“I’m looking forward to being in the office, meet-ing [my coworkers], interacting with [them] casual-ly and just being motivated by [them], but I feel like that’s going to be a bit harder when we work remotely,” Funaki said. “From day one, our students need to work with us, come see us, utilize our resources, work with OIS [and] work with the school-based, more specialized career services offices because they’re really the experts,” Kim said. In the meantime, international students are forced to play the waiting game — as the pandemic-focused government lulls in its response to student visas, students remain unsure of how their future will unfold. To be allowed to work in the United States, international students start the process by submitting an I-20 request, a form issued by schools that provides information on the student’s visa status, which is later sent to the USCIS office as a part of their OPT application. However, even after petitioning for a visa, there is no guarantee that it will be approved. The chance for selection in the lottery for the 2019-20 season was 32%, according to SGM Law Group, an immigration law firm. Each year, only 65,000 visas are available and awarded via the lottery system. Despite finding sponsors, Lau lost the lottery all three years of his OPT status. “I think international students should have the same chance [in the job search] because we also now don’t have the equal opportunity anymore to get our work visa or OPT,” Marten said. “USC, along with other universities and major national associations, is asking USCIS and other government agencies for more flexible policies on OPT during this emergency,” Tambascia said. “If any changes are announced, we’ll share this information with the international student community as soon as we have it.” A previous version of this article misspelled Yi Yang’s last name and incorrectly identified her doctoral program. The Daily Trojan regrets this error. “I remember feeling really lost.” she said. “I knew there’s OIS and then there’s career fairs, but I didn’t really know how to piece it together.” For students like Aramathanapon, who studied humanities, this limits job prospects even more. As a result, she decided to go to graduate school at the University of Washington to extend her time in the United States. According to a 2019 National Foundation for American Policy analysis, the denial rates for H-1B petitions increased to 24% in 2019 from 6% in 2015, partially due to USCIS requesting more information, including requiring guaranteed work assignments, from a rising number of employers. “Companies are also asking me, ‘[What] is the earliest start date you can give us?,’ [and] I’m like, ‘I’m graduating in May, but I can’t start till June 10,” Kadam said. “But given this situation, I don’t even know if I’ll be able to start on June 10.” An added challenge facing international students this semester is the spread of coronavirus that has impeded job prospects. BELLA MARTEN “During the past couple of years, we have seen more instances of denied OPT applications due to stringent enforcement of application rules and eligibility requirements,” said Tony Tambascia, executive director of OIS, in an email to the Daily Trojan. “Some of these denials were for seemingly minor technical errors made by applicants in the submission process, so we’re strongly advising that it’s more important than ever to follow all instructions exactly as stated when preparing and submitting their application.” International students with degrees in STEM fields can not only extend their employment for two years but are also more likely to be sponsored by employers. H-1B visas are only available to those in specialty occupations who can prove that they possess specific technical skills other American job applicants lack. Kadam, who started his job search last semester, said he has actively been applying to as many job positions as he can find online and communicating with users on LinkedIn in an attempt to mimic the networking opportunities that would have been available on campus had the semester continued in person. “Without grad school, there was pretty much no way for me to stay longer than a year,” Aramathanapon said. “It seemed like grad school or leave.” “I’m getting ready to go back home … I feel a combination of anger and disappointment after having spent so much time in the States,” Lau said. “I get one year to work in the U.S., and likely nobody else will hire me after or sponsor my visa after,” Marten said. “And then after my six years of work, I will have to go back to Germany and nothing applies really, anything that I have worked for. It will have to be all translated.” While the process for applying for OPT status remains the same despite the pandemic, USCIS still requires students to be physically present in the United States to be eligible to apply, making it difficult for students who have since returned home. For some students, even finding a company to sponsor them poses a challenge. The Career Center began hosting an international student career fair in 2017 to help students find employers that sponsor visas. Companies that have attended past fairs include Amazon, Adobe and CBS Interactive. Jennifer Kim, director of employment relations and research at the Career Center, acknowledged the many hurdles international students face in navigating the job market. She said students should begin their job search as early as possible to cultivate an edge before graduation. In 2017, President Donald Trump and his administration signed an executive order that encouraged employers to “hire American.” Since then, the USCIS has made the OPT and H-1B application process more difficult for international students by imposing more restrictive guidelines. With classes moved to a remote format to enforce social distancing and quarantine guidelines, many students, including 2019 graduate Linda Chen, have noticed a backlog in receiving necessary forms from OIS to complete visa applications. Aramthanapon ultimately found a job at an education nonprofit in San Francisco, where she worked for her year of OPT. But the company was unable to sponsor her at the end of the temporary employment period. STUDENT STORIES Aramathanpon said that while she found help with interviewing and resume writing at the Office of International Services and the USC Career Center, she ultimately felt overwhelmed during the job search. Having set her mind on her work in Japan, Funaki was initially nervous about whether her employer would terminate her upcoming position, but the company was quick to reassure her that she would still be employed. Like other graduating students, international students have also lost out on on-campus networking events and are finding that companies are reluctant to hire new employees amid the pandemic. Even with these efforts, Kadam has had little luck securing a job after graduation. The need to enroll in school to stay in the United States puts a financial burden on international students, who already feel they have to rack up more and higher degrees to fare better in the U.S. job market. H-1B lotteries favor those with master’s degrees, meaning that going through that extra phase of schooling doubles one’s chance of being selected. Bella Marten YI YANG OPT permits students to work in the United States for 12 months after earning their degree, and graduates from specific STEM fields listed on the USCIS website may apply for a two-year extension of their work. Marten is unsure if she will be able to remain in the U.S. post-OPT status. She said that it’s difficult to accept that she may have to return home after living in the United States for seven years. “I might feel a little bit more vulnerable, a little bit more conscious about my race and my backgrounds, but I want to take that as a learning opportunity to kind of grow,” Funaki said. Rio Funaki Yi Yang, a graduate student studying applied behavior analysis, is also facing an employment concern. An employee at Trojans with Autism, Yang will continue working at the company for three months before traveling overseas to pursue a doctoral program in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. With current delays in receiving Optional Practice Training documents from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, her current employment has been temporarily cut short. “[The company does] not have the ability to have me … during this period of time because [they are] also suffering from financial problems,” Yang said. “I have to temporarily resign from my company, until I get OPT approval from the government; then I will go back to work for the company again.” Rio Funaki, a senior majoring in linguistics, finds herself in a different situation compared to most international students because she already secured a job in Tokyo as an assistant associate at Bain & Company, a strategy consulting company, in September. Although she considered an offer from a Los Angeles company, the lottery visa process deterred her from considering the position since the company would have required her to work in their Japan office for one to two years before transferring to an office in the United States if she could not obtain the visa. Kadam said he believes OIS has been extremely helpful, providing timely updates on the process of I-20s. A large portion of the problem is USCIS itself: Many international students are still waiting for a reply informing them of when applications will be processed. Kadam, who has listed a June 10 work start date on his OPT application, is unsure of when he will receive approval. Like other graduating international students, Kadam, a graduate student from India studying engineering management, is facing roadblocks navigating job prospects before graduation May 15. Compared to U.S. students, international students have to take extra steps each year to search for career opportunities. They must turn in forms to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services months in advance to renew or change their visa status and find a job before the three-month deadline to secure employment approaches. Ma plans to extend his student visa by applying to the data science certificate program at UCLA to increase his prospects of staying in the United States instead of looking for job opportunities after graduation. With this plan, Ma hopes to give himself optimal time to search for work in the future and apply to a psychology doctorate program in the United States, a path that would be difficult to pursue if he returned to his home country after graduation, especially considering current coronavirus travel restrictions. Napa Aramthanapon, who is originally from Thailand, graduated in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in communication. She said that the job search process was difficult because employers wouldn’t easily grant interviews to international students. RIO FUNAKI Living in his off-campus apartment in Los Angeles, Niranjan Kadam has been spending most of his waking hours the last few weeks fervently searching and applying for job opportunities as the semester comes to a close. Bella Marten, a second-year graduate student from Germany studying strategic public relations, said the coronavirus places added pressure on international students. Marten, who applied for her Optional Practice Training through the Office of International Services in February and who is graduating this year, said she hopes the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services will relax OPT regulations, which prohibit more than 90 days of unemployment, during the economic downturn. Even so, Funaki acknowledged that she will likely be working remotely from her home country of Singapore for the duration of her employment if social distancing guidelines continue. Although it may not affect her line of work, Funaki said she’s concerned that the transition back into the office setting will be difficult after months of working online. But for students like Lau, who want to stay longer than the one-to-three years allowed by OPT, there’s the H-1B visa, which grants graduates up to six more years in the U.S. To qualify, an international worker must be sponsored by their employer, but most U.S. companies are hesitant to take a chance on employees from outside the United States. Since H-1B visas must be applied for by employers, the employing company must bear the cost of petitioning, which ranges from $1,000 to $4,000 depending on the size of the company. “If I can graduate in May, I can either stay here or go back to China, but since I plan to apply for a PhD, I definitely had to make sure [that after] graduation, I can stay here legally,” Ma said. “That’s why I [made the] decision to apply for [the UCLA program] so I can be here for another one or two years … During time staying here, I can also probably look at another job and apply for a new OPT.” “A lot of companies ask you right away if you require sponsorship, and you have to be honest, and then that’s a factor in the decision to even get an interview,” Aramthanapon said. “I gave them the material I wanted them to sign and bring back to me, but it’s taking over four weeks for them to get back to me,” Chen said. “They reply by email pretty quickly [saying] ‘We got your message … we’re processing based on the urgency of it.’” “[Students from the United States] don’t need to worry about whether they can be here legally or not,” said Hongen Ma, a graduate student from China studying applied behavior analysis. “We also have very limited time to make our decisions and think about whether [we] can stay here after graduation … So, I feel, for international students, we have very limited options, so it can be really challenging.” Yi Yang With USCIS policies remaining unchanged, USC is also awaiting a statement from the immigration agency regarding whether there will be issues in processing visa forms during this time. A quarter of USC’s student population is international, and yet this community is often underrepresented in the stories that are told at the University. In our special “A Long Way From Home” supplement issue, the Daily Trojan aims to spotlight the perspectives of international students who shape the culture of USC. Find all the stories here. Although she hasn’t personally experienced any discrimination from her peers at USC arising from pandemic fears, Funaki said she’s concerned as to whether her experience will change once she starts her job. Before graduating from USC in 2017, Benny Lau, a computer science and business administration major, found a job as a software engineer at a payroll company. But for international students after graduation, employment does not guarantee a stay in the United States. For three years, Lau failed to secure a work visa and, now that his OPT is ending, he will have to pack up his apartment and return home to Hong Kong in July. When international students graduate and stay in the United States to work, they have finite options for work visas. For short term employment — one to three years — they can apply for Optional Practice Training, an application that allows international students to pursue job prospects in their field that the government must approve as an extension of their student visa. Kim said international students should try not to get discouraged during the job search, as they are valuable assets to U.S. companies. “Our international students are uniquely positioned to offer their cultural diversity, their language skills, their unique perspective,” Kim said. “They came to the States, and they’ve had to acclimate to a new culture and a new country, so they’re very adaptable.” After submitting her I-20 request to USC in March and being asked to resubmit the request in early April because of missing documentation, Yang received her I-20 in mid-April and quickly mailed the form and required documents to USCIS for her OPT application. Still waiting for approval, Yang doesn’t expect to receive the work visa until June. Although Yang is not too worried about the financial loss from leaving her job, since her family in China is supporting her during this time, she said she believes that international students are not the only group vulnerable during this time, with economic insecurity occurring at a global scale. “I think people all over the world have problems finding jobs and have financial problems to some degree,” Yang said. “I think we don’t always have to think of our international students as a vulnerable part of this population.” “Initially, it was difficult to get a job for my major, but now with this pandemic it’s gotten worse because now so many companies that have been hiring … are currently laying off or holding up positions that were open,” Kadam said. Read more about how international students adjust to USC here.