More than 271,943 international students enrolled at the Bachelor's degree level in American higher education institutions in 2012 (Institute of International Education, 2013). This number is a significant increase from just five years earlier, when international undergraduate students accounted for 177,982 enrollees (Institute of International Education, 2009). The reasons for this 65% increase in international undergraduate students vary. Global economic shifts and international education trends play into this increase, ranging from the rise in Chinese nationals studying abroad (Fong, 2011) to the permeation of Western-style scientization and democratization world-wide (Schofer & Meyers, 2005) among others. Regardless of cause, international student presence within the US higher education system continues to grow without indication of decline for at least another decade (Maslen, 2012).
As international student enrollment increases, so does the need for specialized career services for international students. International students often view career counseling services as a key to finding jobs within the U.S., a desired educational goal for most students (Crockett & Hays, 2013). These attitudes align with Sangganjanavanich, Lenz, and Cavazos's (2011) finding that 'training career counselors to provide services to international students was a critical step toward enriching their educational experiences and career development' (p. 17). In order for career services to meet the needs of international students, career services professionals must become more multiculturally adept, more aware of immigration issues and concerns, and more aware of global employment opportunities and trends (Yang, Wong, Hwang, & Heppner, 2002).
This paper aims to review the current literature regarding career needs of international students in U.S. universities. First, attention will be paid to the current immigration regulations concerning international student employment in the U.S. Then, three career-related barriers faced by international students will be examined and discussed. Finally, recommendations for improving the international student experiences with career services will be suggested.
Regulations Concerning International Student Employment
Understanding the current state of international student employment and basic immigration regulations is imperative for career services professionals to truly assist international students with their career needs. Instead of centralized or major-specified career centers, many international students tend to seek career help from international services offices on their campuses (Lee, personal communication, April 17, 2014). For example, the Office of International Services (OIS) is a key player in international student career services at Indiana University Bloomington (IUB). Students holding F-1 visas account for 96% of international undergraduate enrollees (The Trustees of Indiana University, 2014a), and in response to this demand, OIS officials are able to assist F-1 students in the following career-related ways: providing information about on-campus work opportunities, authorizing Curricular Practical Training (CPT), and assisting in the application process for Optional Practical Training (OPT).
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), F-1 student visa holders are eligible to work and be paid by their host institution for up to 20 hours a week without further government authorization (USCIS, 2014a). In line with its mission, OIS assists with 'advising on and facilitating compliance with U.S. visa and immigration regulations, including maintenance of status requirements, employment authorization, and travel' (The Trustees of Indiana University, 2014b). Although assisting international students with their career needs is not one of OIS's missions, OIS does provide students with information about the most common IUB employers and IUB job search sites upon request (Lee, personal communication, April 17, 2014).
Related to employment authorization are the previously mentioned areas of CPT and OPT. CPT is work authorization for F-1 students to work off-campus, more than 20 hours a week on-campus, or a combination of off-campus and on-campus work (USCIS, 2014b). For a student to be eligible, he or she must have studied at a U.S. institution for at least one academic year, and the work must tie directly to the student's field of study. Part-time CPT accounts for 20 hours a week or less, and full-time CPT constitutes anything over 20 hours per week. Although part-time CPT can be received multiple times, it does require the student to maintain full-time class enrollment. Students using full-time CPT can enroll in just the appropriate internship course, provided that the internship lasts the duration of the semester, but the students must be careful not to accrue 12 months of CPT. If a student were to do so, he or she loses OPT eligibility. A student must apply for CPT for each semester and for each position that he or she wishes to pursue employment, and a student cannot begin work until such authorization has been finalized by a Designated School Official (DSO) or Primary Designated School Official (PDSO) within the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) database.
OPT is work-authorization typically given for work after degree completion that lasts for one year (29 months for STEM majors). The work must be 20 hours a week or more and be within the student's field of study, but the employment is not tied to a specific employer like CPT (USCIS, 2014b). As the DSOs and PDSO, International Student Advisors are tasked with creating a new OPT I-20 for the student for application. They also guide students through the application process, helping to ensure that students have completed the paperwork correctly and that they have all of the necessary documentation for the application. Although CPT is processed in-house with OIS advisors, OPT is an application approved by USCIS. The application itself costs $380, and untimely filing, missing paperwork, or incorrect information within an application can result in work authorization denial.
If an F-1 student wishes to seek full-time employment beyond 1-year OPT, he or she will have to apply for a work visa that can only be initiated by U.S. employers. H-1B is the most common work visa for international students (USCIS, 2014c). Using this category, U.S. employers are permitted to hire international students who have at least a 4-year college degree. Employers usually file the H-1B petition while an international student is working using OPT. Such process is commonly known as visa sponsorship from U.S. employers. An H-1B visa is valid initially for up to 3 years and can be extended an additional 3 years for a total of 6 years. Filing an H-1B petition does not obligate employers to keep an employee for the entire 3-year duration. The cost of the H-1B consists of the legal fee paid to immigration attorneys and the filing fee paid to USCIS. The USCIS filing fee is $2,325 for employers with more than 25 employees and $1,575 for employers with 25 or fewer employees. The U.S. government considers all costs for the H-1B process to be employer expenses.
USCIS issues 85,000 new H-1B approvals each fiscal year (October 1 through September 30). International students with U.S. masters or above degrees have special allocation of 20,000 H-1Bs of this 85,000 quota (USCIS, 2014d). Exceptions to the quota are non-profit positions, H-1B extension with same employers, and H-1B transfer to new employers. The current H-1B quota is far less than enough to accommodate the high demand from international students. For example, 172,500 H-1B applications were filed for the fiscal year 2015 between April 1 and April 10, 2014 (USCIS, 2014d). USCIS had to stop accepting H-1B application for the rest of the year and use a 'computerized lottery system' to draw 85,000 applications out of the 172,500 pool. For those who did not apply in the 10-day window or win the visa lottery ' even if they received full-time job offers from U.S. employers ' they have to wait another year to apply. In most cases, U.S. employers will not want to wait for such long period to fill a position. Therefore, they will take back the job offers from international students and try to hire U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The H-1B quota is the utmost reason why U.S. employers are reluctant to hire international students, and there is little that universities or career services professionals can do to help the students.
Career-Related Barriers Faced by International Students
International students pursue their degrees abroad with extraordinary costs as most of their educational expenses are privately funded (Fong, 2011). As such, international students become increasingly cautious in their job search. The career concerns of international students studying abroad may be influenced and shaped by many different factors. In order to make sense of international students' career concerns, it is necessary to identify the factors that have an impact on their job search.
A few studies have specifically examined the factors that have an impact on the job search of international students, and have suggested that the certainty of career, major choice, and environmental factors (e.g., family, school counselors, teacher, friends, and government) may be important to the career concerns of international students. For example, Singaraveiu, White, and Bringaze (2005) found that Asian international students' job decisions were largely impacted by career certainty, the formal guidance system of the school, and the opinions of their friends. Katz, Juni, Shope, and Tang (1993) suggest that the most important factor for the job concern of international students is their countries' cultural background that reflects strongly its social values. For example, in a cross-cultural study, Song and Werbel (2007) found that social networks have large effects on job search. Specifically, social networks decreased international students' job search confidence and job satisfaction. This finding suggests that social networks have a negative effect on the job choice of international students.
Crockett and Hays (2011) conducted a content analysis of peer-reviewed studies that focused on career counseling international students on U.S. college campuses and were published within the last 10 years. Crockett and Hays coded topics and key phrases in the articles and three themes emerged: career placement needs of international students, individual factors that mediate an international student's career needs and barriers, and help-seeking behaviors. Several key findings that emerged for career placement needs included a need for guidance with the career planning process itself. This involved developing goal setting skills, locating employment opportunities within the desired field, writing resumes, and the interview process. Individual factors consisted of familial and community obligations. The level of an individual's acculturation also was found to play a role in vocational challenges. A higher level of acculturation was found to be associated with fewer incidences of cultural difficulties but an increased need for obtaining career information as well as solidifying a vocational identity. They also found that international students were less likely to seek counseling assistance, although they tended to be at a higher risk of significant population-specific vocational obstacles (e.g. networking perceived as nepotism). Crockett and Hays suggested more specialized career counseling available of college campuses.
It is also important for universities to know whether it is necessary to provide separate career services for students with different cultural backgrounds. Poyrazli and Grahme (2007) not only examined educational barriers in their interviews with 15 international students, they also examined cultural barriers these students may face. The barriers faced in adjusting to the culture of their college campuses centered on meeting other international students as well as domestic students. One reason mentioned was of the lack of opportunity for casual interaction (e.g., planned activities). Another cause was the fact that there is a dearth of on-campus housing, therefore the majority of the students are commuters, and thus they are on campus only for classes. Another obstacle to cultural adjustment was the lack of connection with the community outside the campus. The authors suggested that the college work with its international student office or student activities office to plan social events to bring international and domestic students together socially.
Centralized Career Services for International Students
Currently, the decentralized model of career services offices poses several disadvantages in terms of helping international students meet their career goals. First, most career services professionals in academic units have little knowledge about immigration regulations pertaining to international students (Yang et al., 2002). Second, decentralized career services offices are already underfunded and understaffed as there is little resource they can devote to specifically assist international students. More centralized career services will greatly improve the quality and efficiency of the service for international students. International students will be served by staff who have the expertise in not only career development but also immigration regulations. They will also experience less bureaucracy as there is no need for them to bring documents back and forth between offices. A more consolidated international student career services office may also save some expenses for the university at large.
Specialized Trainings for Decentralized Career Services Offices
Due to the historical facts that some academic units are bonded to decentralized career services model for various reasons (e.g., missions, funding, staffing), specialized training is recommended for the career services professionals in those offices to study the complexities of international student career development. The training can be organized by international services offices and should not only focus on immigration regulations, but also cultural perspectives regarding employment in the U.S. Career services professionals should understand that international students face additional challenges in the job searching process such as communication barriers or unfamiliarity of the U.S. culture (Sangganjanavanich et al., 2011). The recommendation for specialized trainings may also be viewed as a less radical change in the university which may receive fewer resistances from the already established system.
Designated Career Services Liaisons with International Services Offices
Following the previous recommendation, each decentralized career services office can appoint a staff member to serve as an international services offices. The liaison will serve as the point person to communicate with international services offices as well as to educate other staff on some general concerns which international students have. This recommendation requires minimal extra financial resource from the department and can promote career services professionals' knowledge about hiring foreign workers in the U.S.
More Individualized Career Counseling Appointments
Currently, both domestic and international students can schedule one-on-one career counseling appointments with career services professionals in most universities across the U.S. (although the availability greatly differs among schools). However, due to the lack of human and financial resources, most of the students are not able to establish deep, personal relationships with career services professionals (Wedding, McCartney, & Currey, 2009). Moreover, as discussed previously, many career services professionals do not understand the unique challenges which international students face. It is suggested that international students should receive additional attention in terms of career development. However, the current constraint on funding across the departments may likely hinder the chance of hiring more Career services professionals to serve the international student population.
Building Better Relationships with International Student-Friendly Employers
Some industries (e.g., IT, finance) and companies (e.g., Microsoft, Deloitte) are more inclined to hire international students than the others (Yang et al., 2002). The university should build better relationships with those international student-friendly employers. For instance, the university may seek opportunities to establish cooperative education (commonly known as 'co-op') programs with its industrial partners. Under co-op programs, international students can earn academic credits from the university as well as gain internship experiences and stipends from companies through CPT. Aside from co-op programs, the university can be intentional in inviting international student-friendly employers to host recruiting sessions and interviews on campus. Such sessions will provide international students with not only the benefit of potential employment but also help them network and gain hands-on experience with real-world recruiters.
Developing International Student-Specific Career Development Materials
International students desire career development materials that are specifically tailored to them (Sangganjanavanich et al., 2011). Information about cultural differences (e.g., how to network with recruiters, how to dress up to attend interviews) is especially relevant, in that a lack of knowledge may negatively affect students' job search processes. International services offices can partner with experienced career services professionals to develop international student-specific career development materials such as website, handbooks, sample resumes, or social media.
With many career dreams and expectations in mind, international students leave their homelands seeking higher education in the U.S. The students have high needs for achievement, for they are often viewed as the cream of the crop from their home societies. To survive in the academic and private communities, they are required to negotiate the system, master the language, and access information. Assuming that the present university career services, primarily designed for domestic students, can meet the unique needs of international students is a serious ignorance of their concerns.
Many international students who had not heard of career counseling services came from countries without career services. Because of unfamiliarity and limited exposure, they seemed to lack the motivation to seek professional assistance. The career needs of the students are sometimes covert because of their lack of awareness of the services. In fact, the students' needs for counseling assistance, although quite underrepresented, is often greater than the needs of domestic students. The lack of familiarity with impersonal help resources plus language barriers can block the students from gaining career counseling and related services.
Acknowledging the fact that multiple factors influence international students' career plans and these plans vary by person, it seems clear that specialized career service support should be provided to the international student community. The students' career placement not only demands basic job search skills (i.e., resume and cover letter writing, searching potential employers, job interview), but also intertwines with their professional fields. Unless both areas are well balanced, the students' career needs remain unmet. To do so requires that career services professionals make greater efforts to provide and market wide-ranging services that will work globally for all students.
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