Harvard, Help us Work

Few universities give international students better treatment than Harvard does. On my first day here as a confused, jet-lagged, and rain-soaked freshman, the organizers of the Freshman International Program welcomed me with a vegan pizza because I had indicated that I could not eat cheese. Small things like this that have made Harvard feel just as much of a home to me as my native Costa Rica. But when it comes to getting a job, international students at Harvard have a rough time—one that could be alleviated by proper action on behalf of the university.

All students at Harvard on financial aid have a term-time job included as part of their aid package. This is a good idea; by working, students gain valuable experience and life skills. The University goes to great lengths to help students land an on-campus job. The Student Employment Office provides valuable resources for students to find work, such as the online jobs database and a jobs fair.

International students, however, are uniquely disadvantaged in this process. Most students from other countries at Harvard College have an F-1 student visa stamped in their passports. Along with the power to enter and leave the United States as a student, the visa brings a stringent set of rules with it. Break the rules, and the consequences could include deportation.

Among these regulations is one stating that international students can only work on-campus during the academic year. That means I, or any other international student, can’t work at, say, Felipe’s or any other outside company.  Other countries don’t do it this way—international students studying in the United Kingdom, for example, can work in places unaffiliated with their universities. But the US. does, and for that reason I had to turn down an opportunity at an outside tutoring firm offering $30 an hour.

The government makes the rules, not Harvard, and while I could think all day long about what I’d do with $30 an hour, there’s nothing much I can do about it. Fine. The real problem  is the difficulty—not by any means insurmountable, but present nonetheless—that international students can face in getting on-campus jobs.

This difficulty stems from the Federal Work Study Program, a government plan to bolster student employment by paying part of students’ wages at on-campus jobs. From an economic perspective, FWSP makes sense: if universities have to pay less to hire their own students, they will hire more, and students will have more money to pay tuition and save for the future.

Logically, though, the program doesn’t extend to international students. Why would the government spend money on us, non-citizens who are expected to return to our countries of origin as soon as we graduate? On-campus employers, for obvious reason, prefer to hire students under FWSP. Courtesy of their subsidized salaries, WS students cost only about a third of what non-WS students cost. This is why, of the on-campus jobs listed on the SEO database, 54—fully a third—require FWSP eligibility, and therefore automatically exclude international students with similar financial need. These jobs include such classic sources of student employment as the libraries. Even in cases when jobs are open to both FWSP and non-FWSP students, the former, being less expensive, are likely to be preferred for employment.

With all the money Harvard has, extending financial aid so that all on-campus jobs are open to international students (only around a tenth of the student body) could prove to be a beneficial, and cheap, idea. The financial aid office could subsidize the cost of paying our wages from on-campus employers, so that we could compete with FWSP students on an even playing field. The price tag could hardly exceed a thousand dollars per student per year.

Compared to the generosity of Harvard’s existing financial aid program, that’s not much. But to someone living on his or her own in a foreign country, that money could mean a lot.

Jorge A. Araya ‘14 is a Crimson editorial writer in Dunster House.

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