Leigh Vogel / The New York Times

Federal employees, contractors, and supporters rally to demand that President Donald Trump and the Senate reopen the government at a rally outside of the White House in Washington, Jan. 10, 2019.

January 20, 2019

Government Shutdown Complicates Learning, Travel and Internship Opportunities for Students and Researchers

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While some Cornellians struggle with snow closures in their return to the Ithaca campus, other students and employees are dealing with a more lasting issue — the U.S. government shutdown, as essential government services freeze and federal research funding dries up.

As the longest-ever U.S. shutdown enters its 30th day, with no definite end in sight, students who planned to work with federal agencies have had to adapt their academic plans.

Pamela Wildstein ’20 traveled to Washington, D.C. this January over winter break alongside other students in her NTRES 4300: Environmental Policy Processes course. The students went to interview members of federal organizations as part of a policy brief assignment for the course.

Wildstein began the research process before the shutdown started, communicating with one federal employee for the project, emailing and speaking to him on the phone before he was furloughed.

The government was closed throughout the duration of the 10-day class trip and Wildstein said, “I haven’t been able to contact him at all since.”

Wildstein, who was writing her brief on federal efforts to update and modernize the electric grid, was only able to interview individuals from the Department of Energy on the trip, as she was unable to contact anyone in at least four other government departments.

After the shutdown ends, Wildstein plans to seek out the individuals she was unable to reach:  “I have a list,” she said.

Multiple students participating in the semester-long Cornell in Washington program cannot begin their internships as a result of processing delays, including Sun columnist Sarah Park ’20. Park was scheduled to begin her internship with the Council of Economic Advisors on Tuesday, the first day of classes for students in the program.

Park, however, was informed earlier this month that she would not be able to begin working until about a week to 10 days after the government reopened. Park said she needed to be cleared through security background and drug tests, but the offices that coordinate those checkpoints are furloughed.

The Cornell in Washington program requires attendees to have an internship during the semester, according to its website. Park said that she would be meeting with advisors this week to discuss options for the upcoming semester.

Despite some cases like Park, the majority of Cornellians interning in D.C. will not be affected. “Most won’t be affected at all, as the vast majority of student internships this coming semester are at places not touched by the shutdown,” Prof. David Silbey, associate director of Cornell in Washington, wrote in an email to The Sun.

Furthermore, Cornell law students who participate in “externships” with government organizations seem to have largely avoided any complications by acting proactively before the shutdown.

“I am particularly glad that these students arranged their placements well ahead of time, because I am hearing from colleagues at other schools that the necessary security clearances are not being done now,” Prof. Andrea Mooney, law, wrote in an email to The Sun.

Mooney, who coordinates the externship program, added that “the remaining students in the externship program are in state offices and NGOs and so are safe from the shutdown (at least for now).”

Eduardo Peñalver, dean of the law school, said that he believes that the shutdown won’t dissuade students from a career in government. “I would wager that it will take more than a government shutdown — even a long one — to deter them from pursuing their chosen career path,” Penalver said according to the New York Law Journal.

As the shutdown affects students’ academic plans, it also began to impact scientists, whose ability to do research was hamstrung as government funding vanished. The shutdown has closed all U.S. Department of Agriculture labs on campus and at the Geneva campus, according to Ken Schlather, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins.

The USDA Agricultural Research Service on Cornell’s Geneva campus was seeing “very direct effects,” said Erin Flynn, manager of the office of marketing and communications for Cornell AgriTech.

Schlather also suggested that if the shutdown extends for more than one quarter, “New York State could stop reimbursing us — and other CCE associations across the state — for expenditures related to SNAP education programming, because the state likely is not being reimbursed by the feds.”

Researchers were told to download resources and materials from the USDA and National Science Foundation websites in a Dec. 21 university-wide announcement in anticipation of a shutdown. A follow-up announcement on Jan. 2 told researchers to continue working and meeting deadlines.

“Individuals working for the government through Interagency Personnel Agreements should follow the instructions issued to them from their government supervisor,” the second announcement read. “As Cornell employees, these individuals will be paid for their time even if instructed not to report to work.”

However, if the shutdown persists, the announcement continued, individuals may be contacted to alter their contract.

The government shutdown has also impacted Cornell’s international student population, as government resources and operations are delayed or rendered inaccessible.

One such resource is the “E-Verify” system, which is used by employers who hire international students. The system — which allows employers to check if their employees are eligible to work by referencing immigration documents — is currently not available.

Furthermore, while the Department of State is still functioning through the shutdown, “visa applicants may possibly see delays,” Cornell’s International Services website read.