Letter to the Editor: USC administration must stop exploiting international students

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Like many other international students, I chose to remain in the United States before travel restrictions were in place. Returning to my home country of Holland would have made it difficult to handle classes with a nine-hour time difference. It also would have deprived me of a critical summer internship, which would hopefully pave the way for employment after graduation next year. 

The personal sacrifice — being separated from my home and locked in isolation — is difficult to endure. My parents fear for my safety; I fear for my financial security. The pressure to micromanage expenses is greater than ever. International students all over the United States are facing similar circumstances: They are locked down, separated from home and financially insecure.

This is where our American classmates enter the picture. We need your support now more than ever before. We don’t have families here to advocate on our behalf. We don’t have the same rights as Americans. We don’t have stable sources of personal income. 

You can help by begging University officials to stop seizing the earnings of international students with part-time jobs or internships. This kind of leverage over any student must not be tolerated.  And yet, it’s happening across the country before our very eyes. 

International students need to be enrolled in an internship course to receive work authorization under the Curricular Practical Training program. If a summer internship in Los Angeles pays me a total of $3,000, I will have to pay USC with more than 50% of my earnings to cover the cost of a one-unit internship course. Employers cannot hire international students unless they are enrolled in an internship course under CPT. Universities exploit this condition by charging tuition for that internship course, even if it does not add to their own costs.  

For colleges to force international students, in a time of global hardship, to pay the administration tuition fees for work authorization is a gross injustice. International students deserve a fair and steady path to earn wealth and advance their careers. These hardworking students seek to contribute to the American economy, and they pose tremendous value. Studies have shown that a one percentage point increase in the college-educated immigrant shares of the U.S. population produces a 12-27% increase in patenting per capita. 

Standardizing financial assistance for both international and American students ensures smart and compassionate policymaking. It will build a stronger workforce, increase economic growth and propel innovation. Twenty-three percent of billion-dollar startup companies — employing millions of Americans — were founded or co-founded by international students. Imposing financial penalties will only dissuade talented international students from entering the United States workforce. Aren’t we looking for more contributors to help build GDP?

In a time of global crisis, those with power must experiment with solutions to novel problems that emerge. Instead of requiring students to pay for a one-unit internship course, students should be able to get CPT without paying the university tuition through a zero-unit internship course. This option would not be unprecedented for USC. ENGR-598 is a zero-unit internship class on offer at Viterbi and enrolled students remain eligible for CPT. 

College administrators across the United States must provide all international students the option of enrolling in a zero-unit internship course for Summer 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. We simply cannot afford to pay our colleges for our hard work any longer. 

This global pandemic has brought all of us together to face a dangerous invisible enemy. We must do everything we can to win this fight, to keep the economy and the individuals which are fed by it healthy. Allowing colleges to impose an undue cost on the hard work of international students during this crisis is not only hurting those students but hurting the country as well. 

At USC, Undergraduate Student Government Sens. Dario Argenese, Julian Lin and Ruben Romeo have been drafting a policy change proposal to add a zero-unit internship course option for this summer. Similar advocacy must be initiated at colleges across the United States. The urgency of this situation cannot be overstated. The international student community is in desperate need of your support.

Igor Lenterman 

Class of 2021