Security Checks Cause Delays
for International Students, Faculty
By Sherry Fisher
Since the terrorist attacks of last year, international students and faculty across the country have been under new scrutiny. Restrictions on immigration abound, and educational institutions have been forced to deal with many changes.
Mark Wentzel, director of UConn's Department of International Programs and Services, says enhanced security checks are causing delays in visa processing for students and faculty.
A handful of new faculty remain in their home countries awaiting visa approval. Other faculty are having a difficult time returning to the United States. One faculty member, who is a U.K. national, is still in Morocco, where he had a family emergency. He applied for a visa renewal in June.
Students who had hoped to be here in time for fall classes, are facing the same dilemma.
"In some cases, students have to either defer to another semester, arrive late, or postpone their education," Wentzel says.
Before last year, in most countries a student could get a visa within a day or two of applying. Now, it can take anywhere from 21 days to three months, he says.
Reda Ammar, professor and department head of computer science and engineering, is still waiting for a graduate student to arrive from Lebanon. "He had hoped to be here for the fall semester," Ammar says. "If he doesn't get here within a week, he will lose his teaching assistantship."
William Stwalley, professor and head of the physics department, says he is concerned about the number of students from China planning to study physics at UConn who have been denied visas during the past two years.
This year all nine students from China who applied to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing were refused visas on the first application. After the physics department sent letters of support, six of the nine were refused a second time.
"They were certainly well qualified," Stwalley says, "yet they were given about two minutes to state their cases." Five of the six students who were refused twice still hope to come in the spring.
Wentzel says one of the biggest problems students face in securing a student visa is proving to consular officials at the American embassies in their countries that they plan to return home. They may be required to provide evidence that there will be employment in their field of study.
There has also been a sharp decline - 90 percent - since Sept. 2001 in applications from undergraduate students with Muslim or Middle Eastern backgrounds. Wentzel attributes this to perceptions about not being welcome in the United States.
"I don't think it's reflective of the campus environment," he says. "The decline seems to be a national trend."
Tighter restrictions and enforcement of regulations have left faculty wary of traveling overseas. Wentzel says some have chosen not to attend conferences in other countries, or have refused field research opportunities for fear of not getting their visas renewed. One faculty member had to return to his home in Belgium to have his visa renewed. In the past, the renewal would have been handled in this country.
UConn is one of some 74,000 colleges, universities and trade schools gearing up for the system, which by law, must be in effect by Jan. 30. Institutions that do not meet the deadline will not be able to register any international students.
The Student Exchange and Visitor Information System is designed to keep the INS promptly informed of changes in the status of foreign students and faculty. Schools must notify the INS when a foreign student has enrolled, dropped out, faced disciplinary action, or changed a name, address, or field of study.
The information will be entered into a national database, where it will be closely monitored.
"It will change the way we do business," Wentzel says. For example, under the new system, before a student could drop a course, he or she would need authorization from an international advisor. Or a student might not be able to travel outside the country without compromising his or her immigration status. If a student moved to a new dorm room, he or she would have to notify the University within 10 days and UConn would have 21 days to notify SEVIS of the address change. The system will regulate nearly every student activity.
New "batch" software will be needed to efficiently gather and send the large amounts of information to the database, Wentzel says.
UConn, like other universities, will be required to go through a certification process with the INS in order to register students. "It's a tedious process," Wentzel says. "It requires us to certify each and every program that exists at the University - degree and non-degree, credit and noncredit. This will require a significant amount of data input."
A recently formed SEVIS implementation team at UConn has requested that deans in the schools and college appoint international education liaisons to help students follow the system's strict guidelines.
"About 50 percent of our graduate students are international, and a significant number are teaching assistants," Wentzel says. "We can't risk losing them. They are a great resource to the University."