October 1, 2020

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Let’s Renew Our Commitment to International Student Inclusion

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In its very first entering class, Cornell admitted international students from around the world, namely Russia, England, Bulgaria and Hungary.

This was quite revolutionary. Not only did the students discover Cornell, but they then figured out how to get to Ithaca in 1868. More importantly, however, a budding university made good on its promise to build an institution where any student could receive instruction regardless of their national origin.

More than a century later, as we face an unprecedented pandemic and increasing global political turmoil, Cornell’s resolve is being put to the test. At this crossroads, our community must renew its commitment to the inclusion of international students.

The advent of commercial flights has undoubtedly made traveling more accessible, yet, life as an international student remains difficult. Getting to Ithaca still often involves more than 24 hours of continuous transit. Once on campus, many feel homesick and have a tougher time getting adjusted. Throughout their Cornell careers, visa issues frequently preclude international students from professional opportunities available to other students.

Being an international student in the time of coronavirus presents a host of additional challenges. For me, doing my semester remotely from my home in South Korea, a typical school day begins at 11 PM, with a large cup of coffee on my desk. Classes last until past 5 a.m., but I usually end up calling it a day at 3 a.m. The next morning begins with a 7 a.m. teaching assistants’ meeting or a 9 a.m. club meeting, followed by a binge-watching session of lecture recordings from the night before.

But right now, the time zone difference is not our only hurdle. For the second time this year, immigration authorities have proposed new student visas restrictions, sending shockwaves throughout international student communities. The most recent one, published at the end of last week, proposes restricting student visas to four years; students exceeding four years must apply for a waiver. Students in Cornell’s world-class architectural program and our Ph.D. candidates, for example, would face the uncertainty of not knowing whether they could stay in the US in their final year to complete their academic programs.

International students know very well the feeling of receiving a 2 a.m. email from “international@cornell.edu” debriefing a sudden “immigration rule change.” It’s difficult to focus on simply enjoying Cornell for what it is when you feel that your ability to exist on campus is constantly in peril. The constantly shifting immigration policy landscape seems to tell you that – as an international student – you just don’t belong here.

But at Cornell, this is far from the truth. International students have been an integral part of the student body since our founding. Here, we do not let an immigration distinction determine the educational experience or support a student receives; these contentious political debates are topics for a different Hill. Whether you are on a visa, documented or undocumented, you most unequivocally belong at Cornell.

In fact, since our founding on April 27, 1865, Cornell has been a different kind of a university – one that has refused to let the status quo or the political environment determine who has access to education. Women attended classes from Cornell’s opening day and were officially admitted two years later; every other Ivy League university would refuse to accept them until a century later. Our doors were open to African American students since day one, at a time when laws in the South prevented them from receiving higher education.

And this is the Cornell difference, a difference that allowed this university, young and struggling at its founding, to quickly rise to become one of the world’s premier institutions.

Here, an international background and a global perspective is a strength, not an impediment. And today’s challenges are not a reason to back down from our founder’s ideals, which have endured for more than a century. Instead, they are a reminder that we must double down on our unique advantage.

During these difficult times, we must make an active effort to include international students at Cornell – both on campus and abroad. Instructors and course staff should make a conscious effort to help international students learn in their local time zones and offer additional support to overcome the challenges of remote learning. Campus leaders should ensure equal opportunities for students on the other side of the world by providing flexibility when scheduling meetings.

But most importantly, let’s remember Cornell’s foundational commitment to international students. Right now, Cornell’s international community is looking to us to help foster a culture of inclusion on campus and around the world.

In this challenging environment, we are presented with an opportunity to make good on our founding ideals of diversity. And as the Cornellians who came before us did in 1868, we should seize it once again.