Adjusting to Caltech, California, and the United States as an international student can be difficult at first: you have to get used to the different systems and cultures and understand the limitations that come with your status as an F-1 student in the United States. I myself was an international student for three years in high school, which provided me an opportunity to adjust culturally, but coming to Caltech as a college student, I still had to research and learn more about things I can and cannot do in the United States as an F-1 student, which was time-consuming and confusing at first.
So, here are some pro-tips as an international student at Caltech for foreign students who plan to apply to Caltech or incoming students who are planning their four years at Caltech. *NOTE: I am an international student without a US passport. I am currently studying at Caltech on a student visa (F-1), and some of the tips I list below may not apply to international students who are US citizens in terms of their status.
1-1 Employment limitations on international students in the United States
Coming to college, I wanted to become more financially independent from my parents. Getting a job on and off campus grants that financial independence (to a certain degree, depending on your wages) and a valuable work experience at an early stage of your life.
As an F-1 student, there are a lot of limitations to getting an off-campus job. First of all, you are not allowed to have off-campus employment (in most cases) as a freshman. You are required to complete at least one year of education at your institution to qualify for off-campus employment. (This is an OPT requirement which I will detail later in this article.) This means that you are allowed to get internships or SURF the summer after your freshman year, but you won’t be able to intern during your freshman year.
And second of all, you are not permitted to work more than 20 hours a week when the school is in session. To be fair, you would not need to worry about this condition, because working 20 hours outside of your academic work hours is almost impossible at Caltech. Even this summer, when I relatively have more time than throughout the year, I never reached that 20 hour limit.
There are three types of off-campus employment that international students can be part of: Curricular Practical Training (CPT), Optional Practical Training (OPT), and for STEM students, Optional Practical Training Extension (OPTE).
To participate in pre-completion OPT (OPT before earning your degree), you must satisfy one full academic year requirement—you must have been enrolled at your college for one year before participating in an off-campus job under OPT. You may work for 20 hours or less per week while school is in session and full-time over school breaks.
If you participate in OPT after getting your degree, it will be a post-completion OPT. In this case, you must be working part time (at least 20 hours a week) or full time.
In total, OPT employment authorisation is available for up to 12 months, but if you are a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) student, you may apply for a 24-month extension for your post-completion OPT.
It is also important to note that the participation in pre-completion OPT may affect your post-completion OPT: for instance, participation in a year of part-time job as a pre-completion OPT will reduce the available time for post-completion OPT by half a month and a year of full time job would reduce it by a year.
CPT is similar to OPT in a sense that it should also relate to your major. But CPT authorisation can only occur before your graduation and your training should be an integral part of your school’s curriculum.
For on-campus employment, you may start as early as 30 days into your program. Just like OPT, your total work hour cannot exceed 20 hours when the school is in session.
More help on work authorisations can be found at Caltech’s international student programs (ISP) office (https://international.caltech.edu/about/isp). I do recommend that you ask the officers at ISP even if you read this article, just to have the most up-to-date, accurate information. Fortunately, ISP offers information sessions on these work authorizations during International Student Orientations and throughout the year, so I also recommend checking those out to have your questions answered.
1-2 Employment opportunities at Caltech
A lot of Caltech students choose to take on-campus jobs while school is in session. You can become a Dean’s tutor if you have performed well in some of your previous classes and help out students who are taking those classes with their homework or class materials (as long as you abide by the honour code!). You can also become a Teaching Assistant for your previous classes and lead recitations and office hours. You can also work in the lab doing paid research or as a lab assistant, organising lab equipment. If you are interested in sports, you can help out at the games or meets with score boards or timing the players. If you absolutely love Caltech and would like to help out the admissions in various projects such as admissions instagram, giving tours, Techer Talks, virtual tours, YouTube channel, and admissions blog, you can apply to become an admissions ambassador and participate in as many projects as you want. You can also become a library assistant if you would like a job that is less labour-heavy and that gives you a bit of quiet time, or help out with distributing COVID-19 test kits on campus.
There are plenty of opportunities on campus that students can take advantage of, and international students are mostly eligible for a lot of these programs (just make sure to check the citizenship requirement section before you apply). This for most of the time allows you to earn a bit of pocket money that you can spend on shopping, eating out with friends, or paying various fees that may be incurred.
Personally, I am doing SURF research this summer and working for admissions this summer. My admissions job gives me a great break from work and also provides me enough money to spend while hanging out with my friends.
1-3 Getting Social Security Number (SSN)
Coming in as an international student, I didn’t have a social security number like my US-citizen friends. This puts you under some difficulties—for instance, you may not be eligible for post-paid phone plans which make you choose more-expensive pre-paid phone plans. It is harder to get a credit card under your name in the US without an SSN. Fortunately, with employment, you can receive your social security number.
First, you need to fill out an I-9 form, which is a form to check your eligibility for employment. If you are an international student at Caltech, take your I-9 form to the International Student Programs office instead of to the Human Resources department, because the ISP would need to take care of certain things for you. Then they would explain to you the process of obtaining a social security number. You would need to get an employment letter from your employer—in my case, the Undergraduate Admissions Office. I also needed to bring my letter from the ISP officer. And of course, your passport and I-20 as well as I-94 form. Double check with the ISP or your school’s international student coordinator to make sure you have all the forms you are required to have for your SSN application.
Then you need to visit your local social security administration to apply for an SSN. The Pasadena social security administration didn’t take any appointments, so you can just walk in. You bring all of the documents listed above to the officer, and they will inform you that you will be issued a social security card in a week or so, which will be mailed to your address.
Location of Pasadena Social Security Administration (104 N Mentor Ave, Pasadena, CA 91106)
Do not carry your physical social security card in case you lose it somewhere. Take a photo of your social security number or simply memorise it instead of carrying the card. Never share this number over phone or email. And do not share this number unless you deem necessary. I was pretty surprised when I saw my friends securely guarding their numbers and their social security cards. I have a national identification number issued by the Korean government, which is also supposed to be not shared, as it is the most personal and important number to identify an individual in Korea, not many people seem to care so much about the security of the number. When I visit a local city hall, for instance, they would make me read my number out loud, when there are a few people sitting on the chairs next to me.
Anyways, having a social security number allows you to have access to post-paid phone service, credit card, etc. I applied for a credit card as soon as I received my social security card.
These were all the pro-tips and summary of research on employment in the US as an international student. Hope this helped, and next time, I will write about all the DMV services and DMV appointments.