Coping With Stateless Students

Alfreda James describes the challenges of dealing with the questions and behaviors of a generation without a legal or welcoming home.

October 3, 2016

Those of us who work in career services for graduate students are finding that tension from the current national election cycle has spilled over to our counseling appointments. Campaign talk about jobs lost and overseas competition has crept into student life to augment the usual uncertainty about life after graduation. The predictable fall cultural friction that we usually experience as we help navigate between student expectations and employer requirements has shifted to a netherworld where we need an on-site team of mental-health practitioners and visa experts to interpret the actions of certain students.

Our dilemma involves how to discern between competitive spirit, youthful arrogance, whining and hostile behavior -- especially when the source is a graduate student and doubly so when that person has an ambiguous relationship with their country of origin. I’ve decided to call these students stateless, because they may act without relation to memory, intellectual capability or civility.

More literally, I’m also referring to students on a visa (or not) who are unable to return to a home country or country of origin. And career center staff need more than another certification course to parse the questions and behaviors expressed by a generation without a legal or welcoming home.

Between civil war, political instability and family migration, students without a country can manage to cycle through secondary school, college and now graduate school without an attachment to a particular nation. For example, a family migrates from India to Dubai for work and sends their son to America for a degree. Dubai is not his home, but neither is India because of the amount of time he has lived abroad. He is stateless. Nominally tied to India and not necessarily welcome to return to Dubai, he finds the H-1B visa -- which allows American companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations, usually in science, engineering or technology -- to be his preferred destination.

Career center best practices are obstacles to his goal of perhaps six years of employment and the possibility of obtaining permanent residency in the United States. We host an employer information session; he aggressively challenges the ability of the company’s HR staff to evaluate his credentials. He makes derogatory remarks about the skill level of students who land interviews. We urge him to stop interviewing after accepting a job offer, but he continues to interview and ultimately accepts a position with another organization. More than bad manners, there’s often a nationalistic undercurrent during one-on-one counseling sessions with this student. University officials, and by default you, are discriminating against him because of his accent/national origin/grade point average, and/or disrespecting him because you mentioned the value of communication skills for his occupation of choice -- consulting.

If your career services staff is fortunate, you have easy access to the mental-health counselors in the university’s counseling center to help you gain perspective. The best advice I’ve ever received for managing hostility from one student was this: start and stop his appointments on time. If he’s late, dock the tardy minutes from the appointment. If he arrives unexpectedly, keep working on the task at hand.

Did this tactic work? I’m somewhat uncertain, but he consumes less of our time now. In fact, after consultation with mental-health professionals, the entire career services staff has a consistent response to him: we are still empathetic and responsive but less available for his erratic behavior.

The campus visa and immigration office is another source of guidance. Student customer dissatisfaction often has its roots in the availability of temporary employment options for non-STEM degree students. Commonly known as optional practical training (OPT) and curriculum practical training (CPT), these training options allow an international student to gain work experience off campus. An F1 student holding an advanced degree in humanities or social sciences will have fewer choices for American careers; there is less market demand. The frustrated person in my office is really expressing regret for a decision made two years ago. She borrowed money from relatives in lieu of marriage in anticipation of a job that would pay off the principle and interest. Her options for OPT/CPT are limited with an advanced degree in the social sciences. And going home without a job equals debt.

You, the career counselor, must be attuned to cultural and gender dynamics producing rage, sadness and high levels of self-confidence bordering on arrogance during a 50-minute conversation. But you can get help from visa and immigration staff to help manage expectations.

The DACA Dilemma

Another group of students in stateless limbo are those covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA students, also known as Dreamers, are those who entered the United States as children accompanied by adult family members. An easy-to-understand definition of an undocumented individual is a foreign national who: (1) entered the United States without inspection or with fraudulent documents, or (2) entered legally as a nonimmigrant but then violated the terms of his or her status and remained in the United States without authorization. DACA is the name of a process announced by the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security in 2012 that allows undocumented students to obtain work authorization and be eligible for a Social Security number.

Unfortunately, anguish is a part of the process for every DACA student we encounter. Internship dreams are deferred and employer information sessions skipped because of uncertain visa status and work authorization. Deferred action, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “does not confer lawful status upon an individual” and a person whose case has been deferred is eligible for employment authorization only “provided he or she can demonstrate ‘an economic necessity for employment.’” What we career counselors see as inconsistent behavior about career goals may often have its origins in undocumented status. We must listen carefully to the personal and educational story behind the actions.

Our training directs us to think in terms of career stages, but the DACA student’s life is about interruption and occasional artifice. Interruption because the person relies on infusions of cash or loans from within the family to pay for education. We all know people who work off the books, but for the DACA student, the unofficial economy pays tuition. It is possible to compile an entire résumé from off-the-books work experience that may or may not be verifiable.

For example, an undocumented elementary school student in 2001 is 24 years old now and holds a master’s degree. She has worked every summer, but each position paid her in cash. And employers who routinely pay in cash aren’t always willing to confirm a worker’s employment at a later date. She has unexplainable gaps in her work history. Imagine trying to telling that story during an interview.

DACA students often strive to achieve high levels of academic progress to counterbalance a family history of life without documentation. Some of the most enterprising students on my campus have transitioned from undocumented to documented status while pursuing multiple degrees. But some students’ longstanding habits of hiding their undocumented status leave many of them vulnerable to stereotypes about circumventing procedures like licensure requirements and inappropriately responding to letters of offer and other important steps in their career advancement.

Career counselors can refer deferred action students to UCIS Self Check or to bust myths related to work authorization.

Career counselors are not a homogenous group, but most of my East Coast peers are native-born Americans. We grew up with the principles of the rule of law, due process and civil discourse leading to compromise for the benefit of all. We received our education within families that nurtured us, communities that supported us and even legislation safeguarding our rights as citizens. But our stateless students have not had these experiences of connection. And the emotional cost of an education without the foundation of country requires us to actively listen, confer and refer.


Alfreda James is assistant director for graduate students and postdocs at the career center at Stony Brook University.


Back to Top