International students face limited prospects after graduation

Andrea+Popa+%28center%29%2C+director+of+the+Office+of+International+Student+Affairs%2C+with+international+students+in+2019.

Photo: Cynthia Tu

Andrea Popa (center), director of the Office of International Student Affairs, with international students in 2019.

By Gabriel Borges, correspondent

Most recent Emerson graduates have their job prospects at the front of their minds, but for international students, the question of what to do with their lives after getting off the commencement stage is more pressing than most.

International student graduates are confronted with the choice of how to best pursue their chosen career—going back to their home countries or staying in the United States. The decision, already a nuanced and difficult one, has only been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shut down national borders and restricted work opportunities alike.

“The employment landscape has changed under COVID,” said Andrea Popa, who serves as director of the Office of International Student Affairs, in an interview. “Some of our students found it more difficult to get a U.S. job.”

Visa restrictions, tied with low employment rates in the U.S., have forced international students to shoulder the burden of low-paying jobs—or return to their home countries. On the other hand, Popa also said some employers were more flexible with remote employment. 

Nidhi Ranjalkar, of Mumbai, India graduated in 2020 with a degree in publishing and writing. She said that while the pandemic opened doors for remote job interviews and opportunities, the atmosphere in the job market for her was still one of uncertainty.

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“The whole experience of grad school was one thing, but the process after graduation, between graduating and finding a job, the stress and anxiety of it was definitely amplified because of COVID,” she said.

The pandemic’s repercussions on international student employment were immense, said Pavel Zlatin, a 2020 masters graduate strategic public relations from Moscow, Russia. 

“With COVID, some departments downsized, and some positions [got] eliminated,” Zlatin said. “A lot of international students are dealing with the usual hardships of finding employment in the U.S., which has always been hard, plus so many people are unemployed right now because of COVID, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.”

By “usual hardships,” Zlatin means visa restrictions. After graduation, international students can apply for a status known as “optional practical training,” which only permits them to stay in the country for up to 12 months on a student visa while working.

Zlatin was able to find work as an administrative coordinator at the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. However, he said that he’d noticed a bias against optional practical training applicants in the hiring process.

“Sometimes you are interviewing, and [employers] get a hint of your accent,” Zlatin said. “You can see their faces change.”

Ranjalkar said bias also exists when employees ask employers to sponsor their work visas because the companies get flustered by the idea of doing the required documentation.

The documentation requires a respective employer to sponsor an employee after having exhausted their optional practical training and applying for a temporary specialty occupation work visa. The number of those visas is capped each fiscal year, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

Amala Reddie, an international student from Pune, India, who graduated from Emerson in August 2021 with a master’s degree in publishing and writing, said that the chances of getting a specialty occupation visa are dim. “It’s a matter of getting the company to sponsor your visa,” she said. “And then putting your name into the system. It’s a bit of a gamble because [they] are putting in a lot of time and effort, and you might not even get picked.”

However, there are other options for international students who have run out of optional practical training and plan to stay in the U.S. For example, they could opt out for a master’s degree, which would involve paying for an extended stay.

Cornelia Tzana, a marketing and communications graduate originally from Greece, said she managed to land a position under optional practical training three or four months after graduating in 2016. Despite her success, she empathized with the struggles of fellow international students. 

“It always feels like a bit of a challenge knowing that you have all the visa restrictions and [what] employers are going to think about that, and whether they are going to think that it’s too much of a hassle to interview you or hire you,” Tzana said. “It’s always that kind of thought process of, ‘Should I include that in my application? Should I not? Do I bring it up during the interview or after I get offered the position?’”

Another option for international students who aim to stay in the country is to get married.

Baolong Song graduated from Emerson in 2020 with a degree in visual and media arts. He recalled the day when he went to an art studio district, for a class. There, he met his to-be wife.

“I’m married,” Song said. “I met somebody who’s an American resident. We’re in the process of applying for my green card.”

When that first year of extended work permission reached its end for Tzana, she pursued an associate degree in business administration in Los Angeles. She is currently participating in a master’s degree program in business management to qualify for another year of optional practical training. She said she wouldn’t have joined the program if not for her work visa restrictions.

“School and academics are great, but the experience that I have gotten by working in the field and the industry are a thousand times more useful and applicable than those more theoretical classes,” she said.