In response to Columbia’s growing international student population, as well as student concerns regarding space and accessibility, Director of the International Students and Scholars Office David Austell announced that the office will be hiring four new staff members and plans to expand its office space.
In light of the Trump administration’s increasingly stringent rhetoric around international students and visa policies, ISSO has been challenged to keep up with the constantly changing immigration regulations.
“These new regulations have to be evaluated—their effects on students, getting information out, and implementing changes. It’s not just the new staff that needs constant training. We’re in training all the time—I’m in training,” Austell said.
But while the national population of international students declined by 6.6 percent in the fall of 2017, the presence of international students at Columbia has grown dramatically in the past few years. The University has the highest number of international students in the Ivy League, and its international student body has more than doubled since 2008.
As of 2017, Columbia has 10,785 international students across all campuses, a 2.5 percent growth from 2016. There are currently 675 international students in Columbia College, and 351 in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
The ISSO serves the immigration-related needs of the international student population across Columbia’s 16 schools at the Morningside Heights and Medical Center campuses, including undergraduates, graduates, nondegree students, and visiting faculty. According to its website, ISSO currently has 26 staff members at Morningside and four at CUMC.
Supporting Columbia’s growing international student body, however, has proven a challenge for the ISSO. Columbia College Student Council International Student Representative Nikola Danev, CC ’20, said he believes that ISSO could use at least three times its current staff.
“ISSO is extremely understaffed, extremely overworked. … The people that work at ISSO are incredible, but it’s impossible for them to do everything,” Danev said in an October interview with Spectator.
According to Austell, the new hires will include three new international student advisers and one coordinator for the Morningside campus, as well as one new international student adviser at CUMC. The advisers work with individual students to address their specific immigration-related needs, including providing documentation services and information on visas and employment, while the new coordinator will assist in managing the front desk. Austell said the new staff, who were hired at the end of the 2017-18 academic year, will alleviate the existing burden on ISSO’s staff.
“When you think about the student load on a particular advisor, with that type of growth, it’s intense,” Austell said. “I think what we will see is … team members themselves able to spend more time directly with the students without feeling like they are being rushed.”
The office has also expanded its hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays for walk-in advising, as well as document pickup or drop-off. In response to student complaints over email wait times, Austell said the student advising team now responds to emails within 72 hours, although he said the average response time is much shorter. For emergencies, four staff members are on call 24/7, and Austell has also given students his personal phone number.
ISSO has also encountered roadblocks in its efforts to be a more accessible presence on the Morningside campus, given that its office is located in International House, which is on Riverside Drive between 122nd and 123rd Street.
“There is a relatively large international student body here, and it would be nice if we had any urgent issues or pressing questions to be able to go somewhere that was on [the main] campus," Rawan Hayat, CC ’22 said.
Since 2016, ISSO has had plans to set up an office in Kent Hall, but it has not yet been able to do so, due to competition over space on campus.
“That is a dream we’ve had in a number of years … that we could have at least a small presence in Kent. … Everybody wants to be on the main campus,” Austell said.
To address this issue, the office has begun holding more programming on Columbia’s main campus, including a town hall held last spring to address students’ immigration concerns following the presidential election, an event that was attended by over 700 students.
Austell, however, maintained his excitement about the growth of ISSO’s current office.
“The location at [International House] is becoming more and more central to Columbia because of Manhattanville. ... It’s right down the street from here. … We anticipate that a large international community will be at Manhattanville, and so the space in [International House] makes very good sense,” Austell said.
Austell added that ISSO is also working to improve its website, as many of the requests students have can be addressed online. He emphasized the need for ISSO to continuously change and expand in response to student growth.
“It doesn’t stop with the work we are doing now. It’s kind of an ongoing process. … We are faced with difficult challenges, and the students are often faced with difficult challenges. … In an international community, the concept of safety and security is foremost,” he said.