That’s how the last email I received, where yet another job offer was being rescinded, ended.
That’s how they usually end. My formerly prospective employers wish me well, are very sorry to inform me that their company does not sponsor visas and encourage me to be in touch if my status changes. They sound genuine and I appreciate their greetings. If I find a green card on the street I will hit them all up again.
Before I dive into how sad and frustrated I am at the challenge of securing a job in New York without a permanent visa, I want to make sure I check my privilege to the best of my ability. I’m Icelandic. I grew up healthy and happy in the Utopian North, with two parents, three siblings, free healthcare, peace, friends, love, support, and countless other things I do not take for granted. I share Casper the friendly ghost‘s complexion so I have never faced racial discrimination. I’m a man so I’m not paid less than equally qualified people of the other sex and nobody is trying to limit my access to vital health services. I have been so lucky and sheltered in my life that my gay card is basically worthless.
I’m aware that my “struggle” needs quotation marks because it is actually not a struggle in the grand scheme of things. I have been hit with the fortunate stick and I can never even begin to understand the hardships millions of people face every day. But in this very specific sector of my life I do think my feelings are valid and I want to share with you how this process has been for me. So let me try to keep this clean, clear and concise.
This blog post is mostly meant fill in friends and family, but if a fellow foreign job seeker can relate to following word vomit, cyber high fives to you my friend. I really, really hope this will not read as “oh boo hoo you can’t live out your dreams, let us all take a moment to collectively weep for you, you entitled Millennial turdburger”, but more as a “huh, this immigration system might need some tweaking.”
I knew going in, that it would be hard getting a job after graduation as a foreign national. I’m in communications, not exactly a field where human capital is scarce. Maybe I should have learned to code instead. I did not realize how hard this would actually be. I honestly thought “Hey I’m smart, I have a good resume, I work hard, I’ll make it happen. I’ll be the exception to the rule.”
Well…still working on it.
I moved to New York City in 2013 to pursue a master’s degree in Public Relations & Corporate Communication at NYU. I finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life after pursuing a degree and career in law, mildly-to-spicedly (I assume that is a legit antonym) hating it from the get-go. It did teach me great skills, like attention to detail, work ethic and the practical advantages of knowing your rights – but it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Not even for the next 30 minutes.
In PR I found the culmination of my interests, personal strengths and prior experiences. I found what I love to do – and I’m actually good at it. I worked in an entry level position at a firm back in Iceland alongside my studies and during breaks from school. I reveled in every single moment of it. I only left that job to pursue an internship as a part of my master’s program.
I interned at a mid-sized PR agency in Midtown and it was straight up amazing. I loved it there. I was initially only supposed to be there for three months but was invited to extend and ended up spending about nine months there. The internship was intensive and us interns were trusted to do actual work. Since I got to stay there for so long, I was writing press releases, contributing to brain storms, pitching media, and securing placements only a few weeks in. The experience was invaluable to me and the positive environment and feedback was overwhelming. My colleagues were some of the best people I have ever had the good fortune to share oxygen with. I am ambitious about my writing so it was very fulfilling to get to write a lot. I loved the back-and-forth with journalists and securing those target publication placements is a high I shan’t forget.
When I chose to extend, I had to start using up my 12-month work permit. At the time I thought I was being smart and responsible. I knew they really liked me and were happy with the quality of work I churned out. I loved working and wish I could have worked more. My supervisor sometimes had to kick me out so I wouldn’t go over my hours (student work permits only allow for certain amount of hours per week while you are still in school). So I figured if I stayed on for longer and really proved myself and the value I brought in that was specific to me, I was increasing the probability of them hiring me. Using up a little portion of my work-permit would be a worthwhile investment.
A few weeks into the extended internship I mustered up the courage to open the visa sponsorship conversation. The HR person was basically my best friend in the office (not in sad “friends with the lunch lady” way, but in a “she’s just so cool” way) and an avid supporter of mine so I knew she would hear me out. She said right off the bat that it would be long shot since the agency had never had a foreign person on staff before, the process was unfamiliar to them and I was actually the first foreign intern. So I kept my hopes on the lower end of the spectrum but asked for the issue to be raised. It took over two months to get any real feedback on the issue.
I think it is largely thanks to the support of my colleagues and superiors at the office, that the decision makers actually green-lighted me. Nothing was official, but they were really willing to take me on. The biggest hurdle had been passed. The rest was semantics and paperwork. I was ecstatic. I could now focus on finishing my thesis, enjoy the time with my family and friends who came to celebrate my graduation and move into a new apartment (my rent was hiked, student loans are great and all but they are no match for New York rent prices). The day after graduation I received an email which said that after deliberating with experts, the agency had decided against taking me on. They encouraged me to apply for another internship or an entry level position for the remainder of my work permit, none of which were available at the time.
They did end up hiring two of my former fellow interns, bright, young people with great promise. They were about 5 years my junior, fresh out of college with less work experience and technically less qualified. But they were citizens of the US of A and that’s where they had me beat. I was happy for them but at the same time upset for myself which made for a weird time, one I’m not particularly proud of. There are moments when you are really salty and upset with everything and everyone, but thankfully you snap out of it and stop feeling sorry for yourself, remembering some people actually have real problems.
But I was devastated at that moment. Everyone in the office had been rooting for me, encouraging me and I let myself be too comfortable before I actually had it in the bag. Everyone was so sure I would make it through. Everyone except the people who actually made the decision. So there I was, fresh out of my masters with no job lined up. Exactly what I was not going to let happen to me. Oh well, that’s life. Then began the application game.
Applying, interviewing and reviling the cover letter
After licking my wounds and pouting in front of the mirror for a hot minute, I had to get grip. I had no income, very limited funds and zero interviews lined up. I started applying to everyone and their mother’s. I updated my resume and I wrote so many cover letters. Can the cover letter just please die and take it’s place in museums next to dinosaur skeletons and paintings nobody dares to admit are just kind of bad? Pretty please? At this point I’d rather be up for solving a math problem. And I hate math. Math is the worst.
But I hit up both in-house positions and agencies. The big agencies/companies (“because they can afford sponsoring visas“), mid-sized agencies/companies (“because they are the ones that need to diversify to grow“), small agencies/companies/start-ups (“because they really need the talent and visas don’t scare them away“).
Oh yes, everyone around you knows what type of companies you should be applying to and they know why. They tell you all the time, you are just not doing it right.
“Ok but have you tried…” – I will hear you out because I’m desperate, and I know you are trying to help, but I’m pretty sure I gave it a go by now. After hundreds of applications and dozens of interviews I’ve learned a few things. Like how to be sassy.
- The big agencies/companies have their own application systems online where they ask you about your visa situation. They have countless applicants and I suspect they don’t even read your resume if you have indicated that you don’t have permanent resident status.
- A few of my American friends from school had started working for one of the big agencies and put me in touch with their recruiting manager. She was very nice, liked my resume and told me to apply online and to let her know when I had completed my application. I completed the application and I let her know. She asked me if I was sure because she couldn’t see my application in the system. Then she asked me if I needed a visa, and when I said yes she said something along the lines of “oh ok, yeah those don’t go through the system. I’m sorry, we don’t sponsor at this level”. I never heard from any of the other big agencies I applied to either. Not saying they should have responded, but I was qualified for the positions I applied for.
- The mid-sized agencies/companies still have enough applicants so they don’t really want to sponsor your visa because they have other options.
- The small agencies/companies/start-ups seemingly do not to have the resources.
So that kind of sucks. The application process became harder to tackle and it started to slowly wear me down.
That damn “visa issue”
I learned rather quickly the visa is always an issue. I could just see it in the interviewer’s face that he or she had mentally thrown my resume in the trash as soon as it came up. It was just a matter of when it came up. Whether it came up in the first phone interview, the first in-person interview, the final interview or when it came time to draw up the paperwork. Thus far, it has always been a deal-breaker. It is very disheartening and somedays I sit in front of my computer for hours, trying to will myself to send out more applications. I have had to persuade myself that this pursuit of mine is not futile, that there is an employer out there for me. That is what has kept me going. I re-strategized and kept on.
I learned to not lead with the “visa issue”. My best chance is to impress a company so they like me enough to offer me a position. I have to be better than any American candidate. I do all that I can to make that happen. I research the companies I interview with thoroughly. I research the interviewers. I am ambitious about every single writing test and I make sure to ask thoughtful and insightful questions. These things may sound very obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people do a terrible job representing our generation in job interviews. When I get offered a job, I start the visa conversation if it has not been brought up yet and I pray to all the holy men up there that this might be the one – this might be the company who will give me that chance I so desperately want.
I am still waiting to connect with that elusive employer. But I am having better luck this way. I understand that my approach might seem problematic, but I have arrived at it out of need. I have been conflicted about not being more upfront about the visa, I feel bad for wasting people’s time. If they are not the slightest bit open to the possibility of sponsoring a visa, we are both wasting our time. But I also want the chance to be heard. To be evaluated on my own merit. To not be out of the running by default.
So through trial and error, my tactic has been to be very clear about where I am from, that I moved to the US to pursue a master’s degree in PR and that I am currently looking for a permanent position. That way my interviewers have the facts and the ability to deduct that I do not have a permanent visa, yet. But this way they do give me the time of day and I can’t tell you how much that means when so many shut their doors in your face before you can even introduce yourself.
I have been offered a total of five positions since I graduated last May. Every one of those offers has been rescinded after the “visa issue” came up. I feel fortunate to have been offered those positions, but it is heartbreaking to be that close to achieving your goal and have it vanish in front of your eyes like a Paula Deen endorsement deal (girl is whack). I do have a part-time consulting internship that allows me to maintain my legal status. But I need a permanent job.
I understand why the “visa issue” is daunting to most. There is a cost associated with it, some effort and risk. I totally get that. I totally get that you can probably hire an an American to do the job and he or she does not come with that baggage.
But I also think there is great value in diversifying your employee pool:
- You get a different perspective thrown in the mix that can be extremely important.
- Going off of my own experience, I often felt I had a completely different view on brand strategies, creative ideas and communication tactics. After spending a short time listening and learning, I voiced my opinions and they were appreciated. Cross-cultural insights can provide opportunities.
- Appealing to, and working with, international clients is not in everyone’s wheelhouse.
- For example, I’ve come across so many “experts” on Europe and how things work over there. I can tell you that their level of expertise on Europe is only rivaled by my expertise on brain surgery. There is a reason why foreign companies go to agencies and firms that have international staff that can relate and understand their needs. There is a difference in how people think, what they value and prioritize in different parts of the world.
- You get a level of devotion that you don’t necessarily get elsewhere.
- Foreign employees are dependent on their employers and are willing to work their asses off to earn their stay. They are not going to jump ship when a slightly better offer presents itself or if they get bored. These are resourceful individuals who have moved across continents to improve their lives and entered a whole new marketplace and society. Speaking for myself, I would be so thankful to the company that would be willing to sponsor me that I would work tirelessly to surpass expectations to show them that investing in diverse talent is more than worth it.
These are only a few things that come to mind. I think employers are well aware of the benefits of hiring qualified, foreign professionals. The problem seems to be that with the current immigration system, employers don’t want to go through the hassle of taking these individuals on. So these individuals are eventually forced to leave.
Don’t get me wrong. I will be very sad, but ultimately fine, if I am forced to go back home or to some country in Europe. But I don’t want to leave. My life is here now. The vast majority of my professional network is here. I have great friends here. I’m in love for the first time in my life here. Even though I have been forced to stay with (the kindest, most supportive) friends for almost three months and I depend on my parents for encouragement and help to feed myself – I won’t give up just yet. I can’t. These past months can’t have been for nothing.
So for all the friends who worry about what I’m still doing over here, and my dear parents who kindly ask if “it’s not time to look at other options” I just want to say I am extremely grateful for you and also this:
Thank you for your support and patience. I’m actually fine. It sucks depending on other people for a roof over your head and for help feeding yourself. It sucks yearning for long days at the office when you don’t have one to go to. It sucks not knowing what your life looks like in two weeks time. But I’m happy, I’m healthy and I still have hope.
Bear with me, I’ll send you appropriately emotional snapchats when I have any news to share. And maybe I need that luck, even though you think I don’t need it. I’ll take all the luck I can get.
Your friend, son and aspiring Annie-understudy,
(my signature is hyperlinked to my LinkedIn profile, see what I did there)