International Student Resources & Frequently Asked Questions

International Student Resources & Frequently Asked Questions

Arriving at Columbia

What should I do before arriving?

Before arriving, students should review the Getting Started section of the International Student and Scholars Office website (ISSO). It provides information regarding entry to the U.S. and initial weeks at Columbia. Questions regarding student status and visas should be directed to the ISSO.

I arrive several days before the semester commences. Where can I stay?

If you are interested in obtaining University Housing, you are advised to complete the online housing application as soon as possible (login information is included in your acceptance packet). Please ensure that your selected housing date corresponds to your anticipated arrival date. Students arriving before the specified arrival dates will be required to find temporary accommodation in the area.

For more information on housing, consult the GS Housing page and the University Apartment Housing website.

Academic Life & Advising at Columbia

What is the role of my advising dean?

The Office of the Dean of Students is the primary source of student advising at the School of General Studies. Students are assigned an advisor who provides guidance on both University- and GS-specific policies and procedures. Students should contact their advisors immediately if any personal or health emergency prevents them from attending class or completing coursework during the semester.

My professor and/or teaching assistant (TA) runs office hours. When should I attend them?

A student can attend office hours for a variety of reasons. To obtain:

  • A better understanding of a difficult concept,
  • In-person feedback on an exam or paper,
  • Advanced feedback on a thesis statement or paper outline, or
  • To discuss a question from class in greater depth.

Students can use office hours to speak with a professor whose academic work is of interest to them. Moreover, during and after their academic career, students may need reference letters for academic or professional applications. Office Hours can be a useful way to deepen personal and academic interactions with a professor, aiding with reference letter requests or suggestions on internships and research opportunities. The Academic Resource Center (ARC) has published Getting the Most Out of Office Hours on this topic.

My course has a recitation or a discussion session, what does that mean?

Recitation and discussion sections are typically associated with large lecture courses and generally 10-20 students in size. These sections give students space to interact with the classroom material and a Teaching Assistant in a smaller, more intimate setting. Students should use recitation and discussion sections to seek clarification on topics covered in lectures, discuss sections readings or lectures of interest, and to get to know classmates better. For advice on how to speak in recitation or discussion sessions, students can read How to Speak in Section.

What can I do to improve my English skills?

Studying in an environment where the language spoken is not the student’s first language can prove difficult. First year students looking to improve their English skills can enroll in the International section of University Writing designed for non-native speakers. This section is identical in content and rigor to native-speaking sections with added support and instruction on American academic writing. Students interested should contact their advising dean.

Students can strengthen their English skills by practicing with native speakers such as floor-mates, peers, and friends. Television shows, radio shows, and U.S.-based news publications can help build vocabulary and comprehension skills.

The American Language Program hosts the Language Exchange Program (LEP), available to any Columbia student learning a language. This program is a great way to connect with a native-English speaker interested in language exchange. The Columbia Writing Center is a free resource and can be used for academic writing consultations in any subject. Some of the consultants have a specialty in English as a Second Language. For conversational English practice, the Language Resource Center offers Language Maintenance Tutorials (LMT) in several languages for a fee.

I am choosing a major. What do I need to consider as an international student?

A liberal arts education, in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum, allows students to explore different areas of academic interest before declaring a major. Students have time to consider their academic and personal passions, and career interests. Optional Practical Training (OPT), a benefit of F-1 student status, helps students gain work experience related to their field of study. A student’s major may impact their application for a visa to work in the United States after graduation. Because there are several factors to consider (the student’s interests, the employer’s interests, and immigration law), advanced planning and research is imperative. Meeting with CCE advisers and GS advising deans can help pinpoint a student’s interests. GS students may use both GoinGlobal and Uniworld using their UNI login to a view a list of companies that sponsor H1-B working visas, research U.S. firms operating abroad, and learn of foreign firms operating in the U.S. Students should also attend ISSO sessions with an immigration attorney in the fall or spring ideally during their first year at Columbia to gain an understanding of the process early on.

Are international students eligible for fellowships?

Fellowships open the door to extraordinary study, research, and work experiences. While it’s true that some fellowships require U.S. citizenship, others will accept permanent residents, and still others welcome applications from international students. Many fellowships are offered by departments and programs within Columbia; as a rule, these are available to students of all nationalities. To learn more about fellowships, please read the fellowship program facts, explore the listings for fellowships tenable during college as well as for those tenable after graduation. You may then make an appointment with the GS fellowships advisor and visit the GS Fellowships database.

Can international students go on a term abroad?

Study abroad opportunities are available for a semester, full academic year, or summer to all Columbia undergraduates. The staff of the Office of Global Programs helps students learn more about these opportunities. All GS students should consult the GS study abroad web page and GS study abroad advisor, as well.

Student Life at Columbia

I want to be involved in student groups. Are there groups that are good for international students?

Columbia has nearly 500 student organizations and international students are encouraged to join any group(s) of interest. For a list of those student organizations, please login into Columbia LionLink. Two large-scale events that showcase student groups at Columbia include a Meet and Greet with student organizations during New Student Orientation Program and the Activities Day fair held every September.

How can I learn more about gender and identity in the U.S. and at Columbia?

College is a time for students to explore and learn more about themselves and others, including facets of their identities such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socio-economic class. GS Student Life provides a first step for learning more about diversity in the U.S. Multicultural Affairs is a resource to engage in dialogues, workshops, weekend retreats, one-on-one conversations with a peer or staff member, and programs about identity.

Within the classroom, Columbia provides a more formal structure for learning about the intersections of identities. Academic spaces such as the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Institute for Research on African-American Studies, and Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and others offer wonderful interdisciplinary academic courses and public lectures.

Career Considerations and Student Employment for International Students

Working on Campus

I would like to get a job on campus. What do I need to know?

Full time F-1 and J-1 students are eligible for “casual” employment on campus, defined at Columbia as an employee on the Columbia University payroll who is performing non-exempt work (i.e., hours worked are tracked) for a limited period of time. This does not include work-study positions (work-study is a government subsidized financial aid program for U.S. citizens and permanent residents). On-campus work is limited by immigration regulations to part-time (maximum of 20 hours per week), except during official school vacation periods. See the Center for Career Education (CCE)’s Tip Sheets, which include campus offices and contacts for casual jobs for help with your search.

How do I get paid for working on campus?

Once you secure an on-campus job, the hiring manager will provide you with required paperwork to complete and have processed by Columbia University’s Human Resources Department to be added to the University’s payroll. If you do not yet have a Social Security number (SSN), you will have to apply for one. Information is on the ISSO website about the forms you will be given to get on the University’s payroll and to apply for a SSN.

Do international students need to file and pay U.S. taxes?

All international students in F-1 (and J-1) status are required to file at least one tax form if present in the U.S. at any time in the previous calendar year—even if they had no US income. This process happens between January and April each year for the previous year. Students with U.S. income do pay taxes (taken out of their paycheck) and need to file taxes by April 15. Students without income (no tax has been paid) need to file by April 15. Please visit the ISSO website for information about filing taxes.

Working Off Campus

How do I get work authorization to take a paid internship or job off-campus?

Authorization to work in the U.S. is given by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with the recommendation of the International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO). Review the ISSO website to learn about your unique status before starting any search, and review the Working in Student Status PowerPoint under the “Administrative Information” section.

Undergraduate students are eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which is a benefit and extension of F-1 status. Generally, F-1 students are eligible after two semesters of full-time registration while in student immigration status.

To work in the United States after the expiration of OPT, you must obtain an H-1B visa, or other employment-based visa through a sponsoring employer. Information for Canadian and Mexican citizens can be found on the U.S. Department of State website.

What is OPT (Optional Practical Training)?

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a benefit of F-1 student status that allows students to gain experience in their field of study by applying for off-campus work authorization. Students in F-1 status are eligible for 12 months of OPT per educational degree level. Certain STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) may be approved for an additional OPT. OPT may be granted and used before graduation (pre-completion OPT) for part-time work during the school year or full-time work during vacation periods. Remaining OPT may be granted to complete after graduation (post-completion OPT). You must apply for OPT to be granted work authorization for paid work off-campus. The ISSO will assist with this.

If the internship is unpaid (no compensation of any kind), please check with ISSO before you proceed with the position. The experience may still require the use of your OPT. Please make sure to attend a session by ISSO on OPT.  

Does the undergraduate program at Columbia Offer CPT (Curricular Practical Training)?

No. CPT is employment authorization for an internship requirement or internship elective which is an integral part of the established curriculum of your school. The School of General Studies does not have an internship requirement for undergraduate degree candidates Undergraduate students may apply for OPT if they need employment authorization for summer internships. This time is deducted from the 12-month total at graduation.

I would prefer to use all of my OPT after I graduate. What are other ways I can develop skills or gain experience in the meantime?

There are a variety of ways to expand your skillset. First, consider joining a student organization on campus to begin to network with students, employers and alumni. Student organizations have leadership opportunities to help you expand your knowledge of a particular industry or job function. For example, you could work on your communication skills by being on the external relations committee of a student group. Or, you could learn more about engineering practices by gaining hands-on, volunteer experience with Engineers without Borders.

Volunteering can connect you with others and develop a variety of different skills. Community Impact at Columbia University connects you with volunteering opportunities in Morningside Heights and Harlem. Idealist and New York Cares also provide a number of volunteer opportunities.

You can gain hands-on experience by working on campus, since these roles do not require you to use OPT. For more information regarding on-campus jobs, review the on-campus jobs webpage.

Many students choose to intern internationally to gain experience without using OPT. The Columbia University Center for Career Education offers the Columbia Overseas Experience (CEO) program to undergraduate students which provide international internship opportunities in a wide range of industries. Or, consider reviewing the International Resources page on CCE’s webpage, which provides an array of international opportunities.

Regarding my career search, where and when do I start?

Start in your first year by visiting Columbia’s Center for Career Education (CCE) website and the International Students section. Then visit CCE to speak with a career counselor to learn more about the resources to support your internship/job search as an international student. You may also want to connect with the Office of Global Programs and Fellowships and the GS pre-professional and graduate school advisors.

Note that CCE works with international undergraduate and graduate students and alumni to help them define career goals and gain meaningful work experiences through:

  • LionSHARE internship/jobs database: Set up a job agent to be notified in a daily digest of internship and/or jobs
  • Domestic and international internship programs
  • Career Fairs and Industry Showcases including  Undergraduate Career Fair,Start-up Career Fair, Advertising, Marketing PR, Publishing, Fashion, Public Policy, Industry Showcases,
  • Alumni Connections and Networking Events
  • Individual career counseling, workshops, and online resources to help with internship/job applications, interviewing, networking, negotiations, and the decision to pursue graduate school
  • Industry-specific resources covering career paths, employers, professional associations, internship/job sites, and research opportunities

What do I need to consider regarding eligibility to undertake an internship or job?

As an international student, it is essential that you fully understand your eligibility to work in the location where your internship or job will take place, and the process to gain the necessary work authorization(s). Eligibility to work considerations include:

  • Location of the internship or job, i.e., is it in the U.S. or another country?
  • Your visa/work authorization for the location of the internship or job,
  • How long you have been in full-time student status in the U.S. for positions in the U.S.,
  • Requirements specified by the employer for the internship or job, and
  • Whether the position is paid or unpaid (Note: for off-campus positions in the US, any wages or other compensation like a stipend or housing requires authorization through Optional Practical Training (OPT). Employers determine eligibility requirements and state them in the job/internship descriptions so you must read internship and job descriptions closely. With respect to employers recruiting at Columbia, the Center for Career Education (CCE) provides a list of participating employers at career fairs willing to sponsor international students to work in the US. CCE also provides access to a list of employers who have sponsored international students in the prior year through its subscription to GoinGlobal, which you can access using your UNI and password used for SSOL.

What if my internship requires that I get credit instead of compensation?

The School of General Studies does not provide credit for internships. The CCE website offers helpful information regarding unpaid internships

I want to work outside of the U.S. What resources are available to me?

Find information about volunteer, full-time, part-time, and internship opportunities on the Center for Career Education’s International Opportunities Resources page.

I want to network. What resources are available to me?

Networking is the process of making connections and building relationships that provide you with information, advice, and further contacts, all of which will enhance your ability to make informed career decisions and tap into unadvertised internship/job vacancies. Networking can take place in a group or one-on-one setting. The Center for Career Education (CCE) offers networking tutorials, receptions, alumni panels, career fairs, employer information sessions, site visits, online tip sheets, and networking preparation workshops throughout the year. Other ways to build or expand your network include joining a student club or professional association, volunteering, and talking to professors, family members and friends about who they might know in your fields of interest. See the Network Section of CCE’s core career skills page for more information and resources.

I am interning abroad; are there events going on or any opportunities where I can meet other students and alumni?

To find events abroad, first check the alumni events calendar. Events listed with green stars are school-based and may be restricted. Alternatively, you may send an email to the Columbia Alumni Association with the region and dates in question to be put in touch with a Columbia connection on-site. The Columbia University Internship Network (CU IN) offers alumni connections in select cities for summer interns in the United States and CU GO offers alumni connections in international locations. 

How do I get involved with the alumni club in my home city?

If you would like to get involved with alumni in your city, please visit the Alumni Clubs website to search domestically or internationally for a club. Each club has listed a contact to email. The Center for Career Education offers advice on other ways to connect with alumni.

Navigating Columbia's Health and Wellness Resources

Columbia University has numerous health and wellness resources available to students to help address individual needs and concerns, as well us unanticipated health issues that may arise. The following information will help clarify how to best utilize these medical resources and how to best navigate the various offices that offer assistance.

How do I use Columbia's Health Services?

Columbia Health services offers on-campus care in three primary areas; Medical Services (physical health), Counseling and Psychological Services (mental health), and Disability Services. Columbia Health is located at John Jay Hall on the third floor.

For regular medical services, you are automatically assigned a Primary Care Provider (PCP). Your PCP is a physician or nurse with whom you schedule routine appointments, such as an annual physical exam. It is important to get to know your PCP – s/he will be an important resource for you during your time at Columbia – even if you are not sick. Most appointments can be scheduled online using the Columbia Health website.  

If you are ever feeling sick, you can call Columbia Health at (212) 854-7426 during office hours and schedule an appointment or speak with a health care provider. If you have an urgent care need, you can also stop by the Urgent Care Center during office hours without an appointment. If you require emergency medical care, call Columbia Public Safety directly at (212) 854-5555 or 911 for emergencies. Use 911 for emergencies when off-campus.

When Columbia Health Services is closed, you should contact Columbia Public Safety. You will be connected to an on-call physician who can help you decide whether you should seek care at a hospital emergency room or at Columbia Health the next day.

When should I use Columbia's Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS)?

In the US, it is very common for people to reach out to professional counselors to talk about a wide range of mental health issues. You can talk to CPS counselors just one time or more regularly to get advice about how to manage stress, anxiety, depression, or any other concern you have about emotional strain. Counseling and Psychological Services offers short-term individual counseling, referrals for longer-term therapy, student-life support groups, medication consultation, and emergency consultation.

You should never hesitate to meet with someone from CPS if you are having any kind of mental distress. Many Columbia undergraduates visit CPS at some point during their academic career. If a student wants to select a specific clinician, they are more than welcome to make a request. Specific clinicians are selected based on areas of special interest, including Trauma Support, LGBTQ concerns, Religious/Spiritual Concerns, Multicultural Concerns, or Body Image issues/Eating Disorders. CPS adheres to strict standards of confidentiality. Your professors, peers, and advisors will not know that you are seeking help at CPS unless you expressly permit that knowledge to be shared.

Who else can I talk to besides CPS?

There is a community of advisers at Columbia to speak with about any feelings, issues, or concerns that may arise at Columbia. You can always begin with your regular academic advisor who can guide you to the most appropriate resources on campus.

When offices are closed, there are still resources for support, depending on your need:

  • If you live on campus, you can speak to your resident advisor.
  • Nightline (212) 854-7777 Peer listening hotline 10:00 pm – 3:00am
  • Urgent physical or mental health concerns (212) 854-9797
  • CU-EMS An ambulance service (212) 854-5555 or 99 from any campus phone
  • Sexual Violence Response team (212) 854-HELP(4357)
  • Public Safety Emergency: 4-5555 or (212) 854-2797

When should I work with the Office of Disability (ODS)?

The Office of Disability Services works with students who have either physical or mental health issues that require accommodation to support student success. Accommodations may include alternate testing environments, being assigned a note taker, extended time for exams and papers, and much more. Students should work directly with ODS to determine eligibility for services and accommodations specific to the student’s needs. Students who have any reason to believe that they are eligible for support services should seek an ODS consultation. ODS is located in Wien Hall, Main Floor — Suite 108A.

If I have questions about other health or wellness concerns, how can I find further resources?

The GS Health & Wellness team can be reached at: gshealthandwellness@columbia.edu. Students are encouraged to email the team at this address for any of the following reasons:

  • To discuss a question about health and/or wellness resources on campus
  • To discuss a personal issue around health or wellness
  • To request meal vouchers from the Emergency Meal Fund or to discuss food insecurity
  • To share ideas and concerns about health and wellness at GS

Other Important Legal Terms

What do FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) mean?

FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. Under FERPA, when a student enters University in the U.S. at any age, all rights and responsibilities to privacy of educational records are transferred to the student. Educational records can include grades, financial aid records, disciplinary records, student account information, Dean’s Office files, and Residential Program files.

HIPPA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. HIPAA protects the privacy of student information in health and medical records, including electronic files.

While the type of information protected by FERPA and HIPAA will not be automatically disclosed, the University has protocols in place to contact families in the event of a medical emergency or when the student requests information be released. Importantly, GS Dean of Students Office is here to engage with students and families in an open dialogue during their time at Columbia. We encourage students and their families to ask questions, attend events and information sessions while on campus or contact us for additional information.