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Yoon Choi: Korea to the US and becoming a Nike Footwear Concept Designer

interstride logo by Interstride
July 9, 2022

About Yoon

Yoon Choi was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. She received her Bachelor’s degree in fine art from Ewha Women’s University in Seoul and her Master’s degree in textiles design at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Yoon is now a Footwear Concept Designer at Nike.

What did your career path look like?

I interned at various design studios through graduate school and after graduation. I worked for two years at a small design studio that focuses on non-residential interior textiles. About six years ago, I came to work in Nike’s Innovation department, where I’ve been ever since.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as an international student?

A couple months after I finally submitted my H-1B application, I received a letter from an immigration officer saying that based on his book that lists eligible H-1B careers, Textile Design might not be in scope because it doesn’t require even a Bachelor’s degree. As such, he asked for me to provide a set of letters by professionals in my industry to confirm that a degree is in fact required for my career. Aside from this feeling as insulting as it did—I had just dedicated the last six years of my life and made an incredible financial commitment to setting myself up for a career in this field—it was going to be a very stressful, exhausting and discouraging process to go through.

The directions were ambiguous without a specific number of letters to produce and asked to provide statements from industry peers accompanied by their proof of education, which required a lot of effort from them. After significant outreach across my network, I collected around ten written letters and diplomas from very generous friends, professors and even some strangers in my extended network.

My letters were accepted and qualified my career as skilled labor, but shortly after, a rumor emerged that the US had hit its H1B limit and were going to resort to a lottery system for the first time in a few years. I was confident because entering that process with a masters degree, I would be placed in a higher probability pool, but in the end, I saw friends who didn’t make the lottery despite successfully securing visa sponsorship and having graduated from top American universities. I understand that the process has only become more competitive since then.

What about your most valuable resources?

Finding a list of companies that sponsor visas and getting legal help was very helpful. After I found a company who would support me, they were still too small to provide the necessary legal assistance (unlike larger companies that have in-house legal teams), which meant I had to find and pay for my own immigration lawyer, which was not easy or cheap. A company that could provide trusted and affordable legal assistance would have been extremely valuable for me. I’ve also heard that at some of the larger companies that do provide legal assistance that this can indirectly impact employees salaries, so protection from this via affordable private legal assistance I imagine would be valuable for all.

What advice would you give to international students?

Recruiting has to be less about the company and its reputation and more about finding a company that will support your immigration and allow you to build on the skills you gained in school. You need to sometimes swallow your pride and not pursue your dream company even when you see American peers with comparable resumes and experiences as you. If the company can’t support your immigration process, then it’s not worth dedicating your time to recruiting.

Be smart about where you intern. If you intern for a company that cannot promise visa support for full time, you have to move on to other options. It isn’t just about finding an internship that can convert to full time employment, it’s also about getting immigration support, which – if you don’t ask – you might not find out their unwillingness to provide until the completion of your internship.

Understand the immigration timelines. Even after you find an employer who will sponsor you, there are lead times in processing the visa that you need to understand. People think you have a full year after graduating, but the reality is it’s actually more like 7 months when you consider how long it takes to complete and submit the H1B application. I learned this from friends who had gone through this process. My school did not provide this information and many of my peer international students did not benefit from this same context and thus didn’t secure a job ahead of this timeline.

Try not to be discouraged by this process. It was painful, but it made me stronger and more confident in myself. I eventually learned there were many things out of my control, all I could do was be my best self and use the best resources available to me. I decided it would not be the worst thing in the world if things ultimately did not work out, and knew it could lead to an even better life somewhere else in the world if it didn’t. I feel fortunate and proud of how things worked out, but I would not have been ashamed if life had taken me in a different direction.