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International students may serve off campus in a volunteer capacity.  This means you spend time helping out certain types of organizations, groups, or people for no compensation; for example, a nonprofit or cultural organization, a tutoring/mentoring experience, or a group that provides charitable or humanitarian services.  This service is for the benefit of the organization or the people served, not yourself.  A good place to start looking for opportunities is right here on campus, at the Leduc Center for Civic Engagement.

Why Volunteer?

Usually volunteering is very satisfying personally, even though you are not being paid for it.  

  • You are helping people who may have fewer advantages in life.  
  • Besides the good feeling you get from helping, it’s a great way to network with people who share your interests.
  • You may also gain valuable experience or even professional contacts for the future.

You are not required to obtain special permission for this service, even though international students do need written approval for most instances of off-campus activity.  This is because of the nature of what you will be doing, rather than the fact that you are not earning a salary or getting any kind of compensation.

Asking yourself these questions may help, if you’re not sure the activity is truly volunteer:

  • Is the service I’m providing charitable or humanitarian in nature?
  • Am I free of pressure from the employer to accept no pay?
  • Is my type of service usually paid for by the organization, or am I taking a paid job away from somebody else?
  • Am I expecting that my volunteer service now will result in a good job for me later with this organization?
  • Am I volunteering at a for-profit company or organization?

If you can answer “yes” to the first two questions and “no" to the last three questions, then your service is in the volunteer category.

For further questions about whether a specific activity truly qualifies as volunteer, please see an advisor at the International Student & Scholar Center

Unpaid internships

It’s easy to confuse unpaid internships with volunteering, because you’re not getting paid in either case.  But, the difference becomes clearer with a little guidance.  

  • Unpaid internships, for which you would need approval for Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT), are
    • mostly in the for-profit sector
    • directly related to your major field of study 
    • advertised as unpaid 
    • primarily for your benefit as a training or work experience, not for the benefit of the company hosting your internship.

The U.S. Department of Labor protects all employees from exploitation by making it against the law for an employer to pressure you to work for free or to expect you to work for free at a job that is usually paid.  See this U.S. Department of Labor Fact Sheet.

Examples of the difference between volunteering and unpaid internships:

VolunteerPermissible?Unpaid InternshipPermissible?
Community Food Bank – helping serve meals Yes – no authorization needed Unpaid position for Marketing student observing how community food bank handles its publicity and fundraising Yes – CPT or OPT approval is required
Mentor/tutor in a local elementary school Yes – no authorization needed Biology Graduate Student earning academic credit tutoring in science in a school Yes – CPT or OPT approval is required
Student helping the choir director with a local church's children's choir Yes – no authorization needed Music student offered internship at a local music studio observing their procedures Yes – CPT or OPT approval is required

The ISSC holds periodic workshops in both CPT and OPT application procedures to help students learn how to safeguard their visa status while getting work experience in the field of study.  You can also speak with an advisor at any time on this point.

  • UMass Dartmouth’s Career Development Center is an excellent resource on obtaining internship positions BUT
  • You must also carefully follow OPT and CPT procedures with our office to ensure you are complying with your visa requirements. 

Starting your Own Business (Entrepreneurship or Start-ups)

In some cases F-1 and J-1 students can obtain work authorization and start their own business, as long as you are operating legally and have any required business licenses.

  • It’s easier to use the 12-month OPT period for this than the new 24-month extension allowed for STEM fields, since the extended period has more restrictive rules: a written training program, additional reporting requirements for schools, and so on.

Where to Begin

  • U.S. Custom and Immigration Services (USCIS) has launched an Entrepreneur Pathways website with information and guidance about legally operating your own business in the U.S. while your F-1 student visa is valid.  
  • Then, our own UMass Dartmouth Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is a good place for ideas about starting your own business.
  • You may wish to consult with an immigration attorney to be sure you have all necessary paperwork and employment authorizations in place.  You wouldn’t want to jeopardize a bright new business idea by overlooking an essential document or permission!

This article discusses various aspects of entrepreneurship with a visa.  One of the co-authors is an immigration attorney himself and a member of the U.S. Alliance for International Entrepreneurs (USAIE), which provides comprehensive services and advice to international entrepreneurs. Visit the USAIE website.

Information courtesy of the following universities and organizations providing resources for international students:

  • Boston University
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Florida
  • University of Michigan
  • U.S. Alliance for International Entrepreneurs
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