This past winter break, I spent much of my time—when I wasn’t sleeping—trolling LionSHARE and writing cover letters for summer internships. That is, when I could find them, which is strange, since there is no dearth of jobs available to Columbia students. Especially for those students looking in industries that have a large presence in New York City, the problem is one of having too many options: It would be impractical to apply to the some 200 positions in finance currently open for this summer alone.
But not for everyone. Hidden somewhere in most job descriptions is a line that reads: “Candidates must have permanent work authorization to work for any company in the United States for an unlimited period of time without restrictions.” I would hazard a guess that it doesn’t even register with most prospective applicants. But for the 19 percent of us who are international students , myself included, it is a line that greatly reduces the number of opportunities we can pursue. For all the discussion of whether international students add to Columbia by enhancing “diversity,” there is little consciousness on campus of what the practical and political realities of having a large international population are. It becomes incredibly frustrating to realize that, regardless of whatever experience or qualifications you might have, most employers will not even look at you if you happen to be here on a visa. I’ve gotten into the habit of walking into company information sessions, asking if they hire foreign nationals, and turning right around and leaving if the answer is “no.”
Rightly so, a lot of Americans, including some on this campus, would say. The sentiment cannot simply be brushed aside as a caricatured, vocal fringe protesting that “dey tuhk err jobs.” Nor is it one that only concerns employers too small to afford the extra paperwork and potential liability that comes with hiring international students, unless one considers the likes of Google “small.” The logic goes like this: If a domestic candidate is only marginally worse than an international one, it is simply easier to take the American. It does not make sense to offer someone a position that might turn into a full-time offer if that offer will be complicated by the ordeal of having to sponsor a work visa after graduation. The wait for such work authorization is inevitably too long, uncertain, and expensive to be worth most companies’ time. After all, these candidates are not American. They probably won’t contribute to the country in the long term, and more specifically, Columbia cannot prepare them for future leadership roles within American society. Why not just send them home after their four years here?
For one, it makes little economic sense to do so. Doing anything except hiring the best candidate for a given job would be reducing productivity—and hence slowing American economic growth. Keeping talented students who have specifically come to the United States to pursue what they perceive as the best education possible, instead of remaining in their home countries, can only be good for American industry and innovation. Limiting their opportunities only limits their potential contributions to this country.
America is a country of immigrants, and international students also happen to be some of the best candidates for immigration that one could ask for. At the risk of stating the obvious, we speak English, are highly educated, and are already here legally. Although a fraction of international students plan on returning home after their education, for those who are open to staying, working, and contributing, the process of doing so should be made easier—not more difficult—by the United States.
Columbia should not only be concerned with raising the number of international students on campus. If students are unable to explore and use their abilities (and what they have learned at Columbia), then it can hardly be a fulfilling experience for them. Their American peers and colleagues suffer as well: An important dimension of life loses the richness of perspective that international students are supposed to bring with them. What’s more, when international students are pushed into the few fields where employers are willing to sponsor them after graduation, academic life as a whole reflects the lost potential. It is hardly adding to a diverse student body if all the international students in the college end up majoring in financial economics (hyperbole, to be sure, but not far off the mark).
A small piece of the solution might include having the Center for Career Education note more clearly which recruiting events, jobs, and employers consider international students. On a higher level, institutions of Columbia’s stature have the power to lobby on behalf of reform that would make it easier for such students to transition into the American workplace. In any case, remaining complacent and oblivious to barriers against work and immigration while parroting “diversity” can only hurt us. If one of Columbia’s duties is to educate leaders who will better this country, then we would be remiss if we did not fully support those who, rather than simply being born here, have chosen America.
Bob Sun is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and biology. He is a member of the Committee on Instruction. Terms of Engagement runs alternate Tuesdays.
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