
“We should be perfect for jobs in this industry. We’ve been trained here. We know how the system works,” Antonia argued. “But [the government is] so eager to make us leave.”
And it can. The federal government issues far fewer work visas than student visas, a legislative discrepancy that forces students to pack up and leave.
While going through On Campus Recruiting (OCR), Antonia found it difficult to distinguish which companies would be willing to sponsor her to apply for a work visa. “It’s not necessarily transparent what companies are willing to do it and which ones are not,” Antonia explained. “It’s not on PennLink, so there’s no real way of knowing what’s accessible to you and what’s not.”
Most students interviewed wished they’d known sooner how to navigate the immigration system. According to Antonia, “All of the information we have about OPT and CPT is word–of–mouth by older students.”
“A lot of students are coming in that may not be as pre–professional. They can’t even be sure about what they want to study,” pointed out Barbara Hewitt, the Senior Associate Director of Career Services at Wharton. ”It’s hard for them to jump four years ahead and think, ‘Where am I going to work?’”
Career Services and the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) hold workshops and send out emails, but ultimately students need to filter out the white noise in their inboxes and seek out professional advice.
Gery Parloiu, a Huntsman senior from Romania, acknowledged, “I know [ISSS] has an OPT info–session. I got an email about it. I think that’s good on their part. On the other hand, I just got an email from them last week—” Gery pulled out his phone and read the headlines to these emails—“American football 101, Driving in the US Workshop, Class Participation Strategies.”
American life is on a timetable for these students. Every week spent interning or working in the US is one less they can spend here after graduation.
Renata Giarola, who came to Penn from Brazil to study economics, didn’t realize the implications of this process until her senior year. During the summers between her sophomore and junior years, Renata interned at Goldman Sachs’ New York office. Her internships used up six months of her twelve month OPT time allowance.
To graduate in the fall of her senior year, Renata sacrificed electives to enter the lottery in the 2014 cycle. “If I was in Wharton, that would’ve been different because I could’ve used CPT,” Renata explained. “But the College doesn’t offer that possibility. So I just had to use OPT and that just screwed me over,” Renata said.
After graduation, Renata decided to go back to Brazil to do consulting for an international branch of McKinsey despite four US job offers.
“I was thinking to myself: I really do want to stay here,” she remembered. “That being said, I didn’t want to have to go through this gamble.”
It’s easy to assume that the pre–professional atmosphere at Penn encourages students to go into finance or consulting. But for international students, those careers can be the only options.
Carolyn Lim, a junior from Singapore, initially wanted to work at a startup. But these smaller firms rarely have the resources or capital to sponsor international students.
While she came to Penn thinking she didn’t want to do anything related to finance or consulting, Carolyn said, “just the fact that the opportunities elsewhere are limited, I applied to tech consulting and tech roles within finance.”
“We want students to do whatever they would like to do, but ultimately it’s up to employers on what they want to sponsor for the [full–time work] visa,” Dr. Hewitt from Career Services explained.
“The larger firms are more likely to sponsor because they have lawyers on staff. They know how to do it. It’s fairly routine for a lot of them,” she said. “For small art museums, other kinds of places—they might have no idea how to do it.”
The only employer Antonia found willing to hire international students in her field of interest told her that they would pull the money from her entry–level salary to sponsor her. Sponsorship can clock in at around $5,000.
Antonia sighed, “Already, New York is so expensive. If I can do the same thing in London and not have deal with all of that, of course I’m going back.”
While interning in London during the summer after his junior year, Huntsman senior Gery heard stories of some of his international friends who graduated from Penn, worked in New York for a year and then were forced to transfer to London after an unsuccessful visa application.
At large multinational firms, internationals who can’t obtain a work visa to stay in the US can move to London or a different city abroad for a year. Afterwards, they can return to New York or elsewhere in the country as an internal transfer within the company—not through the lottery system. But three years of instability is a high price to pay just to stay in the country.
Packing up and switching cities is not pleasant, especially in intense entry–level jobs. To do so, recent graduates have to break leases and avoid getting two–year phone contracts.
It can be a hassle for their employers too. “They find it disruptive if you work in New York one year and then you have to transfer to London,” Gery said.
While going through OCR, Gery encountered a large consulting firm that refused to hire internationals. “If you apply as an international,” he explained, “[employers] tell you, ‘Well, you’re an international, we basically won’t let you start work until you have everything sorted out with your work visa.’”
“[Being an international student] just puts you at an automatic disadvantage,” Carolyn added.
Fourteen percent of the students in the current freshman class are international. Penn attracts a diverse student body. But for some students after graduation, college becomes just another stamp on their passport.
“Most of the internationals are paying full tuition,” Bharat said. “For them, it’s like, ‘well I just spent $160,000 to come and then just go home to get the job I could’ve gotten by just staying at home and paying way less.’”
In the end, it’s all up in the air. Zeynep Arican, a Wharton senior from Turkey, got an offer to work in New York for Bank of Tokyo–Mitsubishi, an employer who’s willing to sponsor her for a full–time work visa. Zeynep doesn’t plan on going home after graduation—at least, not unless she needs to. But that's not in her hands.
“Sometimes,” she concluded, “it’s a tough decision, because you’re not deciding to go back. Someone else is deciding for you.”
Ariela Osuna is a junior studying architecture and urban real estate and development from Tijuana, Mexico. She is the current Digital Director of 34th Street Magazine.