Everyone knows how the song goes. “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” It’s the song they played at my convocation this year. It’s the song referenced in other songs about New York. It’s the story of survival and ingenuity, the story that has inspired generations to work from the bottom up. (It’s also the title of my blog.)
This idea that New York is only for the toughest and the fastest and the smartest is perpetuated by everyone: the media, the administration, even within ourselves. It’s almost a source of pride what people living in New York go through in a single day – finding not dog, but human excrement on our doorsteps; bathrooms without ventilation; forty-five minute waits for dinner – and it is seen as the survival of the mentally fittest. In the past, perhaps this was the case. If you hustled enough, you could make it.
But now, those looking to “make it” 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 of newly graduated students. Now add the complication of being an international student.
I, like the majority of international students studying in the US, hold F-1 status. This qualifies me for 12 months of Optional Practical Training (OPT) after graduation, allowing me to work for any employer full time within my field. Although the 12-month OPT time frame is relatively short, the most obvious problem is the part about finding a job: international graduates are given three months to find employment. This is essentially a death knell in today’s job market, where the unemployment rate amongst new grads is an astounding 53%. The three-month rule applies even to graduates who had been laid off within the 12-month period, something that affected the many international graduates during the lay-offs in 2009. The 12-month period (18-months for those in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM) is also a deterrent to organizations looking to hire an international student; smaller companies and non-profits often don’t have the budget or the resources to deal with sponsoring the graduate after the 12-month period has ended. As a result, many well-educated international students leave after years of specialized training at top American universities.
This is a real problem for America, and one that is getting the attention of employers and educators across the country. Recently, the presidents of 122 American universities, including the president of my alma mater, signed a petition to President Obama requesting a change in the current legislature. 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% of patents issued to the top 10% of American universities had been credited to foreign-born innovators, proof of the necessity for international students in the STEM fields. The policies as they currently stand are a barrier to keeping students in the country. The letter reads, “[A]fter we have trained and educated these future job creators, our antiquated immigration laws turn them away to work for our competitors in other countries.” While the petition specifically focuses on those in the engineering and computer science fields, it is important to note that innovation in other fields is also needed. Yes, the economy is struggling. The job market is anemic. But the current approach to job creation is short sighted and does not seem to point towards a full economic recovery.
The country’s greatest strength is in its history of immigration. Its best years of innovation and global dominance are also the years where the best and the brightest from other countries were given opportunities that weren’t available in their homelands. Today, the students who come to study at American universities are often the best and the brightest of their countries. Restrictive student visa policies do nothing to protect American job opportunities. The solution to a weak economy may well lie in one of the many international students departing the country after graduation. The current policy towards international students needs to be changed – it should give both businesses and graduates the chance to best utilize the training and skills of these individuals. Isn’t it in the country’s best interests to keep the talent they have spent time and resources on to train? In other countries such as Canada, Masters and Ph.D. graduates are granted residency to ensure these well-educated individuals stay. Shouldn’t the US strive to do the same?
And this is why I am leaving New York. I don’t want to stay in a country that refuses to acknowledge the vast amount of resources that they have. I see the increasing xenophobia, the political fear-mongering, the absolute denial that the world is changing. Maybe if I stayed here I could become something. But by now I don’t think I want to. Would you want to be the captain of a sinking ship?