International Affairs Up And
Running On New INS Systems
By Richard Veilleux
By all outward signs, everything is normal at UConn's International Center. The community room is clean, and coffee and cookies await
visitors. There are no posters with dire warnings, no groups of anxious students talking in hushed tones.
That calm, however, belies the efforts that Mark Wentzel, director of international services and programs, and seven other staff members have made, as federal regulators create, alter, abandon, and institute policies regarding immigration. These policies, which have changed
dramatically since 9/11 in order to more closely keep track of people coming to the United States from other countries, include the rules that affect visiting scholars and international students.
"We're using SEVIS," says Wentzel, referring to the new Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) database, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which monitors and tracks foreign students. "We met all the deadlines. But there is still great anxiety and uncertainty regarding how the new regulations, the electronic tracking, and the adjudication systems will work."
Wentzel says the new system creates a steep learning curve, both for international students and their advisors.
"Everything has changed. Now, we not only certify student and scholar visas and records, but there are some things we can adjudicate and some we can only recommend to the INS," Wentzel says. "The system has also been transformed from manual to electronic, and with a new set of regulations."
A single change - a student dropping or adding a course or moving from one residence hall to another - can lead to loss of status for international students if the INS isn't properly notified, Wentzel says.
And, with 3,000 colleges and universities, countless administrators, and numerous countries all trying to access the system, it can be frustrating and slow. That means, he says, UConn's international students and their advisors must be kept informed, and must learn to file paperwork and contact his office sooner rather than later.
"If a student decides to take fewer courses to concentrate on research, that decision now has to be authorized through SEVIS before the change is made, or the student will be recorded by SEVIS as out of status," Wentzel says.
The potential for processing delays also has led Wentzel to urge international students or scholars not to leave the country during spring break, at least not before attending one of two SEVIS workshops he and Jim Henkel, associate vice provost for research and graduate education, will deliver Monday, March 3, at 4 p.m. and Wednesday, March 5, at 1 p.m. in Room 200 of the Whetten Graduate Center.
"We're discouraging people who are in need of re-entry visas from traveling, at least until the transition period for SEVIS is over in August," Wentzel says. "Even if it's just a conference in Canada. You may get back in three days, but, then again, you may not. Statistically, we can't recommend you go."
The sessions also are vital for international student advisors, who must be certified by SEVIS before they can use the system. Advisors also are being cultivated at each of the regional campuses to help Wentzel's staff, as they cannot keep up with the new requirements alone.
"We're dealing with a lot right now," he says, shaking his head. "But I'm telling everybody that, if we're feeling anxiety and stress, imagine what the students are going through. A single error - one wrong number on somebody's birthdate, mistakenly using a first name that, because of the student's culture, is actually their last name - could result in their being 'out of status.' It's a tough period."
Wentzel now sees light at the end of the tunnel, however, and he praises the university's administrators and deans for working together to make the transition as seamless as possible.
"UConn saw this not as an Office of International Affairs challenge but as a University challenge," he says. "Right from the start, the president and chancellor realized that we have to remain internationally committed if we are to remain a top research University. It was across the board. If the registrar's office, the admissions office, the Graduate School, the PeopleSoft team, the information technology professionals, and any number of people didn't come together from the start, we would not be in compliance. The schools and colleges also had to come into compliance.
"There has been more interdepartmental communication and dialogue than I've ever seen," Wentzel says. "That part has been great."
At least until now, he says, all the international students enrolled at the University have been able to obtain the necessary security clearances to come to Storrs, but "there have been delays across the board," he says. Several Chinese students who went home for Christmas were delayed in obtaining their re-entry visas and one has yet to make it back, he says. The U.S. Consulate's office would only indicate that the student's visa was still under review. Such review now involves security clearances by both the U.S. and the national government of the student's home country.
"It will take some time before precedents have been set, and things settle down," Wentzel says. In the meantime, he and the staff of international affairs will continue working to educate themselves, their students, and UConn's visiting scholars.