University Adjusts to Federal Regulations Regarding International Education

Posted: January 27, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christopher Anzalone

International flags

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. on Sept.11, 2001, the federal government began tightening regulations for international students coming to the United States in an effort to strengthen homeland security. As part of this initiative, the government issued stricter requirements for student visas and started tracking international students through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a web-based reporting and tracking system that all universities are required to use if they are hosting international students or visitors.

As a result of the new federal regulations, the number of international students in the United States has declined significantly over the last three years. During the fall 2004 semester, there were approximately 1,808 international students studying at George Mason, a slight decline from the 1,888 who were studying at the university in 2001.

“Although the numbers are a bit lower this year, we still have a significant number of international students attending George Mason, and we hope that the number continues to rise,” says Julia Findlay, director of the Office of International Programs and Services (OIPS).

In the Washington, D.C., area, there has been about a 10 percent decline in the number of international students, according to a report issued in November 2004 by the Institute of International Education. However, the metropolitan area is still the fourth-largest in terms of the total number of international students, with more than 19,500 studying at area universities.

“I would not say the process of bringing international students to George Mason is significantly harder than it was before September 11,” says Findlay. “SEVIS is actually an efficient system that makes the issuance of immigration forms easier than before. The admissions process has not changed.”

Findlay notes that for some international students, the visa application process did become more complicated after September 11. Under the new federal requirements, an international student who has been admitted to George Mason and been issued an immigration document from the Office of International Programs and Services (OIPS) must then make a visa appointment at the U.S. consulate or embassy in their home country. If required, the student must also pass a security clearance to receive a student visa. If the student is issued a visa, the government tracks him or her upon arrival in the United States, and the institution the student will attend is required to notify the government that the student has actually arrived and registered for classes. Because of these new procedures, many international students face increased delays when trying to obtain student visas.

“It is important to mention that although there have been lengthy delays over the past three years, the Department of State has recently made great progress in ensuring that the visa process is more efficient and predictable,” says Findlay. “In fact, two years ago, the Bureau of Consular Affairs directed all the overseas consulates and embassies to give priority to students and exchange visitor visa applications, and they hired 350 more consular officers to work on visa issues. These improvements have made a difference.”

In a briefing with college newspaper editors last November, former Secretary of State Colin Powell restated the federal government’s commitment to balancing homeland security issues with making the visa process as easy as possible for international students.

“We’ve made a major effort on speeding up student visas, and if you’ll look at the data, the time it takes is going down,” said Powell. “It will never be as easy or as fast as it used to be.” He added, “One of the problems we’ve been having is to convince students around the world that we really do want them to come here.” Powell pointed out that other English-speaking countries have stepped up their recruiting efforts, and students are sometimes going to universities in England, Australia, and New Zealand because the visa process is easier.

Powell noted the importance of allowing international students into the United States and the impact it can have on diplomatic relations with foreign countries. “As I go around the world, you’d be astonished how many of the leaders I meet were either Fulbright scholars or were here in one of our international visitors programs,” he said.

At George Mason, OIPS has seen a noticeable shift in its procedures due to the new federal regulations. “We now spend far more time on our computers, trying to comply with mandatory reporting to the government whenever a student updates an address, changes major, extends their program completion date, drops a class, fails to enroll, transfers to another school, or is suspended or dismissed,” says Findlay.

Findlay also says that her office purchased a system called fsaATLAS that works with Banner. The system sends a message to OIPS when an international student’s information in Banner is changed. OIPS is then prompted to send the revised information to the federal government, as required.

“A wonderful team of professionals in the Information Technology Unit have been working with us for three years to ensure that data is accurate and that the interfaces are functioning as they should so that George Mason complies with the reporting requirements,” says Findlay.

Despite the new, more involved, and time-consuming procedures required, Findlay notes, “International student and scholar advising remains a wonderful and rewarding field in which to work because the people we meet day-to-day are so interesting.”

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