For most college graduates in the U.S., finding that first job after college can be a challenge. Making the right connections, submitting applications, and traveling for interviews can be challenging in themselves.
But international students studying in the U.S. face another level of challenge: the U.S. immigration process.
A female Cummins Engineering project leader, who has requested to remain anonymous and will be referred to in this blog as “Michelle,” is among the millions of U.S. workers who have had to navigate the process of obtaining and maintaining a U.S. work visa.
Michelle was born and raised in Uganda. Throughout her schooling, she always wanted to be an engineer — but the schools she grew up in didn’t have the resources she needed to make it happen.
Michelle then came to the U.S. for college, where she graduated with honors from Texas Southern University with a degree in electronics engineering technology.
Before college, Michelle had never even visited the U.S. While adjusting to an entirely new way of life was certainly a culture shock, she found her niche in engineering, getting involved with groups including the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.
“Everything was so different. The way people talked and interacted, even the way people say ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ was something to get used to,” Michelle said. “I don’t think anyone who was born here can understand how overwhelming it is.”
The first semester was the hardest for her — she even initially regretted making the move. Michelle missed her friends and family, and the comfort of home. But things quickly took a turn for the better when she met another student from Uganda, who helped her get up to speed with simple tasks like using the bus — vital parts of everyday life in the U.S. that aren’t covered in a college curriculum. Six months in, she began to get the hang of things.
“School back home was more advanced,” she said. “The classes in college here were easier, so I was able to focus on the other parts of getting adjusted and moving. I wasn’t used to this pace of life.”
But starting her career in the U.S. took more than just getting acclimated to the culture. Michelle has undergone a myriad of challenges in obtaining her working visa in the U.S.
“As an international student in the STEM field, with your F1 visa you have two and a half years to find a job before that student visa runs out,” she said. “When I first accepted a job offer from Cummins after college, they filed for me to receive an H-1B visa, which is a lottery, and it didn’t end up working out.”
To make things more complicated, graduate students have better odds in the H-1B lottery than students with a bachelor’s degree like Michelle. She filed paperwork to receive the H-1B visa three times, working with advisors at Cummins to build a plan B for when she wasn’t selected.
“Throughout this process, my manager offered a lot of flexibility,” she said. “Cummins has a great policy where if your manager agrees that it’s a good choice, you can transfer to work at a different location outside the U.S.”
After she didn’t get selected for an H-1B visa for the third time in 2017, she left the U.S. and began the process of applying for an Indian Employee Relocation visa. For three months while her visa was pending, Michelle went home to Uganda and worked remotely. Soon after, though, her Indian visa was approved, and she lived and worked in India for 18 months.
While she was working for Cummins in India, the Cummins team kept filing for her H-1B, along with a temporary L1 visa. If this all sounds incredibly complicated, that’s because it is. Her application for an H-1B was selected in the lottery, but ultimately not approved due to delays in paperwork and additional information needed from her college.
“I am lucky to have had good support and guidance from Cummins throughout the process,” Michelle said. “Most people don’t have that kind of support, which makes the difficult process even harder to navigate.”
Finally, Michelle was able to come back to the U.S. on an L1 visa while paperwork was being submitted for the H-1B visa, which ultimately got approved at the end of 2019.
She overcame many obstacles, but no amount of red tape could keep her from pursuing a fulfilling career in engineering. She’s been a program leader in electronics engineering at Cummins for almost six years now.
Her role has evolved over time from a strictly technical role to a project management role. She ensures projects have the right people involved to get the job done from beginning to end, ensuring everyone has what they need to do their best and hit key milestones.
“I started out as a sensor engineer responsible for the warranty and development of a couple of sensors,” said. “But last year, my manager and I created a new project engineering role for my team that would better fit my strengths.”
With an engineer’s experience and a people-first mindset, she had the perfect qualifications to take on a new organizational-focused role on a complex project.
“Over the last few years, I realized I was good at jumping back and forth between management and technical tasks,” Michelle said. “This role is a great hybrid for that. I’m handling between three and six projects at any time as the technical lead and project lead at once.”
The impact of her work goes far beyond specs and meeting deadlines. In her time overseas, she got to see firsthand the importance of air quality and the technology that improves it.
“The air quality is so different in India,” she said. “Almost immediately, it gave me a different perspective by seeing the true impact of emissions and my work in the field. It was a stark difference from what I had seen before.”
Working on the NOx sensor project, Michelle was able to understand its impact on the environment.
“The NOx sensor is the most regulated product, and that scrutiny on compliance is for good reason,” she said. “If we’re off by even 5%, that can result in millions of dollars in fines and serious damage to our planet.”
Her new perspective is just one example of the benefit of Cummins’ global mindset as a company. Cummins has employees from across the globe working to power the future in more sustainable ways. Diversity in experience and thought is vital to Cummins’ success.
“Cummins has a great policy about hiring international applicants, especially compared to some other companies,” Michelle said. “In college, we had a shared list of companies that did and did not provide opportunities for international students. Cummins was known for being a place international students can get hired and succeed.”
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