Columbia College prides itself on being a liberal arts college, and I wholeheartedly support that vision of higher education. College is a place for intellectual journey, where one can hone critical thinking skills fueled by creativity and curiosity. It is where students of different backgrounds gather to engage in discourse and dialogue, symbolized by seminar-style Core courses like Lit Hum or Contemporary Civilization.
But life happens outside of college as well, and it is in this regard that Columbia College can do better. Some majors in Columbia Engineering, such as computer science or electrical engineering, have a course called Fieldwork, wherein students get one credit for an off-campus internship related to their major. However, Columbia College does not offer Fieldwork courses, meaning that its students, unlike their counterparts in SEAS, do not receive any academic credit for internships related to their major. This, in turn, inadvertently puts international students in Columbia College at a disadvantage.
Unlike our American classmates, we international students require work authorization for internships and jobs. There are two such authorizations: optional practical training and curricular practical training. OPT grants international students the authorization to work for 12 months in America either during or after college, and those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields get an extra 24-month extension. This option is open to both Columbia College and SEAS students.
CPT, on the other hand, is not. CPT is another 12-month authorization to work in a job that is an “integral part of the established curriculum of your degree program.” What this means is that CPT can be offered for Fieldwork classes only. Thus, CPT is available only for Columbia Engineering students, while Columbia College students are systematically barred.
This is especially jarring for international students who are not in a STEM field. Since they do not have the STEM extension, the most they can work in America is 12 months—either during college or after graduation. As a result, my friend who is a visual arts major cannot work at a gallery that she wants to work at for fear of using her precious OPT. Similarly, an international political science major might not be able to work at a New York-based NGO during the school year.
Our peer institutions have programs designed to accommodate the CPT process. For example, University of California, Berkeley has a course giving academic credits to summer internships, and this allows international students to use CPT for their internships. Additionally, undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania can design their own independent study course in which international students can work for a company related to their major using CPT. Clearly, our counterparts at other universities are allowing more flexibility within CPT—putting international students at Columbia College at a disadvantage. This must be addressed.
Ever since I was appointed as CCSC’s international students representative, I have worked hard with the administration on any updates Columbia College might implement for CPT for international students. I have met with the director of the International Students and Scholars Office and a dean at the Center for Career Education. I also have made sure to talk about this when I’ve met administrators in the Office of Academic Affairs. So far, the response has been a mixed bag of clichéd platitudes like “It is still in development.”
I urge administrators to take this issue more seriously than they do right now. Due to our visa restrictions, international students face many more difficulties when it comes to recruitment and internships, and any policies that can incrementally alleviate those difficulties not only help us career-wise, but also eliminate a major source of concern and anxiety that international students face at Columbia.
I will continue to pressure administrators and departments to address this problem during my time on CCSC. I also ask my fellow international students to keep questioning administrators as much as they can and try to express our needs at every stage of contact.
Joon Baek is a sophomore in Columbia College studying computer science and physics. He is the international students representative for the Columbia College Student Council. Coming from South Korea, Joon took a leave from Columbia for two years to serve in the South Korean army at the Demilitarized Zone before returning last year. Aside from questioning administrators to do better, you can also find him dabbling in student theater, religiously watching SNL, and going to rock concerts.
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