For most American students, applying to college usually consists of begging teachers for letters of recommendation and playing basketball with a wastebasket and crumpled essay drafts. But for Ritika – this week’s Millennial voice – the road to higher education and beyond was a more labored journey. Ethnically Indian but raised in Thailand, Ritika crossed the Pacific in 2007 to pursue a double major in Government and International Affairs at the prestigious Skidmore college. Her effort to obtain US work authorization in her fields of interest was a battle of nerves and bureaucratic red tape. Today, you’ll find the 23 year-old Bangkok native researching national security and domestic terrorism at the Brookings Institute; one of the most revered think tanks in Washington DC.
This is Ritika’s story.
It’s not everyday that you meet someone involved in national security policy research. What does an average workday at Brookings look like?
Being a research assistant means many different things, depending on whom you work for. And I happen to work for a fantastic senior fellow who cultivates my interests in areas like domestic terrorism and national security by allowing me to work on his projects. A typical day might consist of writing for my boss’s blog and editing posts, or conducting research for the books that he’s working on. I could also be busy with administrative tasks like scheduling and phone calls. And if any kind of work that requires a written draft comes up, I’m usually the first one to take a crack at it.
What do you consider to be the most enlivening aspect of your job?
I feel like I’m learning a lot about the kind of career that I want to have, what it’s like to have a career in the policy world in Washington DC. Both Brookings and the city are incredibly stimulating to be around. And at the end of the day, the reality is that I’m working on issues that I care deeply about!
Now, way before you set up shop in DC, you were living and attending primary school in Bangkok.
Well, as a kid, the school that I went to for the first 12 years of my education was an American International School. So I grew up thinking that going to college was a possibility for me; though I didn’t start thinking about it seriously until tenth grade. That’s when I decided that sincerely wanted to pursue higher education in the states. Most of all, I realized that I’d have so many more career options if I came to the US. I spent my junior year of high school researching and applying to different schools. Some of them were in Asia, but I absolutely wanted to come to US.
Did you already have a firm grasp of what you wanted to study?
Actually, my interests were pretty similar to what I’m doing now. I was fascinated with global politics and international affairs – that type of stuff. I can still remember this one day in high school when I thought, “Hmm, I’d like to work for the UN.”
Tell me about the college application process. It’s such a nightmare domestically that I’m scared to imagine what it must entail for international students!
It was completely different than the way you’d apply to college in the states. As an international applicant, there are no college visits or open houses, so the entire process is essentially taking a shot in the dark. A lot of my decisions boiled down to college rankings and websites; I tried to pick schools that seemed to suit my academic interests and offer an interesting campus life. There were also some admissions counselors that would visit the Bangkok area and a Skidmore representative happened to visit to my school. I got a sense of what school I might prefer through meeting these people. But it was still a guessing game. I mean, I could have been very unhappy at Skidmore but thankfully, it worked out well.
Once you set foot on the Skidmore Campus, after all the interviews and considerations, how did you feel initially?
It was so long ago…I’m trying to remember. I was so happy to be there. Freshmen year was pretty overwhelming but then again, everyone’s freshman year is. But in terms of being in a new country, people often ask me if it was really hard and my answer is no, not really. Because I was so excited and there was so much going on around campus that I would usually be too distracted to step back and think, “Wow, this is tough!”
How long did it take you to feel acclimatized?
Getting cultured was pretty easy for me. I’m sure there were moments where I felt self-conscious early on, because I didn’t know much about the states. I hadn’t seen much of the landscape. Not only was I newbie to the country, but I was also living in a small town, attending a small school. So life was a little hard at first. I don’t think I talked a lot about my background or upbringing during those early months. I just focused on acclimating myself to the states.
That makes a lot of sense. So…as your friendships developed, did you eventually feel more inclined to share your past experiences growing up abroad?
Yeah, as I became more comfortable with my best friends and myself, I also became more comfortable talking about my upbringing. It’s hard to talk about it because people who’ve grown up in the US can’t relate that much. But my friends could relate to me as a person, which was the key to opening up this part of myself.
After you declared your double International Affairs and Government major, how did the academic road lead you to the Brookings Institute?
When I came to Skidmore, I fell in love with the government department. After declaring my major and working with mentors, I spent my sophomore summer working in Washington DC, which exposed me to life there. I fell in love with city; it was best summer of my life, and I knew that I wanted to go back. So the next summer, I applied and was hired for an internship with the Brookings Institute. And it was a great experience. I was already working in terrorism, national security – the position gave me professional exposure to a lot of new fields, and ultimately, I think it got me through the door further down the road. By the spring of senior year, I was applying for lot of different jobs, throwing everything against the wall and seeing what stuck. As international student, you can’t be in a state for more than 60 days after you’re done with college.
You only get 60 days to find a job? In this economy?
If you’re an international student doing undergrad or a Master’s degree, you’re on an F-1 visa, which allows you to stay in US for the years you’re studying and it also gives you one year extra, which is called “optional practical training.” So for me, it was four years to study, and one year to work. But you actually have to apply for OPT, which is a bit stupid since it theoretically comes with your visa. You apply for it close to graduation. So that was an added stress, especially because you can’t start work until you have an OPT! Ultimately, it comes down to a lot of paperwork, and if you switch jobs for any reason, you have to inform the government. So there’s not much flexibility.
What kind of restrictions does an OPT carry?
Your job has to be connected to the subject you were studying. So I had to find a job with a strong international affairs or governmental focus. I couldn’t go work in business, ring up customers at a McDonalds, or even babysit, since none of those were within my field of study. Either you get a job or you leave the country in 60 days. You could still do volunteer work or intern after 60 days, but that wasn’t an option for me. I needed the money and had to find a source of income. I didn’t have the option of going home and crashing with my parents while I got my feet on the ground. And right before graduation, something opened up at Brookings for three months – a paid internship. It was a godsend.
Wow – paid internships still exist! But how did you feel about the fixed end date attached to the position?
At first I was a little stressed by the three month time period, knowing I’d soon have to find something else, but I didn’t have any other jobs lined up, and of course, the economy was shit. So I decided to go for it. I was especially lucky that they offered me the job, since a lot of organizations won’t even consider international students if they know you only have a year of OPT. I mean…why would they hire someone with such a short window of availability? Most entry-level jobs last around 2-3 years. I didn’t really feel settled at Brookings until after four months.
Aha – so they kept you on after the internship ended.
They did! Brookings wanted to keep me on for longer, but what most nonprofits can or can’t do depends on money. So I was really nervous. But after the first month and a half of my job, funding came through that would allow my job to turn into a yearlong position. And I was thrilled – I really wanted to stay in the States, at Brookings, and I loved the people I was working with and what we were doing. Now, I’d be a research assistant until June of 2012.
That must have been one serious relief. But again, you’ve got this distant employment deadline on the horizon. Let’s fast-forward a year…
As June 20th, 2012 was nearing, I sat down with my boss and we talked about what our options were. I couldn’t stay at Brookings or in the USA anymore on my F-1 Visa, it was finished. So my only option was to get an H-1B Visa for working. Lots of people have them but it was something that would depend largely on my boss because it costs every company a lot of money.
A couple thousand dollars – to sponsor an international worker. That’s a significant amount of money and there are also liability issues: the employer is basically responsible for the visa-carrier professionally. It’s also difficult because your employer has to show the government that you have a unique set of skills that the organization requires. Because the government wants to make sure companies aren’t just hiring international workers when they could be hiring US citizens to do the same jobs.
So how did your supervisors seal the deal?
My boss spoke to the vice president of Brookings, who then met with our legal counsel. They had to make a determination about whether I was valuable enough to sponsor. And in the end, they decided they wanted to do that, which I feel very fortunate about. My H-1B lets me stay here for two years and it started last June. And you can renew it three times, so hypothetically, I could work here for up to six years.
That’s a significant step up from three months. Now that you’ve been working in the states for a few years, how welcoming do you feel America is or isn’t to international students and workers?
I’ve felt very welcomed and accepted by the majority of people I’ve met here. Although, I did spend the last five in New York and DC, both of which are very progressive places with lots of workers and students from overseas. If there’s any disconnect, it’s that most people don’t understand how challenging it is to fight to stay in the US. That issue feels very much like my battle. Immigration reform is near and dear to the hearts of many coworkers at Brookings, not to mention my own. Historically, I think the USA has done a fine job of making it easy for people to come here, but for the last 20-25 years, that hasn’t been the case at all.
Looking ahead, Ritika…in the next five or ten years, what do you hope to be doing with your life?
I’d like to build a career in the states doing national security policy work towards Southeast Asia. I’m not a US citizen, which limits the places I could go to pursue future endeavors, including any domestic or international policy work based here. But for now, I’m applying to PhD and Master’s programs for fall of 2014
Final question: much has been said about the Millennial generation, and not all of it good. Drawing from your own experiences – and those of your peers – how do you identify with the term “Millennial?”
Based on the people I’ve been around, I think it means being very flexible and open to a lot of different things, whether it’s moving across the country or jumping into a completely new line of work. Most people I know, they don’t have one major or passion anymore. They don’t graduate into a job that they hold for the next 30 years. They learn to be very resilient. Today’s economy seems to favor people who can be resilient and adapt to expectations and environmental factors that are constantly changing.