Outdated work authorization policies leave international students with canceled Internships, financial burden
To U. President Christopher Eisgruber and Davis International Center Director Jacqueline Leighton:
We are writing this letter on behalf of all international students affected by the Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization processing delays. The OPT program is administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency and allows international students to work in the United States before and after graduation for a period of time limited to one year (cumulative), with a two-year extension possible for students enrolled in STEM programs of study. International students may choose to use the OPT program to work during the summer in the United States. This is referred to as pre-completion OPT.
As you might already know, at the time of writing this letter (May 29, 2019), only one Princeton student has received their pre-completion OPT work authorization, as confirmed by a member of the Davis International Center staff as of May 21, 2019; as a result, all international students who have internships that started during the week of May 27 are facing delays that might lead to job offer cancellations.
Based on our discussions with Davis International Center representatives, there is a high probability that almost all international students will face processing delays this summer. This is because processing times are estimated to take between four weeks and five months, but students are only allowed to apply for pre-completion OPT 90 days before their start date. Furthermore, many students will be affected financially by this situation, since they have already arranged housing and flights for the summer. For example, some students are expected to help their families financially using proceeds from their internship. There are also students who have paid for rent and flights using loans that they hoped to cover with their internship earnings, as well as others who have no place to sleep, since their housing arrangements were guaranteed by their work benefits.
We understand that this situation is due to the increase in USCIS processing times and requests for evidence (RFEs) since 2016: even if the Davis International Center does everything in its capacity to help students along the way, these problems are outside of their direct control. We also recognize that Princeton has a tradition of advocating for its international students, including reaching out to Congress about this issue, as exemplified by the letter from President Eisgruber and other leaders of New Jersey colleges and universities to the New Jersey Congressional Delegation regarding immigration.
Taking everything into consideration, we submit a set of options that might help international students in the short and long term.
Short-term options that might alleviate the current unprecedented situation:
1. Princeton University should send an official inquiry to the Department of Homeland Security/USCIS in regard to the current OPT delays, as soon as possible. This request is based on our talks with undergraduates from other universities who already received their pre-completion OPT work authorization cards, which makes us believe that this problem affects Princeton to a larger degree than other institutions. This inquiry should address any actions that could be taken by the University or the undergraduates in question in order to expedite and/or alleviate this problem.
2. The University should modify the undergraduate curriculum to allow Curricular Practical Training (CPT) for undergraduate students who are currently affected by this issue. The CPT program allows international students to work in the United States before graduation under more favorable conditions, and processing usually takes place within a day. Most U.S. universities (including peer institutions such as Stanford University, Harvard University, Cornell University, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, the University of Washington, and more) use CPT for international students.
Currently, Princeton only offers CPT for graduate students because the University undergraduate curriculum, as set by the Office of the Dean of the College, does not require an internship for the degree program and disallows undergraduate internship courses that can be taken for credit. However, many universities are able to retain their liberal arts undergraduate focus and offer CPT, which suggests that there are ways to offer CPT such that students receive limited optional credit and due respect is given to the current structure and goals of the undergraduate curriculum.
This option also includes creating a one-time internship course, like COS 590: Extramural Research Internship (which is currently closed to undergraduate students), or allowing undergraduates to join graduate CPT courses, such as COS 590, CBE 563, CEE 595, ELE 515, MAE 515, ORF 511, and more, until long-term solutions are being implemented. This would allow current undergraduates to apply for CPT in time for their summer internships.
3. The University should offer financial assistance to students who lose their internships as a result of the delays. Currently, the Office of Financial Aid suggests that our summer savings contribution could be waived. This does not help with the current urgent situation, since students need to cover their rent as summer housing contracts are difficult to break, and many international students do not have friends or family whom they can turn to for help.
While we do not suggest a specific amount, existing programs such as Princeton Internships in Civic Service (PICS) show that Princeton could estimate summer budgets. This could take the form of an allowance, like Princeton has done with the travel allowance program, to be released as soon as students could provide proof of lost internships such as offer letters, email exchanges with employers, and so forth.
In order to prevent situations like this from happening again, the University should accelerate its efforts for adopting CPT as an alternative for pre-completion OPT. CPT would allow international students to work in the United States under more favorable conditions and processing times. As noted above, this is currently prohibited by the undergraduate curriculum.
We believe that a sensible option could be found in order to both respect the current focus of the curriculum and help international students. This option could be shaped in a different number of ways, including perhaps offering courses at a fraction of credit. These courses would be graded on an Audit or pass/D/fail basis and would not contribute in a meaningful way to the satisfaction of the undergraduate and departmental degree requirements. Another option is creating an independent work-like system where students can choose a professor to sponsor their internship experience.
We hope you will take our letter in consideration. We are escalating this matter to you at this moment because we understand that all current efforts, including those spearheaded by the Davis IC, Dean Massengill, and Professor Martonosi, will not be able to address the urgency of this unprecedented situation. You are our last hope.
A slightly different version of this letter was originally sent by email to Eisgruber and Leighton on May 30, 2019. In the interest of transparency, several clarifications have been added.
Theodor Marcu is a junior Computer Science major from Bucharest, Romania. He can be reached at email@example.com. Yang Song is a junior Computer Science major from Carlingford, NSW Australia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lucy Jing is a junior Computer Science major from Maple, Ontario, Canada. She can be reached at email@example.com. An Lanh Le is a junior History major from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Zhengyue Anna Dong is a junior Operations Research and Financial Engineering major from Auckland, New Zealand. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The students listed below signed the letter.
Malika Oak ’20
Bozhidar (Bobo) Stankovikj ’20
Oliver Schwartz ’21
Christopher Lawrie ’20
Khyati Agrawal ’20
Lauren Johnston ’20
Divyanshu Pachisia ’20
Yashodhar Govil ’20
Stephen Liu ’20
Tan Shanker ’20
Bianca Catoto ’21
Annie Zhou ’21
Gabriel Vercelli ’20
Aditya Kohli ’20
Jameson Denham ’20
Nicholas Johnson ’20
Jana Sebaali ’21
Lucas Salvador ’20
Sandun Bambarandage ’20
Gyeonghyun Kim ’21
John Suh ’20
Charmaine Chan ’20
Maria (Cecilia) Rojas ’20
Kevin Feng ’21