Short-sighted US driving out brightest foreign graduates

Victoria Sung says current laws make it almost impossible to find a job

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 1:21am

Last year, I left New York after living and studying there to obtain my master's. I loved the city, its people, its frenetic pace, vibrant history, eccentric characters and raw energy, but when it came to leaving, I knew I had made the right choice.

Those looking to survive in the US have to deal with an excruciating job search and, in the case of New York, rent that grows exponentially each year. This is the reality for newly graduated students. Now add the complication of being an international student.

The response from some Americans was vitriolic, many telling me to return to home

Like most international students in the US, I held "F-1" status, which qualified me for 12 months of Optional Practical Training after graduation, allowing me to work full-time for any employer in my field. But international graduates are given only three months to find employment, which is essentially a death knell in today's job market, where the unemployment rate among new graduates is 53 per cent.

The 12-month period (18 months for those in a science, technology, engineering and maths programme) is a deterrent to organisations looking to hire an international student; smaller companies and non-profits often don't have the budget or resources to sponsor the graduate after the 12 months. As a result, many students leave after years of specialised training at top American universities.

This is a real problem that is at last getting the attention of employers and educators. Last year, the presidents of 122 American universities, including my alma mater, signed a petition to President Barack Obama requesting a change in the legislation. The letter calls for the administration to amend the laws that often give students no choice but to return home after their education is completed.

The universities claim that international students provide much of the fuel needed for innovative thinking - according to the petition, 75 per cent of patents issued to the top 10 per cent of American universities had been credited to foreign-born innovators. The letter says: "After we have trained and educated these future job creators, our antiquated immigration laws turn them away to work for our competitors in other countries."

The university presidents seem to understand that the students who come to their schools are often the best and the brightest of their countries.

When I initially wrote about this issue on my blog, the response from some Americans was vitriolic, many telling me to return to my home country and accusing me of "buying" my degree. Some even spoke about how immigrants were "stealing" good American jobs.

It seems like there is a knee-jerk reaction to migration to America, even if it is legal, and it has been getting worse. Since the Boston marathon bombings, the US has tightened its international student policy, including airport checks and stricter verification of visas.

This does nothing to protect American job opportunities. The solution to a weak economy may well lie with one of the many international students leaving the country. Isn't it in the country's best interests to keep the talent they have spent time and resources on to train?

The fear and uncertainty surrounding the unknown is understandable, given recent events and an unstable economy. But the current attitude towards international students in America is short-sighted. And that is why I chose to leave New York, even though I admire the city and its people. It is the country's policy that I do not want to support, or a government that panders to fear-mongering and ignorance.

I only hope that other places, including Hong Kong, have the foresight to keep bright young minds engaged in their societies, to bring about positive change using their education, intellect and enthusiasm.

Victoria Sung holds a master's degree in media, culture and communications from New York University and is the founder of Meanwhile in China