November 30, 2020

International students struggle to stay in U.S.

When Alvaro Coronel left Quito, Ecuador, for Webster University in 2006, he had high expectations for his future.

“I thought that after graduation I would be able to work for a couple years, make good connections and, from there, keep moving up,” Coronel said.

Instead, Coronel had to leave the United States in 2011 — a year after graduating with a degree in international relations.
Coronel is one of several international students unable to find permanent employment immediately after graduation. International students, who are required to get a student visa before studying in the United States, are required to purchase Optional Practical Training (OPT) visas, which allow them to stay in the U.S. for a year after graduation while they are working or interning.

Wenceslaus P’Oryem, associate director of International Services, said around 50 students apply for OPT each year.
Coronel said the student visa that allowed him to study in the U.S. restricted him from getting work experience, because international students are not permitted to work off campus.

“For international students who just spend all their time studying … that doesn’t give them much real world experience,” Coronel said. “Once you graduate, you can’t compete with people who are going to school and have several internships, and have worked for a semester or two. Our options are limited.”

P’Oryem said international students are able to do OPT while they study, but very few do because of the cost involved. Students have to pay an initial fee of $365. Because they are permitted to work a maximum of 20 hours per week — part-time — the students get less experience for their money. For example, if a student works six months at 20 hours per week, it only counts as three months at full time.

“It’s very inconvenient, so a lot of students who want to work while they’re on campus look for internships which can do the same thing they are looking for,” P’Oryem said.

Though he wasn’t able to work during school, Coronel said he was fortunate to have been very involved in several extracurricular activities. After he graduated in May 2010, Coronel got an unpaid internship with Russ Carnahan’s campaign for re-election in Congress. After the campaign was finished, the internship ended, and he continued to search for a job.
He then found another unpaid internship in New York City with the William J. Clinton Foundation — former-president Clinton’s non-governmental organization (NGO) — in Nov. 2010. Coronel was hopeful his work with the Clinton Foundation would turn into a more permanent job, but Coronel said the paperwork of sponsoring an international student was too much hassle.

“They (nonprofit organizations) take advantage of the fact that they have a big work force,” Coronel said. “It’s cheaper for them to keep hiring interns, where you have no pay, than hire someone where you have to keep them on salary. That was really frustrating.

“I was giving 110 percent everyday with the intention of impressing the people I work with to the extent that they would try to put a good word in to sponsor me or hire me. In the end, it was very hard.”

After the Clinton Foundation, Coronel found a paid internship in Washington, D.C., with a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants. Like his previous internship, Coronel said it looked like this internship would lead to an employment opportunity. Once again, the hassle of paperwork and time restrictions from his OPT stood in the way.

“What sucked was that I didn’t know where I was going to be the next day,” Coronel said. “It was really hard to rent an apartment for short term. It was really hard to make plans for the future because I never knew where it was. In less than a year, I lived in three different cities.”

After the three internships, the year deadline of his OPT had run out. He didn’t acquire permanent employment or sponsorship, so he had to go back to Ecuador.

“It was nice because I wanted to see my family, but at the same time I did feel a bit of disappointment,” Coronel said. “I wanted to go back to my country on my own terms, not because I had to… I felt that I had more to give and much more to learn (in the United States).”

Coronel said he always planned to go back to Ecuador, but he hoped it would have been later, when he had a few years of work experience and a Master’s degree. Now, in Quito, Coronel works as an international relations assistant to a law firm. He said he likes the work he is doing now, but doesn’t love it, and that his internships in the United States were much more fulfilling.

“If I were somebody in power in the U.S., I wouldn’t kick out students or international students or foreigners who are willing to work, willing to invest in American companies, willing to give 110 percent every day to make U.S. companies better,” Coronel said. “I believe that every country in the world needs highly-educated and multicultural individuals, so I wouldn’t be so quick to turn away brilliant minds that could be useful.”

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