While Hilda Doan was working on her master’s degree in biotechnology, she only had classes at night, giving her the whole day to do what she wanted. She joined Northeastern University’s club ultimate frisbee team, but soon found that even with her free schedule, she was unable to work to pay for the flights to tournaments.
“I almost felt like I had to choose between life, just like everyday living and paying rent, and playing ultimate,” she said via a Facebook phone call, “which to me was really sad because ultimate meant a lot to me.”
Doan, who finished her master’s degree last year, is from Toronto, Ontario in Canada, meaning that she was completing her degree while on a student visa in the United States. While she was happy to get the experience of studying in the U.S., visa regulations did not allow her to work outside of co-op.
International students at Northeastern University and other colleges study on a F1 visa, a visa issued to non-domestic students who are attending a college or university in the United States. This is different from the visa issued to foreign exchange students, which is a J1 visa. F1 students are permitted to apply for work authorization for off-campus jobs that are related to their program study or on-campus, non-work study jobs.
“It’s not like for American students or for domestic students who can just get any job any time and work as many hours as they want,” said Elena Gruzdeva, associate director of employment at Northeastern’s Office of Global Services. “For international students, they are limited … it has to be related to their program of study, and the number of hours may be very much limited.”
Dan Harrington, an immigration attorney in Boston, said there is a reason for the visa restrictions.
“It goes back to one of the biggest things in immigration, which is concern about U.S. workers,” he said in a phone interview. He says that although work visas for non-students are available, there are no visas for non-skilled work such as restaurant and retail jobs, which are the type of jobs that most full-time students are looking for.
According to the U.S. State Department, in the 2015 fiscal year, 644,233 F1 visas were given to students looking to study in the United States. To put that in perspective, the U.S. Census estimated the population of the city of Boston to be 667,137 in July 2015. The total number of international students in the country is much higher; according to the Institute of International Education, 1,043,839 students in higher education during the 2015-2016 school year came from another country. According to the Office of Global Services, 11,702 of those attended Northeastern, an increase of over 2,000 from the previous academic year.
International students like Doan struggle to make enough money for living expenses and spending, especially in a city like Boston where rent is high. It is also uncommon for international students to receive financial aid. They are ineligible for federal aid, and Northeastern does not provide need-based aid to international students.
If international students want to find work, they have three options: on-campus jobs, or two types of off-campus work, both related to their curriculum. On-campus jobs are limited to non-work study positions, and students can work no more than 20 hours per week.
On-campus jobs are also not guaranteed, as international students are competing with domestic students for the jobs. Shanta Poon-King, a second-year graduate student from Trinidad and Tobago, said that she had attempted to find one to make some money, but she never received any calls back, although she doesn’t believe that this was because of her visa status.
“If I was a citizen I could have gotten an off-campus job and got the extra cash I wanted, but since I’m not I had to wait it out until I was on co-op,” she said.
Off-campus jobs are divided into two categories: curricular practical training (CPT) and optional practical training (OPT). Co-op generally falls into the CPT category, which is full or part time work that is a required part of a student’s curriculum. OPT is also work related to the program of study, but is not a required part of the curriculum, and can be done during the program or after graduating. These categories are for all international students in the United States, not just those at Northeastern.
If students meet eligibility requirements for CPT, they also need to be careful about how much they use. If they work 365 days of full-time CPT, they become ineligible for any future OPT work.
“That’s (OPT) work authorization which 99 percent of our students like to have after graduation,” Gruzdeva said. “They want to work after they graduate and get that experience in the field in the U.S., so most students do not want to lose that opportunity.”
When looking for co-ops, international students are able to apply for most of the same jobs as domestic students, but can’t always use the experience to the full potential. Poon-King said that when she was applying for jobs, many companies asked whether she would require visa sponsorship, which she didn’t as a student, but would if she wanted to work for the company after finishing her degree.
“I think that’s what sort of hinders international students from getting jobs,” she said. “Even though when you’re on the F1 visa you’re entitled to work on co-op, I know a lot of students do co-op in hopes of getting a full time job.”
Doan also expressed this concern about her co-op experience. She said that while many American students used co-op as a way of progressing their career before graduating, “You couldn’t look at it like it was a career, you had to look at it like it was an experience, like how people go … to France for a summer or something like that, and I think that almost takes away from it.”
While in school, if a student is desperate for money, he or she can apply to find an off-campus, non-co-op job because of financial hardship. However, this is not easy to do. According to Harrington, students need to demonstrate that they have the money to pay their tuition before even receiving their student visa.
“International students have to pay 30 to 40 thousand dollars,” Harrington said. “If you have that in the bank and you are proving that, you can’t at the same time prove financial hardship.” Harrington said that in all his time working as an immigration attorney, he has never seen a student successfully prove financial hardship.
Because of this, it is very difficult for international students to make money. Harrington said that some try to find work under the table, but this is a violation of F1 regulations and if caught, they would lose their visa.
Doan is now in the process of applying for a work visa so that she can keep working at the company where she had her co-op. Although she is glad that she made it through her degree, she said that the process she had to go through could have been much better.
“I get it, you have to regulate how people come in and how they come out,” she said. “It’s just sometimes, some of the rules are really dumb!”