By Kara Sherrer
As COVID-19 grounded flights and shut down embassies and consulates, getting to the U.S. proved a new hurdle for international students this year. In some countries, embassies and consulates were closed for months on end, which impacted students’ ability to get visas to travel to the U.S. While many countries are opening back up, COVID-19 cases are still surging in some areas, and the pandemic will likely continue to play a role next summer and fall.
To get a better idea of what challenges international students are facing right now and what resources are available to help them, we sat down with 3 Vanderbilt Business staff members: Kim Killingsworth, Director of International Recruiting & Relations; Brook Meissner, Senior Associate Director and Career Management Center Coach; and Jeri West, Assistant Director of Student Life at the Student Programs Office. They each work very closely with international students and provide insights at all stages of the process, from applying to business schools to recruiting for jobs.
Applying to B-School
This year, Vanderbilt Business made some changes to the admissions process that benefit all prospective students, including international applicants. The Vanderbilt MBA program now accepts the Executive Assessment (EA) in addition to the GMAT and the GRE. Certain programs are also offering test score waivers on a case-by-case basis; at Vanderbilt Business applicants must apply for a test waiver in the hopes of receiving one based on individual circumstances.
Information sessions and MBA recruitment fairs have also gone completely virtual. Instead of attending many different events in-person in various cities around the world, schools are participating in these events via video conference, which allows many more potential candidates to attend. This expands opportunities for international candidates who might not have been able to attend events such as Discover Vanderbilt Business in person but can participate in a virtual event.
Virtual events also allow potential candidates located farther away from major cities — where recruiting fairs are typically held in-person — to be able to attend. Killingsworth noted that in a recent recruiting fair for Brazil, there were candidates from all over the country who attended, not just from São Paulo. For in-person events, candidates have to fly in from other parts of the country to participate.
“The silver lining is that our events and information sessions are now virtual, so international candidates are able to attend very easily, whereas before, they couldn’t,” Killingsworth said. “Granted, some of them are going to be up in the middle of the night their time, but still, the fact that they’re even able to register as versus having to be here in person (is a big help).”
Recruiting for Jobs
Many international candidates wonder what type of jobs they might get after business school and how the work authorization process might impact that. Killingsworth says that when students ask about this, she often points them to the employment report numbers. “What I often will do is show them the results of the (MBA) class of 2020, and how 3 months after graduation 96% of the total class had job offers while 94% of the internationals did, which is quite impressive,” she said.
Some industries, such as airlines and hospitality, have experienced negatives impacts as a result of COVID. However, others like healthcare have experience a surge in need, which is why the employment numbers weren’t really affected this year. “It’s smaller niche areas that have really been more impacted,” Meissner confirmed.
Over the past few years, some employers have restricted their international hiring, but that is a longer-term trend that wasn’t accelerated too much this year. With a new presidential administration incoming, some immigration policies may loosen up starting in 2021, though it remains to be seen what exact effects that will have in terms of company hiring and H-1B visa availability.
Three degrees at Vanderbilt — the Master of Science in Finance, the MBA concentration in finance, and the MBA concentration in operations and analytics — have all been designated STEM degree programs. The STEM designation allows international students the eligibility to prolong their post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) in the US by 24 months, independent of the H-1B process.
“I think part of the reason our international students have not felt some of the challenges of the market and of COVID has been because of having that OPT extension for up to 24 months,” Meissner said.
Vanderbilt Business is continuing to work closely with Vanderbilt’s International Students & Scholar Services (ISSS) to streamline the university side of the process for both OPT and Curricular Practical Training (CPT). “We’re working to make that process as clear as possible so Owen students know the steps and how to get that process started,” West said.
Seeking Other Support
While recruiting for jobs and pursuing a visa to study in the US may be challenging right now, students also need to acclimate academically and socially soon after joining the program. Owen offers sessions with immigration attorneys and a peer coaching system where current students mentor incoming students. There are also many different clubs — professional, cultural, and social — that students can join to get to know their classmates, both domestic and international.
In particular, there are 2 international support groups that meet twice a month. The first focuses specifically on searching for internships as an international student, and the other — the International Student Care Gathering — is a casual meet-up where students connect to talk about their week and check in. “There’s no set agenda for these meetings other than to connect, share, and support… if somebody has a question, we answer those, but it’s a light atmosphere and a place for students to talk about what’s going on with them, from what they’re cooking to how their classes are going,” West said.
The Student Programs Office is also there to provide ongoing support for all students, whether that’s academic advising, course registration or helping students connect with resources across campus. “We are really the day-to-day operations for whatever question or concern any student may have,” West said of her office.
Between COVID-19, delayed travel, and anxiously awaiting embassies and consulates to open to issue student visas, international students have had a lot of obstacles to overcome this year. However, the staff say that the students are staying strong and rising above the challenges. “It may not be the easiest time for international students, but there are plenty of great stories of students supporting one another and helping each other out,” Meissner said.
“The students that have actually made their way here are super resilient and super creative, and they seem to be undeterred,” West confirmed.
To learn more about support for international MBA candidates at Vanderbilt Business, visit the International Candidates page.