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Work Visas Confine International Students in U.S. Job Market

By Heng Shao, Crimson Staff Writer

Like many other Harvard seniors, Canadian student Sisi Pan ’11 plans to enter the U.S. workforce after graduation this spring.

After considering going back to her home country, Pan says she has ultimately decided to stay in the U.S. because of the better job opportunities in the States.

“Obviously, the Boston, New York, Philadelphia area is just rife with biotech start-up and pharmaceutical companies, and therefore rife with healthcare consulting companies,” says Pan, who will be working for Massachusetts-based healthcare consulting firm Putnam Associates. “That’s not really an opportunity I found too readily available in Canada.”

Yet a larger job pool does not necessarily translate into an easier job search. As an international student, Pan needed to find a company that not only appreciated her talent, but also was willing to sponsor H-1B visas, a temporary work permit for those with non-immigrant status.

“There were definitely a few firms that I was planning to pursue, but they specifically said they don’t sponsor visas,” Pan says.

In fact, one “big firm” Pan applied to, the name of which she prefers not to reveal, first accepted her application, but then declined it after they found out that she needed a H-1B visa.

According to the Harvard International Office, international students can be at a disadvantage during the job search process because many employers are reluctant to sponsor visas for international students—a hurdle which many of the 695 international students at Harvard may have to face if they choose to pursue employment in the U.S.


A. Cansu Aydede ’11 is lucky to be among those international students who have secured H-1B visa sponsorship. She will be working next year at Bridgewater Associates, a large investment firm which manages a $75 billion global investment fund. But Aydede acknowledges that visa sponsorship is frequently a headache for international students.

Students on F-1 student visas can remain in the U.S. for a 12-month period—known as Optional Practical Training—without acquiring a work visa.

Yet the Optional Practical Training period does not curb the difficulty of obtaining H-1B visas, according to Aydede. Only the large and resourceful firms can afford to sponsor H-1B, as the process is both time consuming and costly.

“Nobody hires you for [just 12] months, unless [the companies] are big enough, [or] they know that you are staying with them and are worth all the trouble of them going through the process [of getting the visa],” Aydede says.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service website, companies petitioning for H-1B must file a series of documents and pay a fee ranging from $825 to nearly $4,000.

In addition, the U.S. government currently caps the number of H-1B petitions at 65,000 per fiscal year. As of Jan. 26, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it has already received the maximum number of petitions and will no longer accept H-1B applications until next year.

“Not all firms that are willing to take on American students are willing to sponsor the H-1B, because they don’t have the resources,” says Anusha Tomar ’11, who will be working with McKinsey & Company. Although Tomar is sponsored by McKinsey, she says some of her international friends have encountered problems obtaining H-1B visa sponsorship.

When it comes to fields other than finance and consulting, the issue of H-1B sponsorship becomes even more salient. Students say that companies in the public sector and non-governmental organizations generally tend to be even less willing to invest money in sponsoring H-1B visa.

According to Aydede, many students with interests other than finance or consulting “don’t even apply” to jobs in the U.S. in their fields of interest.

“My impression is, if you are international, and you don’t want to go into finance or consulting, you are in trouble,” Aydede says.


L. Daphne Durham, a Harvard International Office advisor, suggests that students take advantage of Optional Practical Training when searching for post-graduation employment and H-1B sponsorship. Durham points out that students do not need to have a job offer in order to apply for the OPT, which can help them transition into the workforce after graduation.

“[OPT] gives students the chance to try out careers, and also companies the time to apply for H-1B,” Durham says. “It will help you feel more confident about yourself, because you can sell [OPT] to the company.”

Yet the Harvard International Office can only provide limited support when it comes to company sponsorship of the H-1B visa itself.

“We do sponsor outside attorneys who can provide information and give presentation on H-1B and green cards,” says Sharon Ladd, director of HIO, “But there’s not too much we can do because H-1B and green cards are all employer based.”

Students have to take a lot of initiative when it comes to securing a visa, says Robin Mount, director of the Office of Career Services.

“It is important to educate yourself about what options there are, to do research about the companies, to talk to them, and to know in what countries they have offices,” Mount says. “These things are difficult ... this is a tough economic time. Not every opportunity is open to everyone.”


Some international students say it would be helpful if the College provided more information about the difficulties of securing visa sponsorship.

“The HIO tries as much as possible to provide as much information for international students, but they don’t have enough talks,” Rumbidzai C. Mushavi ’12 says.

“They need to start talking about the issues that international students might run into a lot earlier than they choose to do right now,” she says. “You need to know what options are available to you.”

Mushavi suggests January term as a good time to host visa or OPT workshops, as a number of international students stay on campus during winter break.

Pan adds that it would be beneficial to hear more fellow international students’ experiences.

“OCS has so many info sessions, but from what I know, never ones with international students talking about their experience in finance or consulting. It would be helpful to have someone who has gone through the difficulties and struggles, and gotten their visa,” Pan says. “That would quell the fears of some people.”

In addition to peer information sharing, international students say they wish firms could make their policies on international recruitment more transparent.

“[The On-Campus Interview Program] is actually a good screening mechanism for companies who are willing to sponsor international students,” Aydede says. “If they are big enough to sponsor H-1B, they are big enough to go through the ‘trouble’ of OCI.”

Yet complete transparency may prove to be difficult, as companies looking for particular skill sets may make decisions about H-1B visa sponsorship on a case-by-case basis.

“Even as a Canadian, [where] culturally there isn’t a huge difference ... the visa is definitely an issue,” Pan says. “In fact, if you were from further away, it would almost seem more worth it. We are so close, but we still need to spend so much on sponsorship.”

—Staff writer Heng Shao can be reached at

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