The Statue of Liberty’s motto proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But what about the energetic, the collegiate, the ambitious masses yearning to intern in the United States? More and more, the U.S. is opening its borders to students from foreign lands hoping to intern for an American company. According to the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), the number of foreign students interning in the United States is growing by about 10 percent per year.
Pamela Posey, director of operations for Council Exchanges, estimates that in a recent year her company placed more than 15,000 foreign students in internships in the United States alone. By Posey’s estimate, about a quarter of a million students have gone through the program already. So if you want to come to the United States for an internship, where should you start? The best idea is to get your passport pictures taken early and start searching for jobs. Beyond that, however, you should keep the following tips in mind:
Visa-for anywhere you want to be
According to Troy Peden, editor of GoAbroad.com, you first need to secure a visa for your trip to the states. Most interns come to the United States on a J-1 visa, used for both student exchanges and practical training. In order to get the J-1 visa, you must first fill out a form known as an IAP-66, which you can request from the U.S. government directly, from the U.S. embassy in your country, or from a company like CIEE (which has regional offices throughout Europe and Asia). For students who are coming to the U.S. as research assistants or guest lecturers or to work in an academic setting, Peden recommends trying for an H visa, or work visa. “It used to be very difficult to get an H visa, but the U.S. government is loosening its hold a little bit,” says Peden.
Obtaining a nonimmigrant visa is not easy, however. The U.S. government applies different standards to different countries. But no matter where you are coming from, you will need to demonstrate that you have a compelling reason to return to your home country after your internship is done. Consider the reasons you would not leave your country permanently: a family, an apartment you rent or own, even a bank account. If you can document any of these, you will have a better chance of receiving a visa. If you can’t, you may be slapped with the infamous 214(b), the government’s code for a denied visa.
Because it’s always possible that your first visa application may be denied, it’s wise to apply months in advance. Don’t be frustrated-a 214(b) is not uncommon, and you can always reapply. Working through an organization like CIEE may better your chances. For a fee, it will take care of all the paperwork necessary to secure your visa and also provide you with the insurance required by the U.S. Government. CIEE also provides listings for internship, housing, and travel opportunities in the U.S. The cost for the nonprofit organization’s services depends on the country you live in.
A note of caution: tales abound of interns working in the states under tourist visas, which are generally easier to secure than a J-1 or H visa. Don’t be misled: it’s illegal to work on a tourist visa, and you risk jail and deportation if caught.
Do your research
It is very important to know the area you’re traveling to. For Aine Ni Cheallaigh, 25, knowing the territory was easy. Two years before taking her internship at the Children’s Museum in Boston, Ni Cheallaigh traveled to the city. “I fell in love with it, and I knew that, gosh, I’ve got to come back.” Knowing that she wanted to work with children, Ni Cheallaigh performed a few Internet searches, found the museum, and secured a position as its first international intern.
For Cheallaigh, the Internet was useful for more than just finding a job, however. She recommends looking up local papers and chat rooms to learn what people are talking about. Researching the city you’re moving to might give you the lowdown on local happenings, hip hangouts, and the best places to meet people. The Internet can also prove indispensable for securing housing. Search the online classifieds of the area’s newspapers for housing ads before coming to the states. If you’re leery of renting an apartment sight unseen, consider staying in a low-cost hotel or hostel for a few days until you can find a place of your own.
Understand your employer
Most important, you should research the company you plan to work for. Be inquisitive, find out how established their internship program is, and ask to talk to past interns. According to Peden, companies look for foreign interns for one of two legitimate reasons: either the need for interns exceeds the number of American candidates, or the job is very challenging and can best be filled with someone of foreign experience. “Some companies are really just looking for cheap labor,” Peden cautions. “Make sure to do your homework on the company before you agree to work for them.”
Ni Cheallaigh says her experience with the Children’s Museum has been nothing but positive-her employer appreciates the cultural exchange and provides a stimulating work environment in which she supervises guided tours, maintains exhibits, and makes sure guests are comfortable.
Expect culture shock; bring money
Culture shock is not just a phrase from old sociology textbooks. It is a very real phenomenon, says Posey. She recommends students read as much as they can about the culture of the area they’re going to, whether from literature provided by companies like CIEE or on the Internet.
For Ni Cheallaigh, culture shock was very real and immediate. “The pace here is so much quicker than I’m used to,” she says. “Back home, it’s very laid-back. Here, people think I’m lazy. I’m really just relaxed.” To help alleviate culture shock, Ni Cheallaigh suggests joining American chat rooms on the Internet to talk about culture. In addition, she recommends saving now for your American voyage-costs will quickly rise.
Whatever your plan for the voyage across borders and overseas, make sure you start early and try to get the most out of the experience. Remember: you’re not a tourist. A good internship will require you to work before you have the chance to play. If you can balance the two, however, it will be a life-changing experience.