3 things humanities international students should know while job hunting

The author in front of Padelford Hall, where the University of Washington English Department offices are. (Photo courtesy Jeevika Verma.)

On June 10th, many University of Washington graduates put on their caps and gowns and attended the much anticipated UW commencement ceremony. However, for some international students, the word “graduation” also came with a sense of dread.

Every student must work hard to secure a job after graduation. But international students have additional barriers when looking for a job in the U.S. And that’s even more true for international students that majored in humanities.

I am an Indian passport holder who graduated from the UW with a bachelor’s degree in English and who attended UW on an F1 student visa. I am currently on an Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension, which allows me to work in the U.S. for a limited period of time after graduation. To keep this extension of the student visa, I need to follow certain regulations, such as working a minimum of 20 hours a week in a field related to my major.

When I turned to the International Student Services (ISS) at UW for career advice, they continually directed me to their website, which provided visa-related advice. I turned to the UW’s Careers & Internship Center and my departmental adviser to help with my job hunt. However I often found that the career advice and immigration advice didn’t add up — especially in terms of deadlines and how potential employers viewed me.

In my year long job-hunt in Seattle, I learned a lot through trial and error. But I found it was difficult because it is so uncommon for someone to leave their home country to study the arts, especially at an undergraduate level.

I have a few tips for other international students in the humanities like me:

My department might not support my job hunt as well as I’d like.

Career resources largely differ for those in the arts or humanities versus those in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) departments. For example, the University of Washington College of Engineering  hosts several career fairs for its students throughout the year. Recruiters are looking to speak to students in specific majors like Human Centered Design & Engineering or Computer Science. However, there are usually no such fairs within the humanities, and if there are, the number of recruiters attending are few or the fairs are open to students in many or all majors.

“During my time at UW, I often turned to the English department at UW for classroom or career advice but found that it didn’t really have specific resources for me as an international student looking to get on OPT,” says Tracy Wang, who, like me, recently graduated from the UW with a bachelor’s degree in English.

At large, UW’s English department, which USA Today named the 3rd best nationally-ranked English department, has exceptional resources for its students. I secured most internships during my time at UW through the departmental mailing list, and the advisors work hard to generate an experience for students that feels akin to a liberal arts college. However, when it comes time to graduate, they are unaware of career trends or regulations specific to international students.

Employers are less likely to consider me for full time positions.

During my final quarter at UW, I was offered a writing job at an American e-commerce company only to have it rescinded when my recruiter learned I was an international student. Although I was a qualified candidate, the recruiter said the company reserved H-1B work visa sponsorships for STEM-related jobs and did not want to hire someone for a limited amount of time.

As I started networking, many employers told me they couldn’t afford to invest in the training of entry-level employees only to have to sponsor them or leave when their OPT expires.

However — despite President Donald Trump’s  “Hire American” agenda — international students in STEM often work with U.S. job recruiters who understand how sponsorship or OPT works. STEM departments also teach these students exactly how to address recruiters.

In contrast entry-level humanities majors often apply for jobs as independent contractors or with small-scale companies such as publishing houses, journals or nonprofits that do not have experience with international students or OPT. International students who are humanities majors also get little training on how to talk to recruiters about their visa status.

“I didn’t know how to address employers at first,” Wang said. “I had to figure things out on my own.”

Tracy Wang, an international student and UW English major, in front of Padelford Hall. (Photo by Jeevika Verma.)

Moreover, the heightened competition within the Seattle job market means that humanities jobs can’t always pay entry-level candidates, such as interns. This can be a unique issue for international students. Because of regulations and visa deadlines, international students often don’t have the time to start at the bottom of the ladder and take their chances climbing it.

Even with a long resume of accomplishments or internships during our college years, Wang and I now find ourselves in internships again.

My ISS advisor told me that international students who have bachelor’s degrees in a STEM field are more commonly employed in the U.S. than students who studied the arts or humanities. The latter students probably need a Master’s degree or a PhD to stand out as an international applicant.

The common job application rules don’t apply to me.

OPT regulations differ for those in the humanities and those in STEM. As an English major, I get 12 months of OPT, whereas my friend who is a Computer Science major has the option of getting 24 months if he can secure a job at a government approved company.

As an international student in the humanities, I have to work harder to prove that my skillset is valuable at an entry-level role. Career Center advisors say that employers tend to avoid hiring or sponsoring entry-level humanities majors for H-1B work visas unless they are in senior positions, because there are a limited number of those vias, and they are reserved for highly specialized workers. In 2017, the majority of work visas sponsored in the U.S. were senior-level and IT related.

Networking is essential for any job applicant, but this becomes the first rule of thumb for international students in the humanities. I want to be sure my resume is being passed along with the right introduction to my situation and to the right employers, so that I may be hired on merit rather than disqualified based on regulatory or monetary limits. Two out of three positions that I acquired on OPT were directly through networking.

Advisors at the ISS, Career Center, or a major’s department exist to support all students equally.

However, the uneven reality is Seattle is a tech-centered city when it comes to jobs, and the UW itself, despite having highly-ranked humanities departments, is primarily recognized and funded for its STEM focus. Knowing this, it would be more beneficial for international students in the humanities to know what their chances are at getting a job, how they need to work harder and why. Although advisors claim they do not wish to discourage students, sugar-coating our realities makes us think all international students are in the same boat, which just isn’t true.

But you shouldn’t give up on your passions just because you want to make it easier to stay in Seattle. I didn’t, and had I known the job-hunt would be this tricky my freshman year, I still wouldn’t have changed my major. But it’s important to know how to make the most of your potential work-training period in the U.S. Most importantly, turn to your peers and build relationships with mentors who will understand your unique circumstances, fend for you, and lead you in the right direction.

Regardless of the way an American employer views your resume, you will stand out as a strong candidate upon returning home. In my experience, employers are most interested in hearing about my creative writing focus, double minors and multiple internships, even if they can’t seriously consider me for a full-time position. Your unique combination of being international and a non-STEM major will always make you stand out.

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2 Comments

  1. Both the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program and the H-1B visa are vehicles that put US citizens at a great disadvantage and need to be reformed. Here’s why:

    OPT

    OPT amounts to the government offering a $30,000 ($10,000 / yr) incentive to employers for hiring a foreign student instead of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. This bonus takes the form of the foreign students being exempt from payroll tax (due to their student status, which they technically still have under OPT in spite of having graduated). Why hire Americans, eh?

    Since this tax exemption from payroll tax was pointed out in a lawsuit against DHS, and has been one of the major points raised by critics, DHS was well aware of it. Yet they are refusing to address it or even acknowledge it.

    In contrast to DHS recent statements, in which they openly admitted that they intend OPT as an end-run around the H-1B cap, they now describe OPT in warm and fuzzy terms of “mentoring” (putting the T back into OPT). That raises several questions:

    If the U.S. indeed “needs” the foreign students (DHS’s phrasing on this point verges on desperation) to remedy a STEM labor shortage, why do these students need training? The DHS/industry narrative is that the U.S. lacks sufficient workers with STEM training, while the foreign workers are supposedly already trained. And, if workers with such training are indeed needed, why wont these special mentoring programs be open to Americans? Why just offer them to foreign students? Since DHS admitted that its motivation in OPT is to circumvent the H-1B cap, does that mean that if the cap were high enough to accommodate everyone, these same foreign students wouldn’t need training after all?

    H-1B

    While lobbying Congress for more H-1B visas, industry claims H-1B workers are the “best and brightest”. Come payday, however, they’re entry-level workers.

    The GAO put out a report on the H-1B visa that discusses at some length the fact that the vast majority of H-1B workers are hired into entry-level positions. In fact, most are at “Level I”, which is officially defined by the Dept. of Labor as those who have a “basic understanding of duties and perform routine tasks requiring limited judgment”. Moreover, the GAO found that a mere 6% of H-1B workers are at “Level IV”, which is officially defined by the US Dept. of Labor as those who are “fully competent” [1]. This belies the industry lobbyists’ claims that H-1B workers are hired because they’re experts that can’t be found among the U.S. workforce.

    So this means one of two things: either companies are looking for entry-level workers (in which case, their rhetoric about needing “the best and brightest” is meaningless), or they’re looking for more experienced workers but only paying them at the Level I, entry-level pay scale. In my opinion, companies are using the H-1B visa to engage in legalized age discrimination, as the vast majority of H-1B workers are under the age of 35 [2], especially those at the Level I and Level II categories.

    Any way you slice it, it amounts to H-1B visa abuse, all facilitated and with the blessings of the US government.

    The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has never shown a sharp upward trend of Computer Science graduate starting salaries, which would indicate a labor shortage (remember – the vast majority of H-1B visas are granted for computer-related positions). In fact, according to their survey for Fall 2015, starting salaries for CS grads went down by 4% from the prior year. This is particularly interesting in that salaries overall rose 5.2% [3][4].

    References:

    [1] GAO-11-26: H-1B VISA PROGRAM – Reforms Are Needed to Minimize the Risks and Costs of Current Program
    [2] Characteristics of H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Report to Congress October 1, 2013 – September 30, 2014
    [3] NACE Fall 2015 Salary Survey
    [4] NACE Salary Survey – September 2014 Executive Summary

  2. English majors normally have tough time finding jobs after graduation. I feel sorry for this writer. I am sure, like many other English majors, she did not plan what jobs will be waiting for them, on graduation. It is tough for any employer to justify sponsoring English majors and show they could not find a US citizen to do same job instead of her. She may apply for jobs in local newspapers as a reporter, that may be her best bet.

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