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College & COVID

For graduating international students, a scramble to secure work visas

“Employers are coming to us and telling us that it’s really Americans first right now,” says one student.

Boston University senior Joey Cosio-Mercado and his peers hope to create a theatrical satire after they graduate so they can laugh about how incredibly awful this past year has been for them as international students majoring in performing arts.

When COVID first hit, Cosio-Mercado, originally from the Philippines, started worrying about post-graduation: securing a job and a visa to stay in the United States. He saw job opportunities in the performing arts industry plummet, and the visas he’s eligible for — both as a student and once he graduates — only allow employment in an industry related to his field of study.


“These restrictions are really paralyzing to me and my other theater major friends who are also international students,” Cosio-Mercado says. “I can’t even take a restaurant job because that falls under hospitality. I’ve been making jokes that the only restaurant job I could probably take is to be a singing waiter — and I don’t even know if [I’d] qualify for that.” As COVID cases continue to climb in the Philippines, Cosio-Mercado doesn’t want to be forced to return home.

International students make up a sizable share of the enrollment at many local colleges — at BU, for example, about 30 percent of the students are from other countries. Between 2012 and 2018, international students contributed a total of $21.3 billion to the New England economy. Yet their enrollments were already dropping because of former president Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies; COVID accelerated that decline. President Joe Biden promises to undo some of these policies, but graduating international students are still feeling in limbo. And they face a thicket of red tape.

The F-1 student visa requires students to return to their home countries after graduation. If they wish to stay in the US, they can pursue internships or jobs in their field to extend their student visas for one year (STEM students for up to three years). To stay longer, they must secure employment and petition for H-1B work visas (approved through a lottery system), but during a pandemic and mass unemployment, that’s become increasingly difficult.


Raphaëlle Soffe, a Sutton Trust Fulbright Scholar from Wales who is in the top 5 percent of her graduating class at Harvard, applied to several US consulting firms and participated in final-round interviews, but only received offers from firms outside of the United States. “I went to my career services at Harvard,” she says, “and they said employers are coming to us and telling us that it’s really Americans first right now, more so than ever because of COVID.”

This story is part of a special report was produced in collaboration with an Emerson College writing and publishing course led by assistant professor Susanne Althoff, a former editor of the Globe Magazine. Maya Gacina is finishing an undergraduate degree at Emerson.