Lawrence alumnus gives career advice in International House

On Wednesday, May 18, Lawrence International (LI) hosted Lawrence University alumnus Omer Sayeed, Ph.D., ‘87, who is the Senior Vice President at UnitedHealth Group, Optum. Sayeed is on the Board of Trustees at Lawrence University and was a founding member of LI during his time at Lawrence. He talked about the history of LI and provided career advice to students. He also invited discussion about challenges international students face while at Lawrence and after Lawrence.

While at Lawrence, Sayeed studied physics and philosophy. He also helped draft the charter for LI as part of a work-study job. He recalled the early meetings of LI as consisting of a small group of students meeting in Downer Commons. He worked with Charles Lauter, the Dean of Students at the time, to help develop the organization. Sayeed noted that Lauter was instrumental to the international student program at Lawrence. The Charles F. Lauter International Prize is named in his honor and is awarded annually to a student for scholarship, leadership, service and support for the international community.

After Lawrence, Sayeed went on to graduate school earning a masters degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in animal behavior and ethnology from Indiana University, as well as a postdoctoral degree in neuroscience from the California Institute of Technology. He explained that he came into a consulting career after discovering he enjoyed learning on-the-job and analyzing new situations. He encouraged students to explore all their academic interests and appreciate the flexibility of an education offered in the U.S.

Students talked about wanting to engage other students in discussions about experiences international students have that domestic students may not. During discussion about the experience of international students at Lawrence, students voiced concern over the limited staffing for international student support. They noted how more full-time staff might help relieve pressure on current staff and students through programming events and finding other student resources.

Students also expressed apprehension about Career Service’s capacity to assist international students with their unique set of challenges during job searches. One concern international students have about job searches is sponsorship to work in the U.S. Director of International Student Services Leah McSorley explained, “International students can be authorized by the [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] USCIS to work under a special work category called Optional Practical Training (OPT) for 12 months after graduation, and can receive an additional 24-month extension if they have majored in a STEM field.”

She went on to say, “This does not require any additional cost or effort for the employer, because the students do not need [H-1B visa] sponsorship. Therefore, this is a difficult question for international students as they do not need sponsorship at the time of application but may need it in the future.”

Discussion revolving around job searches highlighted influences of policies and business interests on job prospects for international students. McSorley said, “The current immigration system disadvantages highly qualified graduates that have gotten their education in the United States, interned at U.S. companies and organizations and truly want to make a contribution in U.S. companies. In a lot of cases, U.S. employers do want to hire international students, but are prevented from doing so because of the limitations of OPT and H-1B work authorizations.”

She went on to note that “about 25-30 percent of international students decide to take advantage of the OPT option each year and the vast majority are able to find an interesting opportunity that give them great experience to bring back to their home country or to transition to a work visa H-1B.”

Sayeed offered some advice to students to help with promoting their marketable skills and experiences in a competitive job search. He emphasized that applicants either feature a problem they have solved or an accomplishment they worked towards. McSorley said, “Hearing from alumni is invaluable and their advice is transferrable to the workplace in the U.S. and other countries as well. It’s nice for students to meet and learn from a very successful alumnus who navigated the transition between international student at Lawrence to living and working in the United States.”