Graduating from university is a little terrifying even in the best of circumstances. Leaving a place you called home for several years is tough, and entering the workforce can be an uncertain prospect.
For international students studying in the U.S., graduating is especially challenging. That’s because there’s the distinct possibility that you could be deported. That’s even the case if you managed to land a great job right after college.
I dealt with this dilemma when I graduated from Penn State with a degree in public relations and advertising. I was fortunate enough to land a job right out of college. However, being a citizen of South Korea, I wasn’t guaranteed that I could legally stay and work in the U.S. The immigration laws in the U.S. are complicated, which leads to a lot of uncertainty and waiting. For me, it was an especially nerve-racking experience.
Had I graduated with a STEM degree, I could have been granted a work permit for up to 24 months. Instead, I chose to pursue a degree I was genuinely passionate about. This meant that I could only legally work for up to 12 months – even though I landed my dream job.
This post-graduation uncertainty is becoming a big problem in the U.S., as more students are coming from overseas than ever before.
International Students on the Rise
Although schools may say they welcome international students because they want a diverse, cosmopolitan learning environment, the truth is that international students are quite lucrative. That’s because most international students aren’t eligible for financial aid and scholarships, so they need to pay the full sticker price to enroll in university. Tuition rates are higher for out-of-state students, and they’re even higher for out-of-country students.
While the prices might be high, statistics show families are more than willing to pay. U.S. universities have a strong reputation overseas. Despite the high prices to get in, the admission requirements are appealing compared to the strictly test-based admission processes in some countries.
Just how fast is the international student population growing? The 1.15 million international students in 2015 represented a 14 percent increase from the previous year. Since 2005, international students have almost doubled. Many of these students come from China, with India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia rounding out the other most popular countries.
There are no signs of that growth rate slowing down, as schools are bolstering their international recruitment efforts.
The Waiting Game
Colleges go all-out to recruit international students, yet they don’t exactly stress how difficult it is to stay in the U.S. after graduation. Unless you’re marrying a U.S. citizen right after college, you’ll have to find an employer that’s willing to help you out with your visa. That’s easier said than done.
As any college graduate knows, job opportunities can be few and far between. It’s even harder for international students, as most employers have no idea what the legal requirements are for hiring an international graduate. Even if you’re the perfect fit for a job, they might hire someone else just to avoid the headache. That puts international students at a big disadvantage unless they’re fortunate to find a willing employer with experience in hiring international employees.
Navigating these legal requirements on your own or through an employer can be a nightmare. While schools are happy to accept tuition from international students, the current U.S. laws aren’t geared toward keeping these graduates in the U.S. Graduates with no luck in finding a job risk being deported if they don’t depart the US in the allotted 90 days.
What Can Be Done?
Ideally, the immigration laws would be modified to reflect the increase of international students. The odds of that ever happening, however, are quite slim. Laws change very slowly in the U.S., if at all, so the best thing to do is be proactive. Many universities offer helpful resources for international students. Aside from that, students need to work as early as possible in lining up a job before graduation. If not, there’s a good chance that nothing will pan out and they’ll be forced to return home.
I didn’t take advantage of those school resources as much as I should have, so I was stuck in limbo for several months and unable to work despite having been hired. I was waiting for my Employee Authorization Document (EAD), which eventually arrived. I was lucky and fortunate that everything worked out.
Even though my employer was willing to put up with the hassle and massive amount of paperwork to get me authorized for employment, I was forced to leave the country after 12 months of being happily employed. My company even went as far as to giving me a visa sponsorship (a non-immigrant visa) – but even that doesn’t guarantee a work visa since it’s a lottery-system where your name has to be drawn to be awarded the visa.
With the growth rate of international students, it looks like more and more graduates will have to go home after graduation unless they’re fully prepared.