International Students Want Legal Work: Few Avenues Available

As the student body ‘springs’ back to life after winter break, fresh energy begins to bloom around the campus. Crickets have started to hatch in the canyon. One can tell, summer is only a few months away. Like Sabrina’s bird friends, college students across the country are making plans for summer. Because COVID has flattened the tires of global tourism, most plans are likely to be within the country. A big chunk of students, domestic and international alike, are anxiously scrolling past websites of U.S. schools, laboratories, museums, companies, and non-profits for summer work. Students at Reed have been doing the same – applying to summer research positions, independent research, and internships on and off-campus. Whether they are accepted or not, almost none of them are restricted from exploring their area of interest. Well, almost. Amidst all the students at Reed and nearly all of its peer institutions, only a handful of students are institutionally restricted from pursuing their interests outside school: the international students. 

Photo Courtesy of International Student Services at Reed College

International students — students who are in the United States under the F-1 visa status — are restricted from receiving money, goods, or any forms of stipend and compensation (including housing or board) from off-campus employment. Any unauthorized employment is seen as a violation of the F-1 status, results in the termination of a student’s SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitors Information System) record (I-20), and puts a student out of status. Thus, international students who want to gain practical experiences in their areas of study can either resort to on-campus research positions or off-campus unpaid internships and volunteering positions. Alternatively, they can seek available off-campus work authorizations known as OPT (optional practical training) or CPT (curricular practical training). While most colleges in the US make sure that their international student body is fully supported when gaining practical work and research experiences through all available legal authorizations, very few selectively choose not to offer one of the most crucial ones — CPT. Reed, regrettably, is one of them.

For a liberal arts college of Reed’s size and philosophy, not only are most on-campus research and work opportunities limited in number, scope, and diversity, but most of the widely available on-campus work opportunities are unable to provide the challenging experiences necessary for a student’s academic and professional development. Hence, it shouldn’t be a surprise when students seek off-campus employment to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. What should be a surprise, however, is that international students are deliberately left disadvantaged compared to their domestic peers and even international peers at schools that offer Curricular Practical Training.

The Quest met with Aditya Gadkari ‘22 and Diana Wang ’23, the students leading the effort to enact CPT at Reed, to discuss the issue in detail. Wang and Gadkari, in collaboration with International Students Services (ISS) and Center for Life Beyond Reed (CLBR), are currently investigating ways to interpret the terms and conditions of CPT in the context of Reed’s academic policies. Wang, a peer career advisor in CLBR, has spent the past three months researching the policies underlying CPT at the peer institutions of Reed. According to Wang and Gadkari, the absence of CPT leaves international students with only two constraining choices: either acquire unpaid off-campus internships or resort to pre-completion OPT.

While the Center for Life Beyond Reed (CLBR) does offer to compensate the students working unpaid internships with the Summer Experience Award, according to Wang, “The compensation only bears living and food expenses … just to make sure you are not paying for doing an internship.” She further noted that unpaid internships or volunteering positions are often considered as insignificant or less important than paid positions. Both Wang and Gadkari maintained that unpaid off-campus positions are extremely rare and unrealistic. This is because almost all research laboratories and private firms are required by the U.S. labor laws to compensate interns and summer workers, which makes creating unpaid positions illegal. Even if it is remotely possible, the organizations would then need to create an entirely new position in order to hire unpaid interns which according to Gadkari, “Most organizations are not willing to do, and [the process] is an extremely high burden to put on international students.”

Despite being an ‘option’, pre-completion OPT is not a practical choice either. Therefore, most international students at Reed use their Optional Practical Training, a 12-month off-campus work authorization, after graduation. Any length of OPT time spent before graduation is deducted from the twelve months period. Gadkari maintained that “. . . most of the valuable job opportunities after graduation require [international students] to be in their employment for 12 months. Doing [pre-completion OPT] automatically discounts that.” The extremely lengthy administrative process for OPT applications takes around 3-4 months, and each application carries an exorbitant fee of $410. This makes pre-completion OPT a nearly impossible option. Gadkari mentioned multiple present international students who were forced to miss their internship opportunities, “. . . and had to waste their three months of OPT because the authorization didn’t arrive in time.” 

To further investigate the matter, the Quest reached out to Gwen Sandford, the Program Director for International Student Services. Sandford maintained that “over the past few years, the processing length and burgeoning cost of OPT have significantly affected international students.”

She also added, “There is widespread unawareness amongst the faculties and staff at Reed regarding the difficulties imposed on international students by their immigration status.” Sandford has been working at Reed for one and a half years, and she is currently working with Alice Harra, the Director of the Center for Life Beyond Reed to create awareness regarding the obstacles faced by International Students. Sandford felt that while ISS and CLBR have been actively pursuing the enactment of CPT, “. . . the final decision has to come from the faculties.”

At one point in her interview, Diana Wang regretfully stated that the lack of off-campus opportunities jeopardized the academic potential of plenty of international students including herself, “. . . I did far less than I could have done.” Throughout the winter break, she has painstakingly researched around 84 liberal arts colleges over their CPT policy and worked as a liaison between ISS and CLBR to bring the subject to attention. Her investigation led her to compile a nine-page long petition detailing the urgency of CPT to the international student body. However, she has been disappointed by the lack of response or action. She mentioned the case for Middlebury College where CPT didn’t exist until 2020, however “when the students petitioned, they (Middlebury) enacted CPT in two weeks, whereas … most of our faculties are still unaware what CPT or OPT is.”

Both Wang and Gadkari mentioned working closely with Associate Dean of the Faculty Tamara Metz for forwarding the issue to the faculty. On January 31, the case for CPT was presented before the Committee for Academic Policy and Planning (CAPP) where, according to Wang, the issue received “some attention from the faculties.” The absence of CPT puts international students at Reed at a great competitive disadvantage against their peers, forcing them to miss out on utilizing their summers to acquire skills they wouldn’t just by taking classes at Reed, or on supplementing their academic careers and their individual pursuit of knowledge. A proposal regarding CPT was brought before CAPP back in 2016. According to Farhanul Hasan ‘18, a former member of the Student Committee for Academic Policy and Planning (SCAPP), the proposal was turned down because implementing this program was seen as being at odds with Reed’s educational philosophy. However, much of the investigation conducted by Wang reveals that there are several possible ways in which the CPT authorization could be enabled without violating Reed’s educational philosophy and the F-1 visa requirements.

In reply to an email sent to CLBR, Alice Harra told the Quest, “This Friday representatives from ISS, CLBR, Diana Wang, and the Dean of Students, Tawana Parks, shall be meeting to discuss the no-CPT impact on international students.” At the moment no one can rationally predict the outcome of the continued efforts put up by students like Wang and Gadkari. Wang remains hopeful that her work will enable international students like herself to pursue their interests outside Reed. In the words of Diana Wang, this deliberate choice made by faculty, staff, and student body, at large, translates to, “the lack of empathy and care for the international student body at Reed.” Only time and actions will tell whether Reed actually values its international student body.

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