Q & A with Julia Findlay, director, Office of International Programs and Services

Posted: February 12, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette.

By Tara Laskowski

What are the major goals and duties of the Office of International Programs and Services (OIPS)?

The Office of International Programs and Services provides a range of services to the international nonimmigrant population at George Mason. To begin with, we issue U.S. government immigration forms that help bring our international students, research scholars, and faculty to the United States. Students who have been admitted to a degree program at George Mason, and who require a student visa to come to the United States to study, receive an immigration document called an I-20 from OIPS. They take the I-20 to the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to their home and apply for an F-1 visa. Sometimes the visa is granted, and the student can travel here to begin studies, but sometimes the visa is denied and the student cannot come.

Julia Findlay
Julia Findlay
Photo by Evan Cantwell

We also issue another immigration document to exchange students and research scholars called a DS-2019 form. Again, they take the form to the U.S. embassy or consulate overseas to apply for a visa. If granted, these “exchange visitors” come to George Mason with J-1 immigration status.

When international faculty are hired to teach or perform research by departments on any of our three campuses, OIPS is called upon to file a petition with Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly INS) to request an H-1B temporary worker visa for the international employee.

Because F-1 and J-1 students and scholars are under George Mason’s immigration “sponsorship,” the law requires us to provide certain services for them. Therefore, one of OIPS’s primary functions is to give them good legal advice on the F-1 and J-1 regulations. This includes information on employment limitations and possibilities, travel procedures, visa renewals, transfers to other institutions, program extensions, and other ways to maintain their status. As a result of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, a new tracking and reporting system called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) has been established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and we spend most of our time, unfortunately, using this system. The Commonwealth of Virginia also requires us to report “out of status” F-1 students to the attorney general’s office.

Beyond helping international students, scholars, and employees with their immigration status, we assist them throughout their stay in other ways. We offer international tax advising for all nonimmigrants who work at George Mason. This this includes all students working on campus and all graduate assistants. We provide a mandatory New Student Orientation Program each semester, occasional trips to places of interest, a series of workshops, periodic programs on cross-cultural adjustment or academic differences with the Honor Code, and presentations by immigration attorneys. We often wish we could do more to help by picking up newly arrived students from the airport or finding housing, but unfortunately, we have neither the time nor the staff to do so.

How many students do you service? Do you have a breakdown of where the students come from?

OIPS services 1,200 international students in F-1 and J-1 status. Statistics of “true” international students generally reflect those on F-1 or J-1 visas only, since they have entered the country solely for the purpose of studying. (If you include other visa categories, we have approximately 1,800 students on some kind of nonimmigrant visa.) Our students come from approximately 115 countries. The highest numbers come from India, then China, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

What are some of the challenges your office has faced in the last few years with the increased security measures in immigration law?

The biggest challenge for the office has certainly been the implementation of SEVIS. It is an Internet-based system, designed by the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services to track and report on visitors to the United States in F, M, and J status. The idea is that a tracking system will provide accurate and current information on international students and visiting scholars and their dependents. The system links colleges and universities authorized to admit and enroll international students with U.S. embassies or consulates, the U.S. Department of State, and U.S. ports of entry.

Last year (2002-03) was awful. In December 2002, new regulations for F-1s and J-1s were published. The regulations required us to start using SEVIS by the middle of February. We were given Aug. 1, 2003, as a “drop dead” date by which to enter all of our current and continuing students and scholars into SEVIS and issue them a new immigration document. It took a massive effort, including hiring temporary data entry help and closing the office for a couple of weeks, but we succeeded in meeting our deadline. Besides the actual work of getting everyone (and their dependents) into the system with accurate, updated information, we had to explain the new regulations to the international students and scholars. We did this by holding a series of “SEVIS Update” meetings, making attendance mandatory. It was essential that they understood that the new regulations were significantly more restrictive, and that failure to pay attention to them could result in a loss of status. Like any new system, SEVIS had many bugs to work out at first, but we are now pretty comfortable with it.

SEVIS has changed the nature of our work quite significantly. We have a series of deadlines to adhere to for the reporting responsibilities, and that is a challenge each semester. Because we now spend so much time monitoring and reporting, we have very little time for the programs that help international students settle in, and that is very unfortunate. However, international students and scholars at George Mason have accepted SEVIS extremely well, often remarking that they fully understand the U.S. government’s reasons for implementing such a system.

“Special Registration,” or the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS), was another great challenge of the past year. NSEERS established a national registry for certain nonimmigrants from 25 predominantly Muslim countries. Many of our international students were required to go to the Citizenship and Immigration Services district office in Arlington to be finger-printed and interviewed. The rules of this domestic registration system were complex and caused much anguish and misunderstanding. In December 2003, the Department of Homeland Security decided to make significant changes to the program, phasing out the annual interview requirement, for example.

Visa delays rank as possibly the most serious issue affecting George Mason faculty and their international students and researchers. Many of our students, researchers, and international faculty on F, J, and H-1B visas have been subjected to security clearances when they have had to renew their visas while on a trip outside the United States. These security clearances can be lengthy, causing students to miss the start of a semester and researchers and faculty to miss important deadlines. If a visa applicant is from a country where the United States has national security concerns, he or she might have to undergo a security clearance. If a visa applicant is studying or conducting research in a field that is on the U.S. government’s “Technology Alert List,” the applicant will almost certainly have to undergo a security clearance. Some of these clearances last several months, leaving the international student or researcher or faculty member unable to return to George Mason. In some cases, we have strongly recommended that people not travel out of the United States at all.

Given the increased security for foreign students to enter the United States, how have the enrollment trends for foreign students changed over the past five years?

Enrollment of international students was steadily on the rise at George Mason until Sept. 11, 2001. Now, like most institutions in the United States, we are experiencing a slight decline in our numbers. Contributing factors for the decline probably include a general feeling that the United States no longer welcomes internationals; a greater enforcement at U.S. ports of entry and at sponsoring universities; an increase in visa denials; and lengthy security clearances. Also, other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom, have stepped in to offer international students incentives to study there. We certainly hope that international students will continue to come to George Mason.

How does George Mason stand in relation to other colleges in the state in its number of foreign students?

We are usually third in the state in the number of international students, according to the Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education. Northern Virginia Community College reports the largest number (all campuses combined), then Virginia Tech, George Mason, University of Virginia, and Old Dominion University.

What impact do international students have on George Mason’s student life?

International students have an extremely important impact on George Mason’s student life. They enrich our university by sharing their perspectives and experiences, and they introduce American students and faculty to their cultures. As stated by the Institute for International Education, “Peace and prosperity in the 21st century depend on increasing the capacity of people to think and work on a global and intercultural basis. As technology opens borders, educational and professional exchange opens minds.”

Are there any new programs or upcoming events that you would like to share with the university community?

OIPS cosponsors International Week with the International Student Umbrella, and we are actively planning this year’s activities, which will be held April 11-17. Highlights include the cricket and soccer tournaments, opening ceremony and flag parade, Phi Beta Delta induction ceremony, international dance competition, author Michael Ondaatje lecture and book signing, talent show, fashion show, showcase of cultures, international bazaar, culture nights, and the dinner dance. Ideas for interesting international events to be plugged into the calendar are welcome! Please call OIPS at 703-993-3964.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love meeting people from all over the world. I was born in Japan, and grew up there, and also lived in Malaysia and Australia as a child. As an adult, I lived in Mexico, Brazil, and Germany. I don’t have the chance to travel much at this time, so working here helps me keep a focus on other countries, which I think is very important. I enjoy taking a few extra minutes as I help people with their immigration problems to learn more about them and their culture.

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