When a friend told me he didn’t understand why international students say they “have it harder,” I immediately answered: the job search process. Every semester, many Yale students jump into the frenzy of resumes and interviews to compete for a few coveted job offers. However, international students also jump into the abyss of the U.S. legal bureaucracy, which determines their professional and economic futures.
For internationals, the process is all about three letters: OPT. Optional Practical Training is a 12-month work period all international students are entitled to during and after their time at Yale. Every time we work in the U.S., the clock starts ticking. In general, an international student should use no more than 3 months of his OPT before graduation because you need at least 9 months after graduation for any employer to be interested in hiring you.
So what’s the catch? In sophomore and freshman summers, you have two options — either work abroad or study abroad, because a domestic internship will devour your precious OPT. In reality, many only have one option — if you want a great internship junior year, you should probably get one sophomore summer. But if you can only work outside the U.S., your options on Symplicity immediately plummet from almost 1000 internships to about 150. Your expenses may shoot up to $8,000 for two months.
Why is this problem specific to Yale? For one, costs are likely to be high since most of the international internships coordinated by the Office of Career Strategy are in the world’s most expensive cities: London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai. Moreover, these internships tend to be low-paid and unstructured, relative to their U.S. counterparts. In terms of funding, very few fellowships are available. Some students may turn to their International Summer Award, but that is also only valid for Yale-coordinated internships. To compound the problem, obtaining work visas is a big question mark for students with certain passports.
The nightmare does not end there. A big caveat to the OPT is the OPT STEM extension. If you’re a STEM major, you can get 24 months of extra work time. This is America basically saying: “If you can code and discover pharmaceutical drugs, please stay. But if you can write a great novel, please go home.” The STEM extension is an undeniable and tragic incentive to pursue STEM majors for the sake of employment opportunities, even if your inclinations lie elsewhere. Contrary to the idea that all foreign students, especially Asians, have stronger STEM backgrounds, this perverse incentive better explains international students’ affinity for STEM majors.
Having said that, international students have and will continue to power through the OPT labyrinth. A more significant source of frustration is the lack of Curriculum Practical Training at Yale, a handy alternative to the OPT. International students can work through CPT if a job is directly connected to their major and thus save their OPT for later. One of my peers at Smith College is a computer science major and acquired a tech internship at a major financial firm in New York during her sophomore summer, conveniently using her CPT. In contrast, Yale international students slave away to find opportunities abroad. There is simply no CPT at Yale: The University has no CPT opportunities or relevant arrangements with firms.
My sophomore summer plans were almost thwarted by last minute visa issues. If Yale had CPT, international students like me would be able to access many more opportunities and our professional paths would become decidedly less uncertain. Although the OPT is thorny and intractable, there are little things, like CPT, that Yale can invest in to provide some relief for international students. As you navigate your job search and complain about all its vagaries, remember that your international friends have it much harder.