March 25, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Cornell’s Fading Mission: The International Students’ Plight

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A week ago, I attended the First American University lecture, in which I learned about Cornell’s history. A feeling of genuine pride for my alma mater empowered me as I found out that Cornell was the first Ivy League institution to accept women, and also that “every nationality” figured among Ezra Cornell’s “any person, any study” vision. Today, I am writing to you in distress because Cornell is walking away from these values, and is marginalizing the international student community like never before.

This past year has been hard on us international students, given the political climate that exploded in xenophobia, led to bans on countries from which some of us come or have family living in, and maliciously framed us as the other. During such times, Cornell issued brave statements that provided some sense of security. But there has been a clear disconnect between what Cornell says through its official statements and what is reflected through its actions.

In the last three semesters, the international student community has witnessed regressive policies levied against them, one after the other. First, the University changed its need-blind policy for international students to need-aware. It did so without engaging any international students in the conversation, and crushed its values of shared governance. It also provided little facts or data to support the sudden policy changes. For instance, the administration alleged that a high number of international students were dropping out because of financial constraints, but never provided any evidence regarding this claim whatsoever.

I know some people will undoubtedly point out how international students should not receive financial aid because their parents do not pay taxes. I have neither the time nor the space in this piece  to explain how we never asked for more financial aid to begin with, but just a chance to apply for it while we look for other outside sources of funding, and how the switch to need-aware implies that many of us who continue to contribute to Cornell would have never been here in the first place.

I do, however, want to delve into how the university will probably use this switch from need-blind to need-aware for international students to reduce the economic diversity of students, including domestic students. A document from the Admissions and Financial Aid Review Working Group explains how increasing the number of rich international students using the need-aware policy would enable Cornell to admit fewer domestic students who require financial aid and fall under the need-blind policy.

I am inclined to believe that the housing masterplan will use this option of admitting more rich international students to pay for itself, given the increase in enrollment it advocates for. After all, as the early draft of the AFARWG report mentioned, the University thinks that options pertaining to international students when it comes to financial resources have “potentially less negative public perception than other options that are more visible.”

International students are indeed the first ones to be thrown under the bus when tough decisions need to be made, because the administration expects us to remain quiet. My heart aches when I read how the university, behind closed doors, tokenizes us to achieve superficial diversity but does not really care about our student experience.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Cornell has implemented other regressive policies against us. The economics department, at the end of last year, decided to stop giving approvals for Curricular Practical Training, the work authorization that the majority of international students use for paid summer internships. The department announced the decision in an email without giving any explanation. When I led the pushback as the international student representative on Student Assembly in the fall, they agreed to reconsider their decision and reinstate the CPT. A university-wide task force was instituted to look into the issue and make recommendations. Yet the summer is nearly here and the economics department is still waiting to hear from the task force. The department is refusing to give CPT approvals for the moment, breaking away from the Chair’s promise that it would continue to do so.

International students, meanwhile, are distressed about whether they will even be able to get work authorization for the summer internships they spent anxious months applying to and interviewing for. Cornell sits in silence as we send emails urging them to act quickly and attend meetings that have an emotional toll on us. I have never not been in tears after each CPT task force meeting in which I am expected to listen politely and be professional while the economics faculty attacks my humanity and that of my community.

Cornell, a member of the Ivy League that has been accepting international students for more than a century, does not have a resource center for them. We only have the International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO), situated in the basement — yes, the basement — of Caldwell Hall, which is an office that the majority of us only attend for visas and paperwork. On the day of the Trump country ban, I attended a meeting in that basement with students from the affected countries. Several students had to remain standing because there was not enough space for chairs in the room. This just goes to show how little resources the university is willing to expend on us.

Most people believe that Student Assembly does not do much, but during my time on the S.A., my relentless advocacy for international students affected my mental health and academics. I worked on resolutions for weeks. I wrote dozens of urgent but always politically correct emails. I attended countless emotionally draining meetings. I am both saddened and shocked that the university is going in a direction that requires me, a student paying tuition and who is here to study before anything else, to have to forgo my well-being and studies to support my community.

“I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” We have never, in practice, reached an ideal embodiment of “any person, any study.” For years, we have made progress by following this vision, and we have gotten closer to fully achieving it. Recently, however, the Cornell administration seems to have abandoned this vision and is moving further and further away from it.

As an international student, and as a Cornell student who still believes in our founding principles and our global engagement mission, I ask the broader Cornell community to denounce the regressive policies against the international student community. I humbly ask for your help, because we, international students, form part of the Cornell community too and contribute to it in salient ways through our different experiences and additions. But today, we feel unwelcome, betrayed and exhausted.


Akhilesh Issur is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He currently serves as the international student liaison for the Student Assembly, and is the vice president for advocacy for the International Students Union. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester. Comments may be sent to [email protected].