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How to Navigate Internships for International Students in the United States

by | Jun 8, 2021 | Student Life

Vanessa Silva has lived in five different countries, yet she never found a country to call home. Then, her parents gave her the choice at 16 to pick where she wanted to go to school and go to college. She chose to move to the United States and spend her senior year in Los Angeles, California.

Vanessa Silva selfie with a slight smile and yellow-hue filter
International student, Vanessa Silva

Then, when it came to the big college decision, she chose to attend Virginia Community College before transferring into West Virginia University. WVU is where she completed her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a concentration in international relations, comparative politics, and national security, and a minor in criminology. During her time as a student, she held a position on-campus as an assistant. Since she attempted to get an internship herself, she knows the process of getting an internship while being an international student.

Understanding the Different International Student Visas

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Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

Interning can be slightly more difficult for international students because of understanding the different visas and their capability to be employed.

F-1 Visa

With an F-1 visa, students can choose to do Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT).

Curricular Practical Training requires an application for authorization and an updated I-20 form. A student can only fill out an application after their first year of education. The internship opportunity must in their field of study. The internship must be for credit but can be an unpaid internship or a paid internship.

Silva came to the United States on an F-1 visa and looked into getting internships through the Optional Practical Training (OPT). This is for internships that are unrelated to a student’s field of study. The application is viewed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and costs about $500. Silva describes it as a work permit for international students.

After getting accepted, students are allowed to work part-time at internships of their choosing, outside of their academic program.

J-1 Visa

J-1 visas are more common for students who want to come to the United States to complete an internship. This is instead of the usual route of studying here, then getting an internship. But, this visa can also work for current students looking for work experience via internships. 

To work with a J-1 visa, you need written approval from a J-1 officer at an institution that is sponsoring you.  It also has to be related to your field of study. You can either be an intern or a trainee. 

J-1 visa interns are enrolled in a foreign college or graduated within the last 12 months. Then, they can work for 12 months with the visa as an intern. 

J-1 visa trainees have a degree and one year of work experience, or five years of work experience. Then, they can be trainees for 18 months. 

How to Start Looking for Internship Programs as an International Student

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Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

The best place to start is with a conversation with someone at your university’s international student services or career center. That way, you can get advice from experts on your exact situation. 

But after understanding your specific situation and abilities, these are great resources to go forward on your internship journey. 

  • The International Recruitment Exchange Services works to match international students to hospitality roles.
  • USEH International matches students with business-related internships
  • Spiritual Cultural Exchange arranges internships in a variety of fields such as communication, science, engineering, hospitality, and more. They are matched with a host company and can assist with sponsorships for visas. 

Since Silva graduated in December 2020, naturally the COVID-19 pandemic threw her post-graduation plans off. After working tirelessly to find a full-time job after graduation in the United States, she found that her Visa was going to expire and now resides in Panama with her family. For some international students, this may seem unideal. But for Silva, she has no regrets about her experience. 

She said, “COVID hit and it wasn’t a reality anymore,” in reference to staying in America post-graduation, “But yes, go abroad. It changes your life.”

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