How To Get Work Experience on a Student Visa

How To Get Work Experience on a Student Visa

My roommate and I had one of those deep midnight conversations about life the other day, discussing how unprepared we felt for being “real” adults. We also talked about how it wasn’t strange that we had no work experience before coming to college. For both of our cultures and specific backgrounds, it was fine to just be a student and not work until graduation. Of course, there were exceptions. Some people took time off after high school to work and save money before going back to school. But, in general, it just wasn’t expected of us to work at sixteen. Whereas, for most of our friends who were domestic students, working in restaurants, fast food places, as baristas, babysitters, or any other kind of job was not uncommon at all.

Other students had been to all these academic summer schools or camps or worked throughout those high school summers. Then, during college, they’d done even more because they had the freedom to apply to any job they wanted.

The thing is, as international students, we don’t have the same opportunities that domestic students have to apply to any part-time jobs while studying. We’re here on a student visa, and most of us don’t have social security numbers. How do you even begin to fill out your resume?

If this is your first year as a student in the U.S. and you’re thinking about your professional future, here are some tips you should know about.

1. True, you can’t technically work at Starbucks to make money on a student visa, but you can apply for on-campus employment even in your first year.

There are way more jobs on campus than you probably think. Since my first language is Spanish, I worked as a Spanish tutor during my second year. I’d heard international students were allowed to work and get paid on campus, so I thought it’d be easy but even this entailed a little research.

Regardless of if you want to work on or off campus, the first thing you need to do is talk to your international advisor or officer. Usually, they will give you a short list of what you will need before you are able to legally work on campus and get paid for your work. It’s not very complicated, it just takes time. You will need to go get a social security number if you don’t have one, talk to your supervisor about your situation and fill out the appropriate paperwork. Getting your social security number will take a couple of weeks but they will often give you a temporary letter so you can start working as your card is being processed.

Overall, working on campus is a very convenient choice because your employer, since it is the university, will be considerate of your class schedule. It’s a lot more flexible, and you can easily do it before and after your classes. Moreover, it’s convenient if you are able to find a job on campus that is directly related to the department you’re studying in. For example, my roommate was able to get a job in the business school, which also allowed her to become closer to the faculty and find admirable mentors in the field she loves.

2. Unpaid Internships will open doors for you, so if you’re just interested in the work experience, send emails everywhere.

For some other majors, work on campus will simply not be as fulfilling because there are no opportunities that are related to that specific field of study. An example is my English major—while there were some opportunities in school clubs or the school newspaper, if I had wanted to try out the novel-publishing world, I would have had to look for unpaid internships off-campus. Technically the rule is you can’t get paid on a student visa off-campus, but there is nothing stopping you from trying things out just for the experience. As long as you’re not getting paid, you can do internships freely.

Do your research or ask faculty members about organizations in your city. And, be brave about this one. Look for open positions and ask if you could do it without pay, but also simply email the companies that interest you. One student know emailed a magazine and told them all she wanted to do was to intern and find out what happens behind the scenes because that was what she wanted to do in the future. She got a reply in a few weeks, and after a quick interview, they welcomed her with open arms.

As you’re a student, try out as many internships as you can. Even if you’re not getting paid, maybe when you do OPT they will already have such a strong impression of you that they will want to hire and pay you.

3. Paid Internships through CPT are possible, it’s just a bit of a process.

On that same line, there are ways to get paid through internships as well. The one I know is through CPT or Curricular Practical Training. There is not as much freedom as an unpaid internship because it is a type of training that you can only do if it is directly related to your degree. It’s basically an internship for credit as well since you would have to be registered for a course in your university that requires you to do some off-campus employment.

Some majors will have internships as requirements for their program of study. If yours doesn’t, I suggest talking to your academic advisor or some faculty member you know that can help you figure out if there is another way to make this work.

4. Volunteer! Join Clubs! Anything related to what you want to do professionally will help you build up your resume.

I’m not exaggerating when I say 90 percent of my resume is volunteering and clubs I joined on campus. But, through volunteering I was able to take on multiple leadership roles on campus and for campus events. Moreover, through a club that published a literary and visual arts magazine, I learned the details of what that process is and how much work it takes as a staff member. By my senior year, I was able to become co-editor of this magazine. Doesn’t that sound like a real job if I write it on my resume?

Even though it may seem like you have limited opportunities as an international student, and even though you are in some ways disadvantaged by that F visa, there are other ways to gain experience, both paid and unpaid.

And, if you’re looking for a job due to economic hardships, you can also seek work authorization from your school’s international office. It’s a bit complicated as your first option should be on-campus employment, but there are exceptions if that is not enough. Talk to the people in the international office, ask them questions, this is why they’re there. Talk to some international alumni from your university, I’m sure they’ll want to share their experiences. And don’t worry; whatever stress you have about finding a job or having a good resume, we’ve all been through it so if my roommate and I survived it, you will too. 

Wendy is an international student from Ecuador who just graduated from Seattle University with a double major in Creative Writing and Theatre. She’s excited to share some of the stories of things she’s learned in her time in the U.S.

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