You know how, in Easy A, Emma Stone’s character says that Judy Blume should have prepared her for this? “This” being public humiliation at her high school that vaguely mirrored the plot of “The Scarlet Letter.” Well, a degree in economics should have prepared me for this. This being the art of negotiating my own salary as a young woman of color and as an immigrant. Although I’ve held many jobs—in public relations, marketing, academia, and now writing—I have never once negotiated my starting salary, much less petition for a raise. Not after earning my first and second bachelor’s degrees and not after earning my master’s degree. Not even after putting in overtime at every single job I’ve ever worked.
I know that, as a non-American woman of color, I have to fight that much harder for a seat at the table but I’ve convinced myself that I’m not just fighting, I’m begging and beggars can’t be choosers. Beggars don’t have bargaining power because the belief is that beggars bring nothing to the table.
I moved to the U.S. for college when I was 17 years old with every intention of returning home to Trinidad and Tobago promptly after graduating with my first degree. I returned much later but not before I realized that I had a better chance of realizing my professional dreams by taking advantage of the educational opportunities I was privileged enough to enjoy there and the opportunity to work thereafter that came with the completion of each new degree. I enthusiastically tackled new industries and roles I’d never known possible, like my most recent path as a sex, dating, and relationships writer, because if I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that international students in the U.S. (like I was) are hungry and eager.
Often, we don’t qualify for financial aid or scholarships despite being among the top performers in our classes; we are not allowed to work off-campus during our college careers without prior approval making internships a bureaucratic nightmare; and visa requirements make it clear that failing and retaking one too many classes is not an option. These are facts that few people around us know or understand. It’s why I identified myself earlier in this article loosely and more simply as an immigrant and not as a non-resident alien (yes, that’s the actual legal term) who studied and worked in the U.S. for the past decade.
Still, with each new degree, my status made landing a job after graduation that more difficult because employers who are globally conscious know that, as an international student, I was working on borrowed time—12 to 17 months per degree (depending on the nature of the degree) that an international student is allowed to work in the U.S. And employers who aren’t aware of this stipulation often questioned my authenticity once this came up.
I have never negotiated a starting salary or asked for a raise because I’ve always felt dispensable. I have never negotiated a starting salary or asked for a raise because I’ve feared my experience as an international student-turned-employee was worth less than others’. I have never negotiated a starting salary or asked for a raise because aliens don’t negotiate.