Understanding Unique Challenges of International Students in Arts and Humanities in Gaining Work Experience

By Haihong Chen

Every year, around one million international students enter the United States to study in colleges and universities (Duffin, 2021). This population aspires to gain short or long-term experience in the US after graduation to advance their future job prospects (Cturtle, 2019). However, 51% of current students and 67% of alumni noted work authorization and visa regulations were the primary barriers to their employment (Loo et al., 2017). International students, especially those enrolled in the arts and humanities, need tailored support as they navigate career opportunities and obstacles.

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What are common work authorizations for international students?

International students are permitted to remain in the US sixty days after graduation to find employment that matches their educational training. After gaining employment, students are entitled to work in the US for up to twelve months for post-completion practical training (OPT). If students want to extend their employment beyond OPT, they can register for the annual H-1B visa lottery, also called person-in-specialty-occupation visa. The probability of getting the H-1B lottery in fiscal year 2022 was only 28.35% according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, 2022a). Both OPT and H-1B visa petitions require a direct correlation between employment and students’ program of study (USCIS, 2022c). Strict stipulation means limited pools of jobs before and after graduation, as well as restricted mobility to change career paths (Jiang & Kim, 2019). International students in arts and humanities majors struggle with navigating the visa regulations that require a strong match between the major and job because they typically face more ambiguous and non-linear career paths as compared to other majors (Miller et al., 2016; Oliver & Muir, 2020).

How do different majors affect obtaining work authorization?

Another requirement for an H-1B petition is employer sponsorship. OPT does not need employer sponsorship, but participants work increasingly in STEM fields (Neufeld, 2019), which introduces new challenges. The top majors that have been sponsored for H-1B are tech-related (MyVisaJobs, 2022). Large employers who are aware of the requirements prefer to reserve H-1B visa sponsorship for STEM students because these graduates can apply for up to three years of OPT, while students with non-STEM degrees, such as humanities and art majors, only have one year of OPT employment under the USCIS regulations. Given the preferences large employers exhibit for STEM majors, arts and humanities majors often apply for smaller-scale companies or independent contractors who do not have sufficient knowledge of the H-1B’s deadline, procedures, expenses, and benefits. Work authorization tied to a specific employer also increases the difficulty of switching to new companies. Considering the specific obstacles that exist for humanities and arts graduates, career services professionals have an opportunity to educate these students on ways to navigate these barriers and to communicate their specific work authorization with potential employers professionally.

What is the special work authorization type for arts-related majors and its challenges?

Some international students in arts-related majors may have an interest in applying for the O-1 visa (the artist visa), which requires them to demonstrate extraordinary ability in the field or have nationally or internationally recognized achievements (USCIS, 2022b). The O-1 visa is very competitive and subjective. Students who plan to work in the arts may not understand how this visa defines extraordinary achievement and what they need to prepare. If the O-1 visa interests students, the international student office and career services professional can refer students to experts like an immigration attorney to review their eligibility and navigate the process.

Another barrier that O-1 visa students will encounter is that the visa requires adequate experience in the field. Yet, a report by Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (Frenette et al., 2021) reflected that students in fine arts and art history had difficulty finding internships and looked for tailored guidance during the internship search process. In response, Brown University (Johnson, 2022) connected students with local arts and media organizations and engaged alumni in the arts to offer new internships.

Creative Strategies

Career practitioners are positioned to meet the unique needs of international students who major in the arts and humanities. Their work begins by acknowledging work authorization challenges. For example, career services professionals can survey students and alumni about their needs or concerns, keep informed of current visa regulations, and attend professional development events through National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) and National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Additionally, career professionals may implement creative strategies, including but not limited to the following:

  • Partner with faculty and student organizations to promote the importance of career services and raise awareness of work visa types and requirements.
  • Link the services of the international programs office on the career center’s website.
  • Invite the staff members at the international program office to promote career services in their online and offline platforms and programs.
  • Reach and alert students through in-person and digital media as early as possible, especially those in a short duration master’s program or a study-exchange program.
  • Provide on-going support as students prepare to launch their internship search, so students can articulate their strengths and relevant global competencies effectively.
  • Engage the institution’s existing mentorship platform, or share the contacts of local mentorship organizations with students.
  • Share graduates’ employment survey data, so students can connect their majors to a range of career options or explore additional career paths.
  • Share job search websites related to creative fields or visa sponsorships.


Outreach, Support and Guidance Aid Competencies

In conclusion, international students in arts and humanities majors often face unique challenges related to the current work regulations, such as restricted job options, limited mobility, time constraints, ambiguous career paths, distinct work landscape, and insufficient knowledge of employment authorization types or strategies. To foster inclusion for this population, career professionals are encouraged to familiarize themselves with relevant advising tools, identity needs and resources, and partner with other individuals across campus. Through efficient outreach, holistic support, and tailored guidance, career service professionals can shift perceptions about work visa regulation as a restriction. In the future, all stakeholders may view the US work process as an opportunity to support this unique student population as they develop global competencies.

Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.


Cturtle. (2019). International student employment outcomes and satisfaction - global report. https://cturtle.co/2019/12/23/iseos-global-report/

Duffin, E. (2021). Number of international students in the United States from 2003/04 to 2020/21. Statista. www.statista.com/statistics/237681/international-students-in-the-us/

Frenette, A., Gualtieri, G., & Robinson, M. (2021). Growing divides: Historical and emerging inequalities in arts internships. Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. https://snaaparts.org/uploads/downloads/SNAAP-Special-Report-Inequalities-210301_2021-11-09-220850_gmjl.pdf

Jiang, X., & Kim, D. (2019). The price of being international: Career outcomes of international master’s recipients in U.S. labor market. Journal of International Students, 9(3), 732-757. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v9i3.700

Johnson, D. (2022). Students in creative fields highlight internship differences, difficulties. The Brown Daily Herald. www.browndailyherald.com/article/2022/02/students-in-creative-fields-highlight-internship-differences-difficulties

Loo, B., & Luo, N., & Ye, Z. (2017). Career expectations, experiences, and outcomes of U.S.-educated international students: What we learned. World Education Services. https://wenr.wes.org/2017/10/career-expectations-experiences-and-outcomes-of-u-s-educated-international-students-what-we-learned

Miller, A. L., Dumford, A. D., Gaskill, S., Houghton, R., & Tepper, S. J. (2016). To be or not to be (an arts major): Career aspirations and perceived skills of graduating seniors across multiple disciplines. Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Research-Art-Works-Indiana.pdf

MyVisaJobs. (2022). Top H1B visa occupation. www.myvisajobs.com/Reports/2022-H1B-Visa-Category.aspx?T=OC

Neufeld, J. I. (2019). Optional practical training (OPT) and international students after graduation: Human capital, innovation, and the labor market. Niskanen Center. www.niskanencenter.org/wp-content/uploads/old_uploads/2019/03/OPT.pdf

Oliver, Y., & Muir, S. (2020). Humanities recruitment survey: Challenges and audiences. National Humanities Alliance. https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/nhalliance/pages/2320/attachments/original/1611260180/HRS_report_final.pdf?1611260180

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2022a). H-1B electronic registration process. www.uscis.gov/working-in-the-united-states/temporary-workers/h-1b-specialty-occupations-and-fashion-models/h-1b-electronic-registration-process

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2022b). O-1 visa: Individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement. www.uscis.gov/working-in-the-united-states/temporary-workers/o-1-visa-individuals-with-extraordinary-ability-or-achievement

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2022c). OPT for F-1 students. www.uscis.gov/working-in-the-united-states/students-and-exchange-visitors/optional-practical-training-opt-for-f-1-students


Haihong ChenHaihong Chen is an experiential learning practitioner and NCDA Certified Career Service Provider. She currently works as an Education Associate at Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts in Queens, New York, collaborating with culturally diverse professionals in arts and education. Originally from Shanghai, China, she was a first-generation college student and holds a master’s degree in Arts Administration from Boston University. Haihong is dedicated to advocating for the rights to quality career education. She welcomes connections and can be reached by www.linkedin.com/in/haihong-chen/ and haihong_chen@outlook.com.

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1 Comment

Linda. Sollars   on Tuesday 11/01/2022 at 08:34 PM

Outstanding and very helpful information for career development professionals working with international clients! You did excellent and comprehensive research and are an important expert and resource!! Thank you for presenting this!

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