May 3, 2016

HABR | Studying to Stay

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As the semester nears its end, the inevitable question begins to echo (as if it hasn’t been repeated starting the middle of last semester). “What are you doing this summer?” is more of an evaluation than a question; there’s only really very few right answers.

A source of stress for many, summer internships have become so normalized that they are seen as almost required. Cornell’s competitive environment makes students feel like they need to be interning with a Fortune 500 company in the summer if they hope to amount to anything in life. For international students, the stress is even worse. A search through lists and databases of internship listings shows me hundreds of offers, but when I filter out listings that are for U.S. citizens only, the list suddenly shrinks to a handful of opportunities. Difficulties in finding internships leave international students with less access to relevant experience that could help them to get a job, especially those who come from places where internships are less common.

The difficulty of finding an internship is only one example of a hardship faced by international students. Although we are all incredibly privileged, being an international student at Cornell offers its own complex series of obstacles that being a citizen does not. While we pay the same amount (often more), it is clear that we don’t have the same opportunities as citizens do.

Of the internships available to international students, the amount of paid ones is significantly smaller. This is a problem not just particular to international students, but all students. Unpaid internships act as a filter, only available for richer students who can afford them. These unpaid internships, along with the policy of many universities (now unfortunately including Cornell) to have need-aware admission to international students, greatly restrict the amount (and type) of international students that are able to study here.

These policies together restrict the admission of international students not by merit, but by income. Students are not given an equal or fair chance, but are effectively discriminated against based on their wealth. Need-aware policies rob students of the opportunity to find independent ways to finance their education, like through outside scholarships, and therefore unfairly prioritize richer students. For students that do make it to the U.S., restrictive visa policies push them into certain career fields just so they can stay in the country.

Students who plan to stay and work in the U.S. after graduation are at even more of a disadvantage, not just in the internship search process but the job search process, too. Students have one year after graduation to work if they are sponsored, and must leave if they do not find work within 3 months of graduation. After finding a job, employees must be sponsored by their employers for an H1-B visa. These visas cost employers about $1,000 and only allow employees to stay in the country to work for an additional three years. To get a job and stay in the U.S., international students have to jump through a series of hoops and obstacles. According to the U.S. department of immigration and citizenships, only 30 percent of H1-B visa applications were granted in 2015. And things do not seem to be getting better: Both Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Donald Trump, advocate for the halting of H1-B visas and increased restriction of immigration and work visas, and the job market remains stagnant.

Some groups of international students have it somewhat better than the rest: STEM students and business students. New policies have recently been implemented in order to help STEM majors extend on the job training for three years as part of a new visa program, and most companies willing to sponsor international students are large corporate ones, often in banking and finance. International students are seen primarily as doctors, businessmen and women and engineers, and are rewarded for being so, but our contribution to the social sciences and humanities remain much less valued.

The implication of this is that only certain types of students are encouraged and able to attend American universities, and potentially qualified future employees are deterred if they are not rich enough or studying the right thing. These policies remove voices and different perspectives from disciplines that could benefit from them, and discount the importance of having foreign voices in humanities, social sciences.

The American higher education and visa system funnels students into STEM and on to Wall Street, not because students are interested in these fields, but because these jobs are often their only opportunity to stay in the U.S. and to make it worth paying the exorbitant costs. It is unfortunate that students have to give up what they love in exchange for a visa, especially at Cornell, whose founding motto is “any person, any study.” For international students, who need to choose a certain major and have a certain amount of income to be able to attend, neither part of this motto rings true.

Katy Habr is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell. Comments may be sent to kh547@cornell.edu. On the Margin runs alternate Wednesdays  this semester. 

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