Visa Hurdles Hurt foreign Students

Jenny Song

One of the most inspiring versions of the American Dream goes like this: A poor immigrant leaves behind an unhappy home country, comes to the land of opportunity and thrives here through hard work. Politicians love this story and tell it often, omitting that its fulfillment is increasingly unlikely. Never mind America’s border issues with Mexico. I’m talking about the combined mess of U.S. policy toward international students and the bureaucracies of colleges such as Northwestern.

NU enrolls about 2,040 foreign students, many lured in by the idea of America’s meritocratic reputation. They cannot receive federal financial aid or hold work-study jobs. Due to harsh federal regulations, they are also restricted from most off-campus jobs.

These rules impede foreign students from practical training in their fields of study, setting them behind their peers in experience. The laws also force NU’s roughly 600 foreign undergrads to rely on their parents’ savings to foot the $44,000-and-growing yearly tuition and living expenses.

On-campus work for international students is meager. Corine Onyango, a Kenyan citizen and a Communication senior, worked at the University Library her freshman year lifting heavy books for $6.25 an hour while her American counterparts did homework at the circulation desk making $7.35 on federal work-study. Finding anything else was difficult for her because most jobs are reserved for the work-study students.

“It’s basically been the bane of my existence,” Onyango said. “I knew that coming here I wasn’t going to be able to do everything that I could at home. It didn’t seem like such a problem. When you get here you realize.”

Other top international student destinations, such as Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia, allow students to seek casual off-campus work for up to 15 or 20 hours a week. Canada recently also loosened its regulations for off-campus jobs. But the U.S. opted in 2004 to move in the opposite direction, increasing paperwork and restrictions on international students who apply for a Social Security number.

Colleges will approve off-campus work in one case: internships that can be taken for credit as part of a student’s academic curriculum. The internship must be tied to a specific class. In some cases, students must pay tuition.

The paperwork can also be lengthy. The student must prove that the work sought enhances curriculum work through documentation from his or her employer and faculty adviser. Then he or she must wait weeks or months for approval.

Internships for international students are already limited in fields like industrial engineering. Companies that deal with national defense, such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin, only accept U.S. citizens, so the added burden of paperwork can be costly.

Liberal arts students, on the other hand, have problems with the regulations because the work they seek often doesn’t match up with a class credit. NU could help remedy some of these cases by fostering cooperation between the departments, the International Office and the student.

Presently, some students are forced to turn down jobs. Weinberg sophomore Allen Shimin Hao, a Chinese student majoring in economics, said he thought he found an ideal job when a marketing firm offered him a part-time data analysis stint requiring knowledge of English and Mandarin Chinese.

“The International Office told me that the government wouldn’t allow me to do that,” he said.

Such strict laws are unnecessary. If the U.S. were to limit work hours, as other countries do, and limit full-time jobs to summers, it could still loosen its regulations without the danger of visa abuse. This would give international students the opportunity to achieve through hard work, plain and simple.