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The humanities were never meant for Princeton’s international students

The top of a cannon buried in a green field in front of an ivy-covered building.
The cannon behind Nassau Hall.
“Cannon Green and Nassau Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey” by Ken Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0

Editor's Note: A previous version of this column claimed that Princeton career services are not available to alumni. In fact, the Center for Career Development does offer resources to alumni. The ‘Prince’ regrets this error.

A few days ago, I sat down at the dining hall with a fellow international student I had met during orientation. After the half-joking, ritual complaints on the inauthenticity of the Asian food offerings, our conversation evolved into questions about our classes, summer plans, and naturally, what we saw ourselves doing after graduation. “We pretty much have three options as international humanities majors. We can ‘sell out’ — get a job in consulting or tech, our only chance at a work visa sponsorship. We can also go to grad school, and palliatively lengthen our stay with another F1,” she said sardonically. “If all fails, we marry an American.” 


There are significant legal constraints for international students seeking post-graduation career opportunities and visa sponsorship. Following their graduation, all international students have 60 days to obtain a job under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) period, a strict one-year period post-graduation that allows them to work in the United States without a debilitatingly expensive and unpredictable work visa sponsorship. Students that are unable to be employed within this time frame face threats of deportation. However, international students in the humanities face an additional barrier — the lack of an option to extend their Optional Practical Training period, an option granted to graduates in STEM for 2 more years. To support its international students better, the University must vocally advocate for extending the non-STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) period.

Although my friend’s list of the possible post-graduate options for the international humanities student was exaggerated, it contained an element of truth. OPT jobs — jobs obtained within 60 days of graduation that can be taken on by students without a work visa sponsorship for up to one year — are dominated by IT and consulting companies. As a prospective history major and an international student, I don’t plan on becoming a consultant, nor am I sure whether I will be attending graduate school. I feel stupid scrolling through the STEM major offerings at Princeton with minimal intention to pursue them or looking up how green cards work for the spouses of U.S. citizens, but I realize that my actions are based on a genuine fear grounded in real circumstances — a fear that I am certain is shared by many international students at Princeton.

Past opinion pieces encouraging readers to recognize the importance of the humanities from The Daily Princetonian do not account for the practical fears that many international students experience. Recent pieces appeal to the moral quality that the humanities imbue students with or argue that the skills learned from a humanities major are intended to elevate the wider human experience through their broad applicability

Yet the open-endedness of the humanities degree is precisely what disadvantages international students in the practical reality of the job search process. One caveat of the OPT period is that a job offer must directly correlate to one’s declared major. Naturally, this benefits STEM majors with delineated technical experience in their specified major, more so than the humanities and social sciences, disciplines whose appeal is primarily based on skills with wide applicability.

The current system pressures international students to pursue a STEM degree regardless of interest and perpetuates the harmful myth that STEM degrees are intrinsically superior to humanities degrees. But can you really blame them for believing so, when current policy threatens to uproot international students’ lives in a foreign country based on whether their degree is STEM-related or not? Considering the moral quality of pursuing a humanities degree is important, but it is also a privileged deliberation that is understandably secondary to one’s physical security in a nation — especially when its policies clearly indicate a preference to STEM pursuits.

A ‘Prince’ columnist once suggested that combating this issue involves widening the departmental classification of the STEM major itself. According to the author, Princeton’s goals should lie in maximizing the number of majors that qualify for the STEM-OPT extension. Such a proposition merely distracts from the fundamental problem of the inequality in the STEM v.s. Humanities OPT period. What else would a solution like this do but perpetuate the narrative that a degree’s proximity to STEM is the sole indicator of its worth?  


Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 once asserted the value he sees in emphasizing the significance of the humanities as a critical field that empowers service across all sectors. If the University truly believes in this principle, then they should demonstrate this with their actions — and its efforts should go beyond superficial attempts at recategorizing more degrees into STEM. 

This policy problem requires a policy solution, and the University can engage in better advocacy. As one of the most well-recognized institutions of higher education in the United States, Princeton’s voice in higher education issues is disproportionately powerful. Institutional stance shaping U.S. legislation is far from unheard of: take Princeton’s 2018 DACA lawsuit filed against the federal government.

“Princeton, higher education and our country benefit from the talent and aspirations that [DACA students] bring to our communities,” Eisgruber said.

The public stances of prestigious colleges and their leaders hold a significant cultural and political weight. This is why a long-term solution involves Princeton’s vocal advocacy for a 24-month OPT extension for humanities students, similar to the extension granted to STEM majors. To a limited extent, this has happened before: Eisgruber has spoken out about the OPT program offered for exchange visitors on a J1 visa — though strangely, the majority of his examples citing international contributions of  “research, innovation, and education” were exclusive to fields like “genomics, neuroscience, and astrophysics.” Although Princeton cannot directly change policy, it doesn’t mean we should underestimate the University’s influence in bringing about change. Students in the humanities need just as much — if not more — administrative advocacy as students in STEM do.

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International students are an integral part of Princeton’s diverse community and consequently represent a variety of students with a range of interests and passions. I expect that plenty of them arrive on campus with a predilection for art history, philosophy, or fiction writing, just as much as I expect many to have a knack for unproven mathematical theorems or biochemistry. No student can freely explore their interests or deeply contemplate how to serve humanity while preoccupied with the prospect of deportation. The state of the OPT program not only diminishes America’s ability to retain talented students in the United States, but also damages our ability to attract these students here at all.

Princeton stands as a powerful intermediary in this unwanted scenario — its institutional commitments claim that it prepares its students to commit to public service by providing a liberal arts education. To do so, it must allow its international students in the humanities the time, voice, and opportunities to achieve just that.

Siyeon Lee is a first-year international student from Seoul, South Korea intending to major in History. She is an assistant Opinion editor at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at or @siyeonish on Instagram.