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  November 5, 2001

Entry Procedures for International
Students Rigorous, Says Wentzel

Mark Wentzel carefully slid the thick three-ring binder from a shelf on his desk. He held it up to display its girth, then placed it on the desk. The nearly six-inch-thick binder, filled with rules, regulations, and procedures that must be followed when processing information regarding international students, landed with a thud.

"This is just the basic information," said Wentzel, director of international student services at UConn. "We receive updates regularly."

Wentzel is one of a growing number of voices urging caution, as Congress considers a batch of hastily developed bills to further restrict or regulate the processes international students - and the universities that enroll them - must follow, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

"Really, if someone wants to enter this country, legally or illegally, trying to do it on a student visa is the toughest, least appealing way to go," he says.

Wentzel is in a good position to know. A staffer and director in the Department of International Programs and Services since 1987, his background also includes administrative law and internships in immigration casework with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) overseas and with U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd.

Wentzel and his colleagues work with UConn's more than 1,500 international students - representing nearly 100 nations - every day. They help students with documentation, required both to come to the United States and UConn, and to remain here. They also advise students on the cultural mores of UConn and the country, and help them with the often difficult transition they face as new students in a new land.

They also befriend the students and sometimes, as in the case of two students from United Arab Emirates who returned to their country after the Sept. 11 attacks, act as chauffeurs - Wentzel drove the two to Boston's Logan Airport after they decided to take a semester off.

"These are good kids. They're some of the best students their country has, often first-generation college students," Wentzel says. "They're focused, and anxious to learn new skills they can then use to improve their country."

The international scholars also improve the education delivered at UConn, Wentzel says, introducing students from Connecticut and other states to new countries, new cultures, new languages, and new ideas.

Convincing officials at UConn and at the embassy in their country that they will return is one of the key hurdles international students face in obtaining a student visa - one of several requirements applicants for other types of visas don't face.

In fact, obtaining a student visa can be so trying that, Wentzel says, most international students begin the process at least a year before they arrive at UConn or another university.

"We require far more information from these students than for American-born students, and there's always a lag time between filing the paperwork and taking the next step," Wentzel says. "We require personal statements, letters of recommendation, and complete financial documentation to ensure they - or their family or government - are ready to absorb the cost of a UConn education. We may ask for bank statements. And, of course, they have to offer test scores, transcripts, proof that they've passed English courses. The reviews during the admissions process, whether undergraduate and graduate, are quite involved."

Then the students must present the same paperwork, and more, and be interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in their home country, where they may be required to explain why they've selected a particular course of study, how it will help their careers when they return home, how that choice will help their country, and convince the official they will, indeed, return home when their visa expires, typically within three years for a master's degree, four years for an undergraduate degree or seven years for students pursuing a doctorate.

UConn officials also track international students' progress once they arrive here, from ensuring that they attend classes to following any changes in a student's major. If an international student drops out of school - a rarity at UConn, Wentzel says - he or she has only 60 days to apply to the INS for a change of status or to prepare to return home.

Nearly all the information UConn collects is forwarded to the INS. And that is where help is needed, says Wentzel.

"Adding more layers of documents that need to be tracked on top of documents the INS already can't track ... that's the wrong way to go about it," Wentzel says. "If Congress wants to improve the system, it should funnel more money to the INS for increased staffing, to help them do the work that's already there. It's not that they can't do the job, they just don't have the resources. If universities want to be in the business of international education, they have to have the resources to do it properly. So does the INS."

At UConn, Wentzel says, the Office of International Student Services does have the proper resources.

Wentzel says UConn is "conservative," when it comes to international students, often going beyond established policies to ensure that international scholars are not only apprised of the rules but offered the help they need to enjoy their stay here.

"We do a good job here with our international students, and I think they enjoy being here. I'd hate to see the community decrease because some Congresspersons feel pressured to make changes just for the sake of change. Our system - at the university level, at least - isn't broken," he says, "and I don't think it needs fixing."

Richard Veilleux