As the Class of 2017 frets about job prospects this Spring, the pressure to find an employer is particularly intense for some of the roughly 180 seniors with foreign citizenship who must reckon with changes to the details of their visa status.

Students in the United States with F-1 visas—typically granted to international students—are usually required to exit the country within 60 days of completing their degree programs. In order to stay longer in the country, international students typically need to either re-enroll in a new degree program or apply to an Optional Practical Training program.

The OPT program allows students to maintain their student visa and work stateside for a year after graduation, after which they must either find an employer to sponsor a H-1B work visa, enroll in a new program of study or return to their home country. 

Some international students suggested the University could work harder to inform the student body about these complex administrative requirements. For example, senior Sophia Jamal, president of the Duke International Association, argued that more resources were crucial. 

"Because of the complexity of applying to U.S. jobs as an international student—visa issues, language barriers, cultural differences, lack of networks and more—we think that the current resources are not sufficient, and we believe that more multifaceted resources can be provided to help international students overcome these challenges," she wrote in an email.

Challenges

International students must reckon with a host of career-oriented issues on top of the usual academic challenges, noted Sarah Russell, director of academic engagement, global and civic opportunities.

“Along with the usual concerns about finding a program that feels like a good personal fit, in which they can perform well academically, and where they might develop practical skills and knowledge, they are also struggling to distinguish themselves as uniquely valuable to a relatively unreceptive professional market in the U.S.,” Russell wrote in an email. 

A 2016 survey by Duke International Association found that international students are most concerned about their careers, wrote senior Elaine Pak in an email. This ranked above issues such as culture shock, campus life and financial aid. 

Some international students discussed the challenge of explaining to employers how work visa sponsorship operates while simultaneously marketing themselves as valuable employees.

“Not everyone you’re interviewing with will know how the process works for international students,” said Charlotte Stoute, a former Duke student and now a research registry and regulatory coordinator for the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. “You have to be able to explain that in a transparent way while being able to emphasize everything that you bring to the table as an employee.”

Abraham Ng'hwani, Pratt '16 and now a project engineer at Gilbane Building Company, said international students are often restricted to technology and finance fields due to the cost of H-1B visas. 

“Obviously, the companies that sponsor H-1B are only the large companies who can afford to retain that talent at any cost,” he said. “So they can’t join startups, even though many international students are very entrepreneurial and have the aspiration to build companies.”

And Russell indicated she has heard similar concerns when students come to her office. She wrote in an email that international students feel pressured to pursue a science-oriented degree in order to make themselves attractive to corporations—which otherwise might prefer to hire American-born students and not go through the hassle of sponsoring a work visa. 

Failure to adhere to a strict timeline of applications can result in a student forfeiting their internship offer, noted senior Henry Yuen.

“One less commonly known fact among my American friends is that in order to work in the summer starting June, I would have to apply for work authorization in February,” Yuen wrote in an email. “One of my friends applied in late March/early April, and as the application can take three months or more to process, they lost their summer internship.”

Mixed evaluations

Student evaluations of the University's career and visa support were mixed. 

Stoute said she benefited from reaching out to the Career Center and Duke Visa Services early in her sophomore year.

“I personally received a lot of support from Duke during my undergraduate career,” she said. “The technicalities of all these different positions can be very complicated sometimes, and so I was in touch with them very early on to understand which opportunities I could pursue under my current status.”

During the course of her study at Duke, Stoute secured two summer fellowships which did not constitute employment because she only received a non-compensatory stipend for them, but which nonetheless allowed her to gain valuable internship experience without running down her 12 months of OPT. After graduation, she got her job at the Autism Center.However, other students have called for more support, particularly information sessions to provide updates on visa policy amendments. Yuen wrote that Duke does a "poor job" of informing students about eligibility requirements, and that the international students he knows tend to rely on word-of-mouth updates instead.

“International Association hosted two panels about OPT and the career search, which have been phenomenal—the challenge is now for Duke to make these student-driven efforts and resources more necessarily established and known," he wrote.

Although junior Jenny Shang acknowledged that federal policies are frequently the source of constraints, she nonetheless highlighted how important the University's communication truly is.

"I think a lot of the times complication originates in the changing policies on a larger scale," she said. "Really all Duke could do is to inform international students of changes that could affect them, encourage them to consider visa issues early on and provide timely support when students do need help."

President Donald Trump has indicated that he is considering revisions to H-1B policies consistent with his "America First" message—for example, by changing what jobs qualify for the visa. Both Democrats and Republicans have also proposed legislation to curb H-1B visas as well, like by raising the minimum salary to qualify for the visa. No changes have been made official as of yet. 

But first-year Qasim Hameed called for information sessions run by experts, rather than alumni, to address work authorization policy changes.

"While it's definitely nice to have that experienced perspective, I felt that the talks tended to shift toward more general advice than a thorough exploration of the specifics," he said. "In such uncertain circumstances, it can be a help to have someone with knowledge give you an idea of exactly what you have to do and expect, which is better than being lost in the excessive realm of the internet looking for information."

The number of information sessions about CPT and OPT has been increased this semester in accordance with a yearly procedural review, wrote Lola Yelverton, director of Duke Visa Services, in an email. She added that Duke Visa Services works closely with outside immigration counsel to provide information sessions and for individual cases.

International upperclassmen who are unfamiliar with OPT should reach out to International Association or Duke Visa Services right away, Yuen wrote. He added that students should work with Duke Visa Services to file for OPT so it is approved early on, even if they do not have offers on hand.

“As an international student, you’re seeking a job while being on a ticking clock,” Stoute said.