World Citizen: Getting somewhere

BY LU SHEN | OCTOBER 09, 2013 5:00 AM

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Like every international student, I have been asked a million times: do you want to stay in the States or do you want to return to your home country after graduation?

It’s a difficult question for me — and, as it turns out, for a lot of other Chinese students as well. From my perspective, I would love to stay in the United States. But at the same time it’s difficult for tens of thousands of international students such as me to secure jobs and working visas.

Since my arrival in the United States, the conventional wisdom is that for foreign nationals, the likelihood of getting a job in this country with a degree in journalism is slim. And yet, the idea of going back to China and working as a journalist there had terrified me so much that I didn’t want to think about it.

So the answer simply became:  “I want to go to graduate school here.” But truthfully, I was never sure how much I really wanted to continue studying right after college.  And so despite the tough decisions ahead, I simply chose avoidance. Until now – because I’m a senior and will finally have to make the choice: do I look for a job, or do I prepare for the GRE?

I’m not the only person worrying about securing a job in the United States and, more importantly, obtaining a working visa.

A 2009 national study titled “Losing the World’s Best and Brightest” found that 54 percent of Chinese students would like to stay in the United States for a few years after graduation “if given a choice.” But for most foreigners, there was no choice given. The research shows that 85 percent of the Chinese worried about obtaining H-1B visas. Roughly 76 percent of Chinese worried about getting jobs.

Garry Klein, the director of program assessment and research at the University of Iowa Pomerantz Career Center, said roughly 15 percent of U.S. employers hire foreign nationals, including international students, meaning these organizations are willing to sponsor H-1B working visas for those people they value.

But there are far more people who would like to work in the States than the H-1B visas granted.

Around 764,495 international students were enrolled at American universities during the 2011-12 academic year. Roughly 40 percent of the 194,029 Chinese students were undergraduate students, according to a recent report by the Institute of International Education.

There are certain fields in which Chinese students are more qualified than U.S. residents, and thus, it is easier for them to stay on in the United States because the country needs them badly, Klein said, referring to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.

“The employers are hiring the best their money can buy,” he said.

The National Foundation for American Policy reported in July that international graduate students account for 70 percent of full-time graduate students in electrical engineering, 63 percent in computer science, and 60 percent in industrial engineering. A pending Congress action would grant international students in STEM more visas to remain in the States, according to the report.

So job pictures look bleak in both countries — where do you want to be? I asked my fellow Chinese students.

Coincidentally, Chinese students are seeking master’s degrees in both China and the United States. to avoid being jobless. Here in Iowa City, Chinese students expect to gain more experiences in their fields if they hold a graduate degree. They are also hesitant to go back to China, concerned about the social instability, connection-driven society reality, and environmental problems that they cannot control yet can affect their livelihood in every way — which are opportunities in some people’s eyes.

Rao Fu and I were in the same natural-science class first semester of freshman year — later we dropped the class because it was a “disaster” for us.” She is the first person I talked to about job prospects after my arrival at Iowa, and later I found her again for this interview.

The senior’s plan after graduation is to attend graduate school for more in-depth knowledge to get closer to her job prospect — becoming a chartered financial analyst in America.

“It’s almost impossible [for an international student] to get a job in the U.S. with an undergraduate degree today,” said the finance and risk management & insurance major. “From what I’ve heard, none of the Chinese students who majored in finance in the College of Business got a job in the U.S. this year.”

Knowing that job prospects are also slim for us back home, Fu said, “You have to have some connections to get somewhere.”

The New York Times recently reported that the unemployment rate of people age 21 to 25 with college degrees was 16 percent, while only 4 percent of those who only get an elementary-school level education are unemployed, because China’s manufacturing-driven economy has a persistent demand for blue-collar workers.

Whether overseas students with degrees from recognized American universities have brighter job prospects in China is unknown, but are those who have invested significant amount of money and time in their education willing to be blue-collar workers if they cannot secure white-collar jobs?

Fu, who calls herself “a feminist and a cynic,” said the reason she does not want to go return home in at least the next five years is that she is “in the opposite direction of the social development in China.”

A more direct reason, she said, is “life is easier here.” She would like to earn more money to pay her mom back for the cost of her studies in the United States.

“The employment system is incomplete in China,” Fu said, a daughter of local government officials in Henan Province. “Further, I’ve heard enough about political struggles and bureaucratic chaos in Chinese companies. Those would irritate me to death if I were there.”

However, Fu, whose 22nd birthday wish was that China  will become more democratic, said eventually, she will return home, and she hopes to do something for her country when she has the ability to do so.

“I love my culture, and I think Chinese people are lovely,” Fu said. “I believe China will become a democracy some day. As long as I am not starving to death, I sure will do something for China, even if it’s a tiniest bit.”

Bo Wang, a finance and art major and Henan native, the same province Fu comes from, has a different plan — she hopes to live in the United States and eventually become an American citizen.

“I never want to return to China after graduation; I didn’t leave myself a way out the moment I [left] for the U.S. three years ago,” Wang said unhesitatingly.

Wang, who possesses the goal of working with a nongovernmental organization in America to help poor people with their finances, said she is preparing to seek a master’s degree in finance. She hopes that she can equip herself little by little in the next few years of graduate study for landing a job in the United States – and admitted she didn’t think she could adjust to a life in China.

“I’m too idealistic and not sophisticated enough to know how things work in China,” she said.

That said, she claims not to mind if she were to lead a tough life with no prospects in America.

Wang said if she saw the poor people’s situations in China, she would feel helpless, because she does not think she will be able to help them without government guarantees. But in America, she said, she might be able to help the poor with her skills and abilities due to a healthier social-security system.

Her father supports Wang’s hopes of staying in the States and eventually getting a U.S. passport.

“My dad had wanted me to become an American citizen before he sent me to study abroad,” Wang said, who noted she does not have the sense of national boundaries. “He knew that I’m too idealistic to live in China. He thought that if one day I got into trouble while my parents were not in the world, the American government might protect me.”

She said if she were not able to stay in the United States on her own, her father would by all means help her. But she does not want to rely on his support.

“I don’t want to get to the point where I have to stay on in the States with his help,” said Wang, who this past summer made about 300 cups of smoothies every shift at the Tropical Smoothies in the Recreation & Wellness Center.

Another student I met during this project is Yue Lei, who would one day like to work in the United States. I stopped him outside the Bread Garden Market while having lunch there.

The psychology and economics major has two years left in college, and he has decided to pursue a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology after graduation, knowing that getting an H1-B work visa is almost mission-impossible for an international college graduate.

The concern of finding work right away back in China is one of the factors that contributed to his decision to pursue a Ph.D. here, Lei said.

However, he said, he is open to any option that will suit his future seven years later after he gets a Ph.D.

“I used to have a strong desire for staying in America,” said Lei, who said he is not worried about his job prospects in either country after he gets a Ph.D. “But later, I started to realize that it’s not about if I want to be somewhere, it’s about which place suits my personal and career development, which is a result of multiple factors working together.”

UI junior Di Liu will not graduate from the UI until 2015, but he is preparing for the GMAT. He said that he would give himself three years to gain some work experience in the United States after finishing graduate study in finance if it would be possible. And he will move back home afterward.

“I’m the only child in my family,” said Liu, who said he still holds some feudalistic thoughts. “I would be an undutiful son if I were not going back home, since my parents won’t move to America.”

The 21-year-old also said he thinks it will be difficult for him to fit in society if he stayed in America, because he has lived in China for 18 years, where everything is familiar to him. In addition, he feels that working in America as a non-native speaker is disadvantageous and will limit his job opportunities.

Interestingly, the harsh realities that worry other people mean an opportunity for Liu.

“On one hand, I may help complete the Chinese financial system with my expertise,” said Liu, who said his goal is to eventually work at an investment bank. “On the other, if your parents are capable of supporting your study abroad, they must have some connections in China. Even if you can’t find a job, they might be able to get you one, allowing you to start at a higher level, as opposed to starting from scratch in the U.S.”

A thousand people can give a thousand reasons whether they want to stay or to return home after graduation. Life is not easy anywhere. The hope is, the global economy will recover soon and China will become a better country, so that staying or returning will no longer be a tough question with so many factors that we cannot control to consider but purely a personal choice.

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