Opinion | Columns

International students need not apply

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.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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Joe Nockles posted on

That was a terrific piece of writing, Bob. Really brings the issue to the front of the agenda. Thanks

anon posted on

Although your point is well taken, these rules have nothing to do with Columbia University, or any university as you seem to be implying. These have to do with state and federal regulations, taxes laws, labor laws, social security, etc. I think Columbia does do its utmost to support international students in the realm of what it can do as a teaching institution.

Anonymous posted on

yeah I mean this is a fantastic article. it really gets to an interesting point and raises awareness about an issue that, as you stated, most people aren't aware of. but your writing has this bizarre and inappropriate accusatory tone. it's not my fault that companies don't want to sponsor international students for work visas. you could read this as defensiveness, the origin of which might be my insecurity and latent xenophobia. but you'd be wrong. it's simply a response to the anger at Columbia students that you seem to harbor and express rather pointedly. i mean you might be responding to the article you linked to that was blatantly xenophobic, but it would be worth your time to be a little more clear where your directing that anger. the real problem here is immigration policy in the United States, which was set by the generation ahead of your readership here at Columbia, and will probably be reformed if any of the students at this university have anything to say about it.

DSOhere posted on

Excellent article. It's very true that schools like Columbia could do more to advocate for better immigration laws to help educated international students remain in the US. Now is the time. In Obama's speech he said" “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country." We need to find a way to keep bright, talented, motivated people here and this will only add to overall economic opportunities for all.

Rtfg@hotmail.com posted on

Yale rocks.....

Anonymous posted on

Though this is a well-written article, the author does not seem to correctly  and entirely understand why many companies do not attempt to hire international candidates. 
In order to sponsor a work visa for an employee, the company must legally PROVE that there is no one who would not need the visa that is qualified to do the job with the help of reasonable training. And, unfortunately, in most cases, this is simply not true: even if, as the author says, an international candidate is marginally better, the candidate is just that: MARGINALLY better. There is still someone who is eligible to work in the US who is QUALIFIED to do the job. Thus, attempting to prove this requires an incredible amount of work for the HR department and paying for an attorney to defend this case, all of which is quite time consuming and costly, especially for small to medium sized companies, and frequently does not even result in the company acquiring the ability to grant a work visa. Then, you're stuck with a candidate you hired who can only be here until their current visa expires; at that point, the company will have to go through the hiring process again. Hiring someone for only a few years is not necessarily a good investment in the company.
I don't know what the solution to this situation is and I am not saying that I necessarily AGREE with these processes, I just felt the need to clarify that companies do not avoid hiring international candidates because they question the individual's ability to contribute to the US, but because it is a time-consuming and costly process that frequently fails to achieve its objective.

Anonymous posted on

Excellent article. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Anonymous posted on

Great article. I graduated in May and my international status seems to be my greatest limiting factor in finding a job

Anonymous posted on


Rajkamal Rao posted on

While I understand Bob Sun's frustrations in not landing an internship,
it may be improper to place all of the blame on restrictive immigration
policies. Yes, being an international student is unhelpful but there
are several other reasons that are contributing to his disappointment.

For one, New York state is not exactly the job generator it once
was. According to the latest state by state unemployment statistics,
New York ranks 37/50 and boasts a high unemployment rate of 8.2%. While
Columbia students may want to think that they and New York City are
somehow exempt, the real world doesn't just work that way. I refer your
readers to an excellent article in Bloomerg last
week. The author - a professor at UC Davis - argues that there's a glut
of foreign students all chasing the same few jobs.


Second, securing a job is ultimately a supply/demand issue. Mr. Sun
is majoring in History and Biology, both skills that are not
necessarily in great demand in the US. I suggest that he review an
excellent piece by Brian Vastag in the Washington Post, "U.S. pushes for
more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there" (July 8, 2012). For an
even more unbiased reading of where the jobs really are, I suggest that
he visit the Occupational Handbook page of the Bureau of Labor
Statistics at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/. In it he will see that there aren't a whole lot of jobs for History majors either.

Were he to retool his campaign and go where the jobs are, his
experience may be far different. Williston, North Dakota has so many
jobs that there aren't enough people to fill all openings.

I too
am an immigrant having come to the US in 1986 to attend graduate
school. After 26 years of living and working in the US, I decided to
head a start-up - www.raoadvisors.com - devoted to helping international students better plan their campaign even before submitting the first application to a US school. Our online
service is free to students worldwide. We welcome comments about our website from Mr.
Sun and his other international friends.


- Rajkamal Rao

F1 posted on

The truth here is that international students are simply seen as piggy banks and universities could care less if you can find employment after graduation or not. It is virtually impossible to secure a H1B visa as many of them go to Indian IT workers who sometimes do not even come to work in the US and just waste the visa. International students with in-demand majors should be given green cards instead of going through a 20 year process so they can finally climb from their second-rate position they have in society. Not to be afraid though because now you can go to Afghanistan and get shot at for 6 to 8 years with the MAVNI program and become a citizen and finally get your dream job ......hey you might be missing a leg or an arm but you will have your dream job. Limbs are overrated anyways. Oh wait, I forgo after 1 to 2 years your diploma becomes completely useless ....never mind you can just become a cop hahah