Employment for international students in the U.S. is highly restrictive, which presents a major career development obstacle. During their first year, international students are not allowed to work off-campus in the United States. Throughout their enrollment, on-campus employment is limited to 20 hours per week when school is in session. After two semesters, international students can work off-campus, but under restrictions: off-campus work must be related to their major field of study and typically has to be through an academic internship. A cumulative total of 1 year of off-campus employment is what an international student has throughout their undergraduate enrollment. Upon graduation, international students can work for one year under a type of post-completion work authorization called Optional Practical Training (OPT). The work still has to be related to their major field of study. The one-year limit presents a challenge for employers, who find it difficult to employ someone for a long-term position if the potential employee might leave in only a year. After one year of OPT, international students who majored in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) field can apply for a 2-year STEM-OPT extension. To do this, the student must have a job offer from an e-verified organization.
The pre- and post-graduation work restrictions for international students do not just apply to formal/traditional employment. They extend to business as well; an international engaging in business activity outside off-campus work regulations is considered to be violating their status. After/during OPT or STEM-OPT extension, an international student may find an U.S. employer willing to sponsor them for a work visa. For this, the student may seek to undergo a change of status from a student visa to a work visa. Change of status is not a simple process for both the student and the potential employer, and approval is not guaranteed.
When they are outside the United States, both before and after graduation, international students require no U.S. authorization to engage in employment. However, travel costs, low wages, and other barriers may keep international students from pursuing employment in their home countries during their enrollment. By the time an international student is graduating, if they have not been home for several years, they find themselves at a double disadvantage: at home, they may experience reverse culture shock as the place they left has evolved in their absence. Additionally, during their absence, their career networks at home become ever more diminished. At the same time, the work regulations they face in the United States make it particularly difficult to find employment. According to a report produced by Education Rethink in 2022, only 31% of international students in the U.S. intend to stay in the U.S. for an undefined period after graduation. According to the report, this low number is, at least in part, because international students perceive the difficulty of attempting to establish careers in the U.S. after graduation.
Besides legal difficulties with establishing careers in the United States, there is also the larger social problem of brain drain, especially when talented human capital flows from developing countries to developed countries. ISPaSO proceeds from the view that individual students, their families, and their communities benefit the most when international students use their education and talents to contribute to human and economic development in their countries and regions around the world.
In light of the factors that hinder international students from establishing successful careers in their home countries, a systematic approach is needed to help students develop a good combination of career networks, experience, skills, and tools during their enrollment. Under normal circumstances, an international student should feel confident about career prospects in their home country by the time they graduate.