Across campus, students clad in suits run to and from interviews at the Office of Career Strategy on the third floor of 55 Whitney Ave. It is internship season, and students are busy browsing Yale’s Symplicity website and drafting plans for the summer.
For Yale College’s international students, there is an additional challenge to securing their dream summer internships. While international students are given student visas to support their time studying in the United States, they must also apply for Optional Practical Training — additional time to pursue work related to their fields of study — if they wish to work off-campus either during the school year, over summer breaks or after graduation. Students who are not pursuing degrees in STEM fields are allotted a total of 12 months of OPT to work in the United States, while STEM majors are eligible for a 17-month extension that amounts to 29 months of OPT in total.
But a district court judge in Washington, D.C. recently ruled in favor of a court case challenging the STEM extension, meaning that unless the Department of Homeland Security updates its policies, all international STEM students and recent graduates currently working in the United States under OPT could lose their authorization for extension on May 10. The May date is already a postponement from the original expiration date, which was slated for Feb. 12 until the judge extended it last month.
But even if new OPT extensions are issued, international students pursuing summer internships and work after graduation — both in and out of STEM fields — already face challenges that their American peers do not. If international students wish to work in the United States after graduation, they must allocate nine months of OPT to the time between graduation in May and April 1 of the next year, when their domestic employers become eligible to apply for work visas on their behalf. This leaves just three months for non-STEM students to pursue a summer internship during all of their undergraduate years. Even for STEM students, who would currently still have 20 months available, finding research opportunities that sponsor international students can be difficult.
“[The OPT] can be frustrating, because it requires you to think quite broadly about how to use your summers,” Director of the Office of International Students & Scholars Ann Kuhlman told the News. “It’s not a bad thing, but you can’t assume that you’ll work for U.S. companies during all three summers as an undergraduate.”
For most non-STEM majors, the three months are usually used for one internship during the summer after their junior year, Kuhlman added.
Applying for OPT also involves a financial cost: the application fee is $380 for pre-completion OPT, which students use for summer opportunities, and another $380 for post-completion OPT, which applies after graduation. In general, Kuhlman said, OISS ensures that Yale students applying for OPT are accepted, and the office has not had a problem with denials.
OISS head peer liaison and ethics, politics and economics major Nicola Soekoe ’16, who is from South Africa, said OPT limitations have not affected her personally, since she did not stay in the U.S. during her summer breaks and is not planning on staying after graduation. Nevertheless, Soekoe said OPT can be “a huge obstacle” for international students who hope to remain in the country.
STEM students face their own set of challenges, even with their extended OPT time. Many nationally funded undergraduate research programs are only available to U.S. nationals, according to OISS peer liaison and physics major Mari Kawakatsu ’17. Barbara Santiago ’17, a physics major from Brazil, also said she faces similar issues, noting that many Yale-specific grants are only for U.S. nationals as well.
“Since I’m a physics major, time constraints for my OPT never really bothered me, especially because I want to go into academia, meaning that I’ll get another student visa for graduate school,” Santiago said. “My main problem with figuring out my summers so far is the lack of research programs for non-U.S. citizens. The couple of universities that fund their own programs have restrictions for international students and disclose their decisions way too late for us to apply for the OPT on time for an off-campus internship, which is expensive and has to be done a couple of months in advance before the start of program.”
Applications for OPT can take up to 90 days to process.
For Alizeh Maqbool ’17, a physics major from Pakistan, the potential restrictions brought about by the recent ruling against the STEM OPT extension have greatly impacted her future plans. Initially, Maqbool said, she planned to work for around two years after graduation and then decide if she wants to attend graduate school. With the new court ruling, however, she now faces a shortened period of time to make her decision, which may not be enough for her to assess the challenges and benefits.
“I remember being told by senior international students since [the Orientation for International Students] to plan my summer and to choose my major while keeping in mind OPT restrictions,” Maqbool said. “To be told in junior year, however — when Yale students have already declared their majors — that the time period for which we are allowed to stay in the U.S. is reduced … is definitely disappointing. This applies particularly to STEM majors looking to work instead of heading straight to graduate school. In fact, several of my friends chose STEM majors only so that they could benefit from the extended STEM OPT period.”
Even after graduation, students face uncertainty about whether they will secure their work visas once the nine-month OPT period expires. Graduates who do not secure the work visa will have to leave the country.
“When I think of OPT limitations, it’s more about after graduation,” International Students’ Organization President Yuki Hayashi ’17 told the News. “[The three-month summer limit] becomes more of a default … but the choice of working here [after graduation] is kind of a gamble. You are guaranteed a year if you’re not in STEM, and then you don’t know what the odds are for staying in the U.S.”
Kuhlman said the U.S. caps the number of work visas given out every year. Typically, she said, just one out of three applicants receives a work visa, which creates an additional hurdle for students who wish to stay and work in the U.S. Still, Kuhlman added that many international students at Yale are able to overcome the obstacle because of the experiences and skills they bring to their jobs. Larger corporations are more successful at obtaining work visas for their employees than small nonprofit organizations and startups, she said, and they tend to have the flexibility of transferring employees from the U.S. to overseas branches.
Clarey Zhu ’16, an international student from China, said typically only large firms, like those in consulting, finance or technology, can afford to sponsor work visas, which can cost around $5,000 per employee.
“So international [students] I know are mostly going into these fields,” she said.
Hayashi emphasized how OPT can alter students’ calculations throughout their time at Yale.
“[OPT] is something that’s always on the back of every international student’s mind,” Hayashi said. “The fact that there is a realistic limitation definitely puts more weight to [international students’] decisions to work here. Sometimes people consider majoring in STEM. I don’t think a lot of American students consider things like these.”
OISS is hosting an OPT workshop on Thursday.