During finals season, the offices at 3701 Chestnut Street fill with students looking to get their visa documents signed. Without a signature, they will be turned away at the border next semester. When they return to the U.S., they will explain to immigration officers that they are in the country to pursue a degree at the University of Pennsylvania, provide all ten fingerprints, and be waved off.
After graduation, things look different for international students compared to their domestic counterparts: with the ticking time–bomb of a visa in their passports, they either need to find a job or leave the country.
At Penn, International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) is in charge of processing immigration documents and endorsing international students for work authorization. Although international students can be endorsed by Penn to work in the U.S., they ultimately have to find an employer that would be willing to sponsor their work visa. Their options in the U.S. are limited to employers that will sponsor, so it’s imperative that they have up–to–date information on companies that are willing to do that.
Barbara Hewitt, Executive Director of Career Services, says “international students tend to find resources on Handshake,” but students say those resources are few and far between. “Career Services is not very good at keeping Handshake updated on which companies sponsor,” says Skylar Tang (W ‘19).
“There was one firm that was listed as sponsoring on Handshake, so I applied, but I never heard back. It later turned out that they stopped sponsoring this year, but Handshake still said they were sponsoring.”
Claudia Chung (C ‘20) doesn’t think that Career Services’ resources for international students are reliable enough. “When I went in asking for help looking for internships in Hong Kong, the advisor showed me a few sites and told me to click around. So I asked her to show me how. When she set a few filters and clicked search, there were zero jobs. There was such an awkward silence.”
The advisor showed her other resources, like a network of students who had worked in Hong Kong before – but it was inherently limited due to its dependence on self–reporting. She also looked around GoinGlobal, a paid service Penn subscribes to that gives students an overview of visa regulations and job markets around the world. Jamie Grant, Senior Associate Director for SEAS at Career Services, calls it a “hidden gem,” but Claudia says the quantity of data is misleading. “There are a lot of opportunities on it, except they’re not exactly internships that Penn students are looking for. I didn’t apply to an Ivy League school to work in a bakery as a cashier.”
When students can’t find up–to–date information on sponsorship, they have to ask the employers directly, which can be awkward, to say the least. “I wasted time at career fairs talking to employers that wouldn’t sponsor,” Skylar says. “At every booth, I would ask at the end if they sponsored and they will always not be sponsoring. But it’s kind of weird for me to have my first question be ‘Do you sponsor?’ It feels like that’s not good small talk.”
Claudia opts to ask them straight away, but she has to phrase it carefully: “What opportunities do you have for international students?”
Their anxiety doesn’t just set in when they’re looking for a job; it starts before they pick their majors. International students can only be authorized to work in jobs that are directly related to their major. They can be authorized for temporary employment in the U.S. either through Curricular Practical Training (CPT), which allows students to work as part of their major, or through Optional Practical Training (OPT). Both authorizations require proof of direct correlation between their degree program and their job offer.
These limitations encourage international students who want to stay in the U.S. to tailor their academic trajectories to specific careers. For example, they may choose to major in STEM fields—which will give them a 24–month extension on their OPT—or in a major related to an industry that is more likely to sponsor their visa. “It definitely feeds into the culture of a lot of international students ending up going into finance or banking or consulting because these industries sponsor,” Skylar says.
“Our mantra for most students is your major does not have to be connected to what you’re doing, but it’s different for international students,” Hewitt says. She realizes that international students need to strategize. “I certainly think there are some types of industries that are more likely to sponsor [...] and I think students are probably smart to look at the big picture and think about that.”
Legal requirements certainly put a lot of pressure on international students, but there are financial and academic concerns as well. Skylar says there’s definitely more pressure to get a high–paying job because “it took us so much to get here, especially because international students don’t get as much financial aid.”
International applicants to Penn are , which means that they are effectively discouraged from demonstrating need for financial aid. If they should ever need financial aid while they are at Penn, they cannot apply later: Penn will only review financial aid documents for international students at the time of admission.
Then there’s the pressure to be the best—better than domestic candidates who don’t require the extra payout that comes with sponsorship. “Being international was always a huge source of anxiety because you have to be extra good at everything,” says Jonathan D’Rozario (C ‘17), an alum who was formerly pre–med and is now in New York pursuing acting full–time.
For many students, being the best is the only option. Certain industries that are focused around the U.S. can leave job–hunters with no other option than to stay. For Jonathan, who is passionate about acting, it was imperative that he remain in the U.S. “You can be a doctor anywhere and you can be a lawyer anywhere, but with acting, you need to be in the U.S.”
Although students can go back home after graduation, those few years away from home can actually count against them. “Most government jobs in Hong Kong will prefer homegrown students,” Claudia says. While many companies have international offices, meeting a recruiter at Penn is usually just a dead end for someone looking for international opportunities. “Even if a firm here doesn’t sponsor, it would be great if they connected me to their recruiting offices abroad, but they don’t do that,” says Skylar. “So then I would have to blind apply, and that puts me at a disadvantage against people who go to college there. They will have their OCR and I’m filing in random apps.”
Tiger Huang (CW ‘19) thinks that there is really no need for international students to choose between the U.S. and their home country. “Jobs in Asia have quite a lot of benefits, but a lot of Penn students miss that because the culture is so focused on going to New York,” he says. “I really encourage international students to not discount other places. Jobs in Hong Kong and Singapore are taxed much less, and sometimes they provide you with housing and flights.”
Though there are forces beyond its control, ISSS does help students sort out confusing legal paperwork. “We cannot help students get a job, but we want to partner with students so that they are in full understanding of the requirements of their OPT and CPT applications,” says Rodolfo Altamirano, Director of ISSS.
Jonathan recounts how he was “really freaked out” trying to file tax returns all by himself and how he visited ISSS so much that he became friends with the people there. “It’s really stressful and scary, but there are definitely people at Penn who can help,” he says. Altamirano understands international students’ struggles. “I was an international student so I know what they’re dealing with. International students come to us because they have nowhere to go. [...] And so our goal is to never turn them away.”
But immigration laws are ever changing, especially with the Trump administration. This was always a source of great insecurity for Jonathan. “I never really spoke to my U.S. friends about it because they could never relate to that. For them, there’s no risk of getting removed from the country. Then you hear political rumors about work visas, that they’re offering less, that they’re offering more, and you’re always scared thinking that something’s going to happen that’s directly impacting you.”
These issues may have been swept under the rug because international students’ struggles are not always visible. Career Services is content with how international students fare on paper. “I think their outcomes tend to be pretty good in terms of finding jobs and continuing education. Over 80 percent are working in the United States from the Class of 2017,” says Hewitt.
According to Claudia, most of these jobs come from personal networks, not channels provided by the University. She says, “Almost all of them get jobs because they know someone. And internal networking is highly exclusive. If you don't know people you can't get into that circle.”
These concerns are often neglected as the constrictions placed on international students are overlooked. “People would always ask me if I’m studying abroad, and I’d be like, ‘I am abroad,’” Jonathan says. Their undergraduate years at Penn mean something entirely different from a U.S. student’s semester abroad.
“One of the reasons why I think a lot of international students picked schools outside of their own countries is because it's supposed to provide you better career opportunities than going to a local university,” says Claudia. When students seek these opportunities out at Penn, they’re working against the expiration date of their visas – there’s no time for them to be confused about the future.