What does the term "paid internships" mean for international students?

If you study anything but STEM, spoiler: there's no winning

March greeted everyone with NFL’s Jane Slater’s take that unpaid internships is something that college students should all do to “pay your dues”. Many replies to that tweet rightfully pointed out how unpaid internships deepen the structural inequalities in society and favour the privileged. And also, just because someone can work for free, it doesn’t mean they should.

Of the comments that I read, I didn’t see anyone address the challenges faced by international students when it comes to paid internships. Obtaining a work visa post-graduation is already enough of a challenge given that the most common status—H-1B—has been distributed via lottery for the last several years. What I’ve found is that a lot of people do not realize that working as a foreign person in the U.S.—whether paid or unpaid—has its own unique set of obstacles.

Where countries, such as France and Canada, provide a baked-in pathway for foreign students to work off campus with their visa statuses upon admission into the country, the U.S. does not. International students in the U.S. are allowed to work on campus with their affiliated university without a hitch (barring the logistical aspects of filing for tax withholding if there is a treaty or obtaining a social security number). However, to work off campus—and be paid—there is a lot of red tape to consider and possible expenses and tradeoffs.

And here’s the usual disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. If you need of help with your immigration status, please retain proper counsel.

How do international students partake in paid internships?

If you are a full-time student with an F-1 status (student visa), there are two common options when it comes to paid internships in the U.S. Both pathways share a similarity: the “training” must relate directly to the student’s major area of study. There is some subjectivity on what constitutes as “relating” directly, but the onus of justification on the student’s part is always there.

The two forms of practical training for F-1s are known as follows:

Essentially Paying to Work

With CPT, the training is considered to be a part of the school’s curriculum. In other words, it is often tied to school credit, which you have to pay for. Given that international students are not able to work off campus to support themselves apart from what I’ve noted above and that on campus jobs are not as abundant as one would think, this is quite the pickle of a situation.

I only see two benefits to using CPT (as opposed to pre-completion OPT):

  • All post-completion OPT time is preserved

  • No need for authorization from USCIS (meaning, it can be enacted very quickly via the school’s office of global services); OPT must be authorized by USCIS

The cons are numerous, but here are my three key ones.

  • You’re essentially paying to work, and hopefully recouping that loss and perhaps eking out a meagre income

  • One year of full-time CPT eliminates a student’s eligibility for OPT (meaning that you will have to count your internships carefully)

  • In order to activate CPT, you need to have secured the job beforehand

Not to mention, with CPT, you most likely have to educate your employer. I’ve had my fair share of prospective employers who had no idea what CPT was. One remarkable experience that I can recall was when HR requested that my employer find a different applicant to pursue because HR did not want to “fill out another piece of documentation.”

With the way the immigration policy for F-1 students is set up, international students who are not in STEM-focused programs (which I will get to) benefit more from the broken system of unpaid non-credit bearing internships. It’s confounding that international students are trapped between a rock and a hard place of not being paid for your time vs. being paid with money that you are handing back to the school.

Running the Clock

For every higher education level attained, international students are granted 12 months of OPT authorization. (And to clarify, it’s only granted for each higher level. You cannot have a second round of 12-month authorization if you complete a second BA; you must complete an MA or higher to get another round of authorization) A year’s worth of work authorization is not a lot, especially when considering you’ll have just graduated and have to find a job (which you will quickly notice that companies stating that they “do not sponsor” is a pretty common reply to one’s application). The clock starts ticking not when you find work, but rather, when the ability to work is granted—you can be unemployed and time will be running out to secure your next move.

Whether or not to use your OPT before (i.e. pre-completion) you graduate becomes a betting game. The 12 months can be used before or after completing your studies; however, you don’t want to spend all that time getting paid to intern because you will run out of time fairly quickly and not be able find an employer that can sponsor you for an H-1B visa. And remember, the H-1B is only filed once a year, as opposed to a rolling basis (which is the case for all other categories).

The exception to the rule of a year’s worth of work authorization is if you are pursuing a degree that is considered to have a STEM focus. Those in STEM are granted 24 additional months. Yes, you read that correctly: two whole additional years. Not only does that mean = STEM-focused international students have triple the amount of time at their disposal (which is why you see a higher % of international students having paid internships in Silicon Valley vs. the humanities), but also it means two more H-1B lottery opportunities. These international students have the luxury to spend their pre-completion work authorization on getting paid for their contributions at their respective internships, without having to fork over some of that money to the school or having to worry about running out of time on their visa—which is the way it should be for all international students.

So yeah, having to weigh these pros and cons as a twenty-something year old sucks. I don’t know anyone who, at twenty, had an idea of how hard current immigration policy makes it to not only be acknowledged for your monetary worth but also to have an opportunity to live the so-called “American dream”.

What international students need

Fundamentally, I believe all internships should be paid, but I do have to assert that international students get the short end of the stick.

What we need is actual immigration reform that does not forget about those who are coming to the U.S. to study. The current proposed bill—The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021—does not address any of what I’ve explained above. Time and again, international students are left behind when it comes to attempts at making immigration policy a priority.

The 24-month STEM OPT extension was a big step forward in giving foreign talent a fair chance when it was made Final Rule in 2016 (previously, the extension established in 2008 was only 17 months); however, we cannot continue to devalue other fields of study and penalize international students for such. This continued denial that studying the humanities has any value is obscene and wrong.

The 36 total months of OPT should be made available to all international students completing a level of higher education in the States. Especially given that there hasn’t been a revision to guest worker programs or H-1B allotment in decades, the change has to be made elsewhere—and we should start here, at the very beginning, instead of only continuing to patch the problem at the end of the road (a recent example being the bipartisan bill to end country caps).

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