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STEM Degrees In Hand, International Students Face Uncertain Future

Tim Lloyd
St. Louis Public Radio

Yinzi Liu sat in the café at Washington University’s Medical School and nervously fiddled with the sleeve on her coffee cup.   

The 28-year old will graduate tomorrow with a doctorate in developmental, regenerative and stem cell biology.  While earning her degree she spent countless hours glued to a microscope, peering into zebrafish embryos for clues that could one day lead to the early detection of human birth defects.

By most accounts she should be brimming with excitement. Instead she’s loaded with anxiety.

“The clock is ticking,” Liu said.     

Like many international students graduating from area universities with science degrees, earning a diploma will be followed by a series of hurdles if they want to live and work in America.  Almost a year after a sweeping bipartisan immigration reform package cleared the U.S. Senate and later stalled in the House, plans are being drawn to help keep them in St. Louis.

“St. Louis is definitely one of my top options,” Liu said.  “I really want to stay.”

With that in mind, Liu will enter into something called Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows all international students to stay in the country for 12 months to pursue employment training, which can include an unpaid internship. 

“I realize that St. Louis is really promising in terms of this entire bio-tech and bio-science sector,” Liu said.  “And I really want to be a part of it, to make this technology blooming happen.”

Because Liu will have a degree in a STEM field – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – she could receive a 17 month extension.  During that time she can go no more than 120 days without an internship, for students without STEM degrees that allowance is reduced to 90 days.

But if she doesn’t find an employer who wants to sponsor her visa, she’s headed back to China.

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Yinzi Liu stands outside the Washington University medical campus near the Central West End.

That brings up a string of practical worries, not the least of which is whether she should she sign another lease on that apartment she’s come to love in the Central West End. 

So to get a jumpstart on an American career, Liu along with other Washington University students joined the nonprofit Biotechnology and Life Science Advising Group (BALSA).  It functions like a consulting agency and that’s put Liu in touch with movers and shakers in the region’s burgeoning biotech startup scene. 

Even though she’s been rubbing shoulders with upstarts looking to reimagine entrepreneurship in the region, Liu said finding one with the resources and legal backing to sponsor her work visa seems out of reach.

“To be honest I never initiated that conversation with any of the startup companies I interacted with,” Liu said.  “They know and I know, clearly, it’s not going to happen.”

Despite the long odds and concerns, Liu just finished working on a marketing campaign promoting the region as the ideal place for biotech companies to put down roots.

Donn Rubin heads BioSTL, a nonprofit that advocates for bioscience in St. Louis.  He said hanging on to international students like Liu is about more than bolstering the region’s skilled workforce.           

“It’s keeping the ideas,” Rubin said.  “Keeping the intellectual capital, the intellectual property and the inventions.  We want the ideas that can be the basis of successful companies to stay here, as well.”         

‘They’re already here’

In June of last year, a who’s who list of local business leaders and public officials gathered at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to unveil a new initiative geared toward attracting more foreign-born people to the region.

The St. Louis Mosaic Project’s mission was to stitch together a welcome mat large enough to turn the St. Louis region into the fastest growing metro area for immigrants by 2020.  They had a long road in front of them. Foreign-born residents make up less than 5 percent of the metropolitan area, which puts St. Louis near the bottom of the list when compared to other major American cities.  

Armed with a report showing the value immigrants could bring the regional economy, organizers planned to kick start their effort in part by keeping foreign students in town after they graduate.       

“The study had said international students were low-hanging fruit,” said Betsy Cohen, who directs the Mosaic project. “What I’ve learned is that it is very ripe, plump, valuable fruit.  But it’s at the top of the tree.  It is not low-hanging.”

"The study had said international students were low-hanging fruit. What I’ve learned is that it is very ripe, plump, valuable fruit. But it's at the top of the tree. It is not low-hanging." -- Betsy Cohen, director of the St. Louis Mosaic project.

She said organizers quickly ran into a complicated immigration system that requires sophisticated, and often expensive, expertise to navigate. 

“It’s a multi-year dance that happens,” Cohen said.  “Between internships and other types of shorter-term visas until ultimately a company can sponsor an international student who could transition into becoming an employee.”    

There are other hurdles, too.  Some international students sign agreements with their countries of origin to return after graduation.  It’s a deal they make in exchange for tuition money. And with immigration reforming stalled on Capitol Hill, area universities have launched a collaborative effort to keep their international students in the region. 

“There is a very strong common agenda that we could and should do more to help our graduating international students find employment in St. Louis,” said Joel Glassman, director of the Office of International Studies and Programs at the University of Missouri St. Louis.   

Glassman sits on the steering committee for the Mosaic Project, and said it’s the first time local leaders in higher education have worked together to retain international students.  While area universities recognize how their efforts could bolster the regional economy, Glassman cites an added motivaiton.       

“Frankly, with a better outcome for our international students, there’s increased ability to recruit high quality international students to come here,” Glassman said.

Along with the University of Missouri St. Louis, representatives from Washington University, Saint Louis University, Webster University and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville are drawing up plans.  

So far, Glassman said they’ve committed first to decode how some international students were able to find jobs and ultimately stay in St. Louis. They hope then they can replicate best practices.  Next, administrators want to funnel that knowledge toward career services departments at the five schools.  

The schools are also considering collectively offering a “finishing school” for international students who are searching for a pathway into the American workforce.

"They're already here. We don't have to lure them from a foreign place. We don't even have to lure them from another city in the United States." -- Joel Glassman, director of the Office of International Studies and Programs at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

“We’ve heard from some prospective St. Louis employers that many international students, while technically qualified for jobs, don’t have the social skill to fit in well with U.S. companies,” Glassman said.  

In addition to focusing on students themselves, Glassman said representatives from the five universities are discussing ways to encourage local companies to hire international students.  There’s also been talk of a creating a community-wide legal resource to help them navigate the regulatory intricacies of hiring an international student. While the center wouldn’t cover legal costs, Glassman said it could provide advice to companies seeking clarity in what can be murky immigration policy.      

“They’re already here,” Glassman said.  “We don’t have to lure them from a foreign place. We don’t even have to lure them from another city in the United States.  These are people in St. Louis who tell us they want to stay here.” 

A Focus on the H-1B

Corey Lohnes, a Canadian native who earned his Ph.D. in human movement from Washington University two years ago, is nearing the end of his lengthy immigration story. 

Like Liu, he too participated in BALSA to make connections with local employers. 

Federal spending on scientific research and development has fallen by roughly $24 billion since 2010, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Lohnes said fewer federal dollars on campus has more international students like him with STEM backgrounds looking to the private sector.  

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Corey Lohnes, a Canadian native who earned his Ph.D. in human movement two years ago, won a spot in the H-1B lottery this year.

“A lot of students want to leverage their scientific background into industry jobs,” Lohnes said.  “But if they’re international, the visa issue is a large barrier.”  

He was eventually scooped up by Grant Cooper, a health-care recruiting company that liked his ability to mix technical know-how with business smarts.   While wading through the immigration process, Lohnes can clearly remember his future hinging on the results of a little known government lottery.

“I was freaked out,” Lohnes said.  

Even if a foreign student like Lohnes does land a job with an employer willing to sponsor his or her work visa, the future is far from certain.  The number of H-1B visas, which allow foreign-born people with STEM training to stay and work in America, exceeded its cap of 65,000 spots in five business days this year.  The same went for 20,000 slots available for students who get an exemption because they’ve earned advanced degrees from an American university.     

The rush of applications, which cost between $1,575 and $2,500, meant that international students and foreign workers were put into a lottery that would ultimately determine their fate. 

“I didn’t have an appreciation when I left academia how many things had to fall into place to move the immigration process forward,” Lohnes said.

It’s not over yet for Lohnes.  H-1Bs expire after three years, but can be renewed for an additional three years.  However, because the company is going to help him earn a green card it must advertise the job he currently has as evidence that an equally qualified native worker is not available to fill his position.     

It’s estimated that more than 1 million international students are in America, more than a third of whom are working toward STEM degrees.  The bipartisan immigration plan that passed the U.S. Senate last year was engineered to ease the flow of foreign workers in STEM fields by increasing the maximum number of H-1Bs for all workers up to 180,000 in a given year.  The exemption that goes specifically to students with advanced degrees would increase from 20,000 to 25,000.       

David Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri St. Louis, said that both sides of the aisle are interested in legislation that targets foreign STEM workers.  At the same time, members of Congress are concerned that addressing the H-1B cap would derail efforts to fix the immigration system as a whole.     

“They have reason to be concerned about that, but it’s also going to be the part of the puzzle that’s easiest to solve in the short term,” Robertson said.  “Having said that, I don’t expect this Congress to do anything on immigration, no matter who’s involved with it.”

Last week the Obama administration attempted to free up some skilled foreign workers by proposing a rule change to allow spouses of current H-1B holder to seek employment.  Proponents say spouses of these workers often have equal training and the policy change is now subject to a 60-day public comment period.

Some states are looking for a fix, as well.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has unveiled a first of its kind program intended to exploit a loophole that allows colleges and universities to offer an unlimited number of H-1Bs during the course of a year. Deval wants to create a public-private partnership that keeps international students employed at Massachusetts colleges or universities while they work for startups or create new businesses.

But whether the nation needs international students and foreign workers to take STEM jobs that would otherwise go unfilled continues to be the subject of debate.  

A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the need for foreign-born people to fill STEM jobs has been overstated. The research was conducted by Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California Davis.       

“The lack of evidence that the foreign students and workers we are recruiting offer superior talent reinforces the need to assure that programs like H-1B visa are used only to attract the best and the brightest or to remedy genuine labor shortages—not to serve as a source of cheap, compliant labor,” Maltoff wrote.  

Others worry pumping in foreign STEM workers will discourage American students from pursuing those careers. Concerns have also surfaced that outsourcing companies abuse the H-1B system by using the visas to undercut skilled American workers.  

In contrast, an analysis by the Brookings Institution disputed those criticisms and echoed a call by leaders in the tech industry to raise the number of H-1Bs the government offers every year.          

“Overall, there is compelling evidence that the H-1B visa program is helping to alleviate acute shortages in various occupations,” the researchers concluded.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama indicated this week a small window could open up this summer to move immigration reform forward before November’s midterm elections.        

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.