For most of the graduating class of 2016, the future is looking up.
Research on U.S. college graduate employment conducted by the consulting firm Accenture shows that 21 percent of this year's college seniors accepted a job before graduating — nearly double the figure from the previous two years. Additionally, a vast majority of them — 88 percent — are optimistic they will land a job in their field, up 23 points from 2015.
"The grads are telling us they've really thought about what they want to do in the future," said David Smith, senior managing director of Accenture Strategy. "They've studied the job market, they've thought about careers. And they did that prior to entering colleges and universities."
As a result of their pragmatism, Smith says, graduates are beginning to see their research pay off.
But these improved numbers, which speak to both an overall improvement in the U.S. economy and a rise of graduates who report being underemployed, don't necessarily translate to greater opportunities for everyone.
For international students, existing legal and social barriers can make entering the job market difficult.
On the legal end, there's the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 1996. For the U.S. government, the program serves as a safety tool and fraud prevention mechanism. But for international students, it translates to limited work visa availability and strict employer requirements.
Finding a visa sponsor
New York University in downtown Manhattan enrolls more international students — approximately 13,000 — than any other U.S. institution. Across the state, nondomestic students contributed more than $3.7 billion in 2015, or $30.5 billion nationwide, according to data by NAFSA.
But despite their contributions, both to the economy and on campus, many foreign-born students face greater hurdles when applying for their first job, according to NYU Assistant Professor of International Education Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng.
"The first question that many employers will ask directly is, ‘Are you authorized to work in the U.S.?'" Cherng said. He said U.S. regulations make it extremely difficult for a company to invest in an international graduate student.
With the exception of students who have degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, international students are eligible to work for 12 months upon graduation on an F-1 visa, an optional practical training program. Any extension beyond that, such as a six-year maximum H1B visa, is both expensive and limited.
"It costs anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 for a company to actually sponsor an H1B visa," Cherng said. "Depending on what your expertise is, they have to petition the U.S. government, [and] it's a high rejection rate."
Hunan, China, native Bingqing Zhou, an MA graduate of NYU's International Education program, remembers the constant pressure she felt immediately after graduating.
"You get your diploma and you are happy and then you find out that nobody sponsors you," Zhou explained. "They can get another employee easily without any sponsorship. Why would they bother to hire you?"
English language, social capital
Even after obtaining a green card in 2013, Zhou believes her opportunities remain limited, in part because English is her second language — a frustration shared by many international students, including Fulbright scholar and NYU graduate student Arely Cordova, from Mexico.
"For me, it takes longer to explain a complex idea, especially an abstract one, so it's very complicated," Cordova said.
Although she plans to return to Mexico upon graduation — her plan is to conduct research and create a support network for relatives of emigrants — she says her time in the United States has taught her about the struggles that minorities face in the labor market, apart from language issues, such as building social capital and withstanding prejudice.
"The system is built in a way that doesn't help minorities, and minorities have to work probably two or more [times] harder than others," Cordova said. "Sometimes, we are humans and we cannot face that challenge."
Like Cordova, Zhou acknowledges that the hurdles she faces are difficult, but not insurmountable. When searching for a job, she says, it's important to remind herself that she has something unique to offer.
"I think the major thing is to find your passion," Zhou said, "something that you have that other people don't."
Ultimately, Zhou is determined to make her parents and friends proud, possibly as an international student adviser.
"I'm close to my 30s," she said. "I want to show them that I can do this."
Finding her confidence, Zhou explains, is as important as any other challenge in her quest to achieve personal success, i.e. the American Dream.