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Mirchandani '15: Junior year internship hunt: international edition

I am not a fan of the spring semester. Sure, it brings sunshine, designated days of revelry with Spring Weekend and podgy squirrels that are sights to behold as they scour campus for Ratty leftovers. But spring semester is also when the real world begins to loom large for juniors as they embark on their summer internship hunt. For industries from consulting and banking to software engineering, the junior year internship often translates into a full-time offer from a company.

One group of students is particularly paranoid in the internship search. The international, non-American citizen students are a fascinating species, with their often climatically dysfunctional dress sense. But they are as equally Brunonian as any American student. Most international students do not have U.S. passports. So while their American counterparts can, for all intents and purposes, remain unemployed indefinitely, visa constraints force international students to alight at the next stop, whether they have found employment or not.

This makes the junior year summer internship all the more burdensome. But what strikes me as troublesome is not the burden, but the timing of it. Why must the fate of where non-American students live be sealed a whole year before graduation on the basis of their junior year internship? Can companies do anything to alleviate this situation?

What non-U.S. citizen students receive upon graduation is essentially a time bomb disguised as a glossy diploma. Optional Practical Training, or OPT, is attached to students with F-1 visas that have granted them a comfortable existence in the United States. The OPT is a 12-month period, or 17-month period for STEM majors, during which they must find employment in the field of their major. At the end of this time, they must acquire a work visa to stay in the United States any longer, which is possible only if an employer sponsors them. If unable to do so, they have to bid adieu to the land of bacon-flavored everything and the free.

Despite the economic downturn, many international students wish to work in the United States upon graduation and feel the pressure of this time bomb. “Even if Asia is booming, the industries I want to work for are still more established in the U.S. — therefore, I will be able to learn the most from working in the States compared to a new office back home,” Shengjie Zhou ’15, who is studying applied math-economics, wrote in a message to me.

It is more work for companies to hire internationals like Shengjie — they must go through the paperwork of sponsoring her work visa, which they will only be willing to do once they’re completely sold on her capabilities. The junior year internship is the best and perhaps the only chance international students have to convince a company they are worth the effort.

It is often only larger companies that have the capability to follow through with this complex process, which makes brand names so much more important to international students. Anamta Farook ’14, from Dubai, followed her dream by interning with the Indian government during her junior summer but told me she realized the disadvantage that put her at as she seeks jobs in the United States, competing against former company interns for the same positions or against American citizens who do not require the hassle of visa sponsorship.

The problem here is not the United States’ citizenship laws but the importance some companies give to the junior year internship as a transition into a post-graduation job. At the outset, this definitely seems like an unjust system for the recently graduated 4.0 GPA economics-physics-computer science non-American citizen who is not backed by such an internship experience. We are accustomed to the utopia of American colleges — opportunities are yours irrespective of your citizenship. But graduation marks the point you are expected to become a contributing member of society, a fair expectation after the number of years you have spent building a valuable skill set.

Yes, America is a land of immigrants, but simply having migrated here isn’t enough to claim you belong. You need to prove your mettle and show you have something to contribute before America can call you her own.

The politics of citizenship are much more complex than the context of non-American college graduates looking for ways to prolong their stay in this land of opportunity, as glossed over here. The question of citizenship by virtue of birthplace would call for a whole new column, if not a thesis. But while petitioning for changes in citizenship laws may be a solution to the internship problem, it isn’t the most feasible one. Instead, perhaps companies of certain industries should stop giving the junior year summer internship so much weight when determining full-time employment after graduation.

The summer internship is a way for students to explore potential career paths, to dabble in what cannot be dabbled in once they are responsible for putting their own food on the table. It should be an end in itself, but treating it as the only path to full-time employment makes it a means to end. For many companies, an internship program is essentially a 10-week interview, which is great for them but not for the students who are constantly on edge to perform. By adopting this approach, companies are further unleveling the already rocky playing field for non-U.S. students who do not secure a stellar summer internship. They give up all hope of employment and living in the United States before they were even supposed to have started hoping.

If the junior year summer internship did not have this weight attached, not only would there be less pressure on all students, but non-U.S. citizens would have some more time before their fate was sealed. Not getting that high-flying banking internship this summer doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be high flying back home after graduation. Rather, it means you stand as good or as bad a shot at your dream job upon graduation irrespective of where you work this summer. Then, the only battle left to fight is the one for citizenship.

De-emphasizing the role of the junior summer internship in securing a full-time job would elicit much complaint from non-U.S. and U.S. citizens alike who are lucky enough to land the ideal summer internship at their dream company. Why should they not be permitted the assurance that no matter how badly senioritis affects them, they will have a future source of income thanks to their past performance?

But I don’t think they have cause for concern. If they had what it takes to land an internship junior year, who’s to say they cannot impress the company again a year later? Does the Super Mario Bros. video game champ lose all finger dexterity when the reset button is hit? I think not.

If you wish to live and work in the United States, American citizenship is undoubtedly a privilege — one that you have no control over, though. Yes, it is unfair that a company may hire the U.S. citizen over the international one, though both may be equally capable. But this is a situation that should be dealt with upon graduation, not more than a year before it during junior spring.

Please submit your resume and cover letter to ria_mirchandani@brown.edu. Your thoughts on this matter are an acceptable alternative.



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