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Finding internships as a college student is difficult, and finding an internship as an international college student is even more challenging. I’m an international student from The Bahamas going to Saint Leo University in Florida, and I’ve wondered whether my own immigration status will automatically rule me out of internships. Trust me. I know the gut-wrenching feeling of knowing that certain companies are not interested in hiring me.
I talked to Lou Paris, a professor at Stetson University in Florida (and a former international student himself) for insight. He wrote a book, titled Konkeros 2018: An International Student’s Guide to Finding Employment in the US, and has a platform to help students research companies that offer sponsorships.
From our conversation, here are five pieces of advice for other international students on finding the right internship for your career goals.
1. Brace Yourself
Be prepared to go on this journey of tons of rejections, especially from companies that don’t hire international students and aren’t willing to offer sponsorship. And start early.
Lou Paris: “Often, international students come to me at a point where they have already completed their degrees, they are already half way through their OPT (Optional Practical Training), and there is little that I can do to help…on things they should have done months, if not years, ago.”
2. Get Informed as Early as Possible
International Students, on the F1 visa, are limited in how they can work. First year students can’t work off campus. After that, three types of off-campus employment are allowed: Curricular Practical Training (CPT); Optional Practical Training (OPT) (pre-completion or post-completion); and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension (OPT). Each of these employment options have requirements and restrictions.
In short: it’s complicated. I recommend that you speak to your international student advisor/counselor to learn more about your options available. Paris advises international students to speak to an immigration lawyer, and do so early.
Lou Paris: “Ideally, you should be engaging an immigration attorney in your first year as a freshman. It may sound like overkill, but it really isn’t…because an immigration attorney from the beginning – from your freshman year – can help you assess what you may qualify for, not only now but in the future. They may be able to give you a path, or a blueprint, of the things that should be happening during your school years for you to build a better immigration profile for the time you graduate.”
3. Be Careful With Applications
One time, when I was filling out an online application, I was faced with typical immigration questions: “Are you legally authorized to work?” and “Do you now or in the future require sponsorship?” I clicked ‘next’ after giving what I thought were the proper answers and the application immediately ended stating that I was not qualified. You have to be careful and clear when dealing with forms.
Lou Paris: “If you are answering questions about your immigration status or your current situation on paper, for example on an application, you have to answer truthfully: answer the question exactly as intended. One caveat there is that if you are applying for an internship, and you are only working for that company during the internship and they ask if you need sponsorship, the obvious answer is no because you are only there for an internship.”
4. You Have To Network
Don’t wait until junior year to network. Do it early on in your studies, preferably freshman year. Do it with everyone – academic advisors, international student counselors, career services staff, alumni associations. Think of it like investing: the value you put in now will pay of years later.
Lou Paris: “I recommend to international students to focus your job search not so much on direct applications. I ask them instead to focus on networking. I say this because every time questions about immigration come up in an application, chances are you are being automatically ruled out. You may think that there is a slight chance – even 1 percent chance – of getting that job, but in reality, your chances are dramatically reduced. So, with networking, you are basically looking for employment opportunities by creating a network of people that you meet within your desired career path of your industry. That is more effective.”
5. Know Your Goal
If you’re like me, you’ve wondered if you should apply for internships that don’t typically offer sponsorships just for the work experience, or whether to only apply for companies that offer sponsorships. After all, sponsorships are good, right?
Paris suggested that both paths are valid, but students should know what their goal plan is – sponsored or not – when thinking about this. He also warned that big companies, those with recognizable names, are usually the ones that don’t offer sponsorships.
Lou Paris: “The profile of a company that typically hires foreign nationals and international students is very specific. They tend to be medium and small size companies. In fact, the median size of the company that hires international students is 39 employees. Think about how small that is.”
Paris says that startups are more willing to employ international students since interns have more responsibilities in these companies; however, some startups are unstable, which means the company (and your) future can be unpredictable. If you’re looking for long-term employment sponsorship, that’s a risk to consider.
As for me, I opened up my internship search to include companies that don’t typically offer sponsorships so I can gain experience and build up my resume. After I complete my CPT and OPT, and if I am not sponsored by a company, I plan to do my masters and see where that leads.