International students: Major determines career in the United States

Charlotte Chen got a job offer from a big public relations firm in Salt Lake City after being rejected from several companies because of her visa situation.
Charlotte Chen got a job offer from a public relations firm in Salt Lake City after being rejected from several companies because of her visa situation.

Seishi Yamagata, a native of Japan, always wanted to work in the United States, and now he can finally stop worrying. He received a job offer in the United States right before he graduated from BYU in June with a master’s degree in civil engineering.

“I really want to work here,” he said. “I want to have time with family.”

Many international students desire to work in the United States after graduating from college; however, employers hesitate to hire international students because of the limit and expense of their visas. Companies that are willing to sponsor employees’ work visas are usually big companies with sufficient funds. As a result, international students who want to work in the United States tend to choose majors that can secure job offerings in large companies, namely the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and related majors.

Reports from the Institute of International Education and Department of Commerce show that 42 percent of international students in the United States are STEM majors.

Derek Fan, a senior from Hong Kong majoring in mechanical engineering, said the working environment in his home country is not family friendly, as the hours are long and irregular.

“I heard there’s job security in the United States with a civil engineering major,” Yamagata said. “That’s why I chose it.”

Richard Ang, international placement director within the BYU University Career Services, said the major an international student chooses determines whether the student can get a job in the United States.

Ang said the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services grants working visas to international students based on the relevancy of one’s major to the offered job, and the most common type of working visa is the H-1B visa.

The H-1B visa is a temporary work visa employers file on behalf of the employee who has a job offer in a special occupation where the job duties require at least the knowledge and experience of a related bachelor’s degree. H-1B holders can legally work in the United States for three years and renew the visa once.

In order to assess applicants’ qualifications, Immigration Services refers to the Bureau of Labour Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook that lists the definition and required education of each occupation.

“If I were an international student with a political science major looking for a job,” Ang said, “what can I do with it? Nothing. It’s hard to define the major and the relevancy to the job.”

The limited quota available for H-1B visas each year is also an important push factor for international students to be STEM majors.

International students with an F-1 visa have a 12-month period of Optional Practical Training to work in fields related to their majors after they graduate in the United States. International students who are pursuing degrees included in the government-issued STEM Designated Degree Program List can extend their practical training to 17 months if they are employed by a government-verified employer after the normal 12-month period.

These 17 months can make a big difference to these international students.

While there are only 85,000 H-1B visas available each fiscal year, the Immigration Services received about 172,500 petitions in the past year. About 51 percent of applicants were rejected after the computer-generated random selection process. Rejected applicants have to go back to their home countries after their practical training.

With the 17-month practical training extension, STEM students can apply for a H-1B visa for the second time if they were rejected the first time.

“It’s a really good system for us STEM-major students,” Fan said. “I can work here for longer even if I could not get the H-1B.”

Non-STEM international students may face more challenges with job hunting in the United States.

Charlotte Chen, a BYU graduate from Singapore who majored in public relations, said many companies told her they were hesitant to hire her because of the visa situation.

“Some people may prefer to work for smaller or mid-size companies as compared to a big corporation,” said Chen, who is working for a public relations firm in Salt Lake City. “But as an Asian student, you don’t really have that choice if you want to be sponsored for a work visa.”

In spite of the difficulty, many international students in non-STEM majors still want to try.

Chen said the work experience in the United States is highly recognized in Asia, which can help her move forward in her career when she moves back to Singapore. She said American companies encourage creativity and innovation, and these skills are valuable in Asia, where creativity is often stifled.

Hyuna Yoon, a senior from South Korea majoring in graphic design, also wants to gain a few years of professional experience in the United States before returning to South Korea.

“It’s really hard to get a job for women in Korea,” Yoon said. “They prefer men. In order to have good career there, I should probably work here for a few years first.”

Yoon said she has faith that BYU’s graphic design program can get her a job in the United States.

“Since it’s already really hard to get a job in Korea anyways,” Yoon said. “I think I should just try to look for jobs here after I graduate.”

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