Why Do So Many International Students Take Econ?

Tulika Mohan PO’ 20 and Valery Atieno PO ‘20 are international students on F-1 visas.

With her economics major, Tulika aspires to create equitable development policies that improve living conditions among India’s most vulnerable populations. Valery wants to use her history major as a means to reclaim and represent – to understand Africa’s past as a foundation for its reconstruction process.

Both aim to use their Pomona College education and subsequent work experience to resolve inequality in their respective home countries.

However, the United States’ government judges one as more ‘valuable' than the other.

Currently, international students with non-STEM degrees, like Valery, can work in the United States for one year after graduation. In contrast, STEM majors are granted a three-year employment period. This two-year extension is vital: it allows STEM majors more time to apply for an H-1B visa, a visa that allows for longer-term, specialized work in the United States.

Until very recently, Tulika, too, only had one year to apply for an H1B visa. However, last week, Pomona’s Curriculum Committee reclassified the economics major as a STEM field in order to help international students, who comprise a significant demographic of economics majors, find employment opportunities.

“It certainly makes things a lot easier after graduation,” says Tulika.

However, international students majoring in the humanities are less enthusiastic. In particular, Valery notices a hierarchy within academia, one that “places more value on specific fields.”

Pomona’s policy change is symptomatic of the belief that STEM fields are more “useful” than the social sciences or humanities. While Pomona should be lauded for its efforts to improve employment accessibility for international students, this development should force us to reflect on what it means to be “productive” and, more importantly, who enforces that definition.

Once upon a time, I considered majoring in economics. I was on Facebook for most of class time, but one piece of information I retained was the definition of gross domestic product: the monetary value of all finished goods and services. This is the mantra of our capitalist economy. Productivity is money, is goods and services.

Under this framework, STEM majors are inevitably more productive; they are the gears that keep the one trillion dollar tech industry up and running. This preference for STEM is most explicitly articulated in the qualifications for an H-1B visa, a status desired by many an international student: a graduate-level worker with expertise in information technology, mathematics, engineering, finance, accounting, or medicine.

Productivity is money, is goods and services.

Consequently, international students feel obligated to major in STEM. The sheer number of half-asleep international students in Principles of Macroeconomics exemplifies this.

“I neither particularly like nor dislike economics,” said Michelle Tunger PO ‘20, an economics major. Yet, given her F-1 visa status, she recognizes the employment benefits of an economics degree.

The financial burden of higher education further exacerbates these pressures. Kerem Oktar PO ‘19, a dual economics and cognitive science major, feels the need to repay his family through finding a ‘productive’ and financially-stable job.

Productivity is money, is goods and services.

Akari Ishida PO ‘20, a media studies major and theatre minor, wonders “whether or not it is acceptable ... to simply pursue what I enjoy.” Akari’s doubts are a product of capitalist pressures - ones that deprive international students of their academic freedom.

International students are no longer valued for who they are, but rather, for what they do – their ability to produce a big, flashy number for America’s gross domestic product.

They are reduced to numbers on a page, cogs in a factory, and pawns in a game.  

Ultimately, who benefits from this commodification? To find the answer, look no further than the institution behind the international student’s coveted F-1s, H-1Bs, and green cards: the U.S. government.

Historically, the United States has used citizenship as a means of controlling labor in accordance with its economic needs. For example, the United States freely granted entry to Chinese and Filipinx immigrants when it needed low-cost laborers to work on railroads and farms. Yet, when American workers felt threatened by the influx of immigrant workers, the United States government passed legislation that prevented Chinese and Filipinx immigration: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act.

Citizenship is granted to those that the United States deems productive, and citizenship is taken away from those that the United States deems as not.

And under the Trump administration, the same rhetoric pervades. All international students I interviewed, regardless of major, identified their lack of U.S. citizenship as the biggest obstacle in finding employment opportunities in the United States.

In addition, Tulika felt that because “[her] country of origin is not ranked highly,” she was at a further disadvantage. After all, an Indian passport does not hold as much clout as an American one. In effect, America not only uses citizenship to control the entry and exit of labor, but also to perpetuate the existing global hierarchy: with America at the top, and the Third World dependent on it.

American citizenship has never been just a piece of paper. It provides not only a means to employment, but, as Akari said, the freedom to pursue our aspirations.

It is an immense privilege that students like Tulika and Valery do not possess. And for the United States, no matter the meaningless combination of F-1s and H-1Bs on Tulika and Valery’s passports, they are outsiders looking in.

Jolo Labio PO ‘20 is from Manila, Philippines. He is in dire need of Flex.