From textbooks to applications: How international students struggle to land jobs

Each year, thousands of international students pack their lives into suitcases and cross the world in search of better opportunities in the United States. Florida International University is a magnet for many of these students. Its student body includes over 4,000 and countless others as alumni.

“I think this is the land of opportunity,” says Moises Kornbluth, an FIU alumnus from Venezuela and now a Master’s candidate in Science and Information Systems.  “I could have a career here that could benefit me in the future, and I saw the opportunity and I took it.”

Many students think the same way as Kornbluth. After all, the American Dream still burns around the globe. It brings over 1 million students annually to schools throughout the U.S.

The process is difficult from the start. While U.S. students grapple only with applications and standardized tests, international students face another set of tasks. They must navigate English proficiency exams and secure student visas.

And while many U.S. students compete for a wide range of scholarships, international students with visa restrictions often face a limited pool of financial aid options.

“I wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” says Nicolas Olórtegui Cruzante, a senior at FIU from Peru who graduates Summer ‘24. “Leaving your country really makes you mature; you have to be independent, give away everything you have and start from zero.”

Their troubles don’t end once they’ve acquired the visa. That is just the beginning. What follows is a similar journey for all: three to four years of college, midterms and finals, essays and projects. But as graduation approaches, international students face another unique challenge: a more difficult hunt for a job. 

While their domestic peers can apply to a wide range of positions, international students navigate a much narrower path due to visa restrictions. 

“I have friends who study in Canada or Europe and can work like regular citizens,” says Olórtegui. “It just doesn’t happen here. You can only work at campus, and only for 20 hours a week.”

On-campus employment or jobs authorized under specific visa categories become their primary options. This limited pool can be fiercely competitive, and even if a student secures a job, the wages may fall short of those available to U.S. citizens and residents.

While resident students can apply to various different opportunities and make a good wage, international students sometimes fall because others can build stronger resumes due to fewer visa-related limitations. In a competitive job market, lack of experience can be detrimental to a student’s chance at getting a good job.

“That whole process is difficult, first you need to find a job,” explains Daniel Nuñez, an FIU ‘22 alumni from Venezuela. “Being an international student, you need to find a job that offers sponsorship, and the moment you say you want that, a lot of doors close.”

What follows graduation for many is a stressful few months of job hunting. But as difficult as the job market is for U.S. residents, deadlines are even tighter for international students.

“As soon as they [companies] hear international students, it’s a turn off for them,” explains Olórtegui. “It’s frustrating, for international students.”

To stay in the U.S., F-1 visa students can opt to take part in Optional Practical Training (OPT), a program that allows students to gain practical work experience directly related to their field of study after graduation. 

OPT includes various restrictions that make it quite difficult. 

In order to qualify for OPT, the applicant must find a job three months after graduation. In the current market, the time constraints make it a harder journey for these students. 

Oftentimes, students find themselves working whatever job they can land, even if it’s far away from their desired career, and with no promise of a sponsorship down the line. The choices are slim. Either find a job that will take you, or pack your bags and head back home. 

“It was tough, undervaluing yourself, all the work that you put in already through your whole school program, and at the end of the day, you know you can do more than that, but you have to do it to maintain the OPT,” Nuñez says.

Students find themselves working low-paying jobs or even with contractor positions, ways that companies can hire these students, but take no responsibility for their working status.

This leaves a large and powerful workforce completely untapped. In 2023 alone, international students contributed over $40 billion to the U.S. economy (NAFSA).

“I was working because I needed the money,” explains Nuñez. “I wanted to look for another job, but I had to put all my focus on this job, because if you get fired, you lose what you need to stay in the U.S.”

FIU prides itself on having one of the most successful programs for international students. Yet, the resources the university offers may not be adequate enough to address the challenges international students face. Without ample adjustments, these resources may not fully equip international students for success in the job market or their academic pursuits.

“FIU should develop a Job Fair that specifically caters to international students,” says Olórtegui. “By using their connections to put together this event, us international students have a better shot at being taken seriously.”

Jonathan Casaverde Maimon is a senior majoring in Digital Communications with a track in Digital Journalism as well as a minor in International Relations. When they graduate, they plan on obtaining a master’s in political communications and continuing to work in Washington DC.