SEVIS to track students

College students are warned when they enter an institute of higher education that their field of study is subject to change. It has almost become expected of college students to change their major.

But for international students who want to change their major, the process is much more difficult than simply notifying the university.

Starting Jan. 30, 2003, universities across the nation will be required to start tracking the enrollment of foreign students and professors through a new Internet database system, known as the Students and Exchange Visitor Information System.

However, if the system is not installed at universities by the January deadline, students will be penalized and may have to face deportation.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Immigration and Naturalization Services proposed that SEVIS would be more efficient to identify a potential terrorist acting under a student visa.

While the Web site has not yet been installed in USF’s computer systems, David Austell, director for International Student and Scholar Services, said the program should be installed by December.

“That gives us two months to get into the system. We could be ready to test far in advance of the deadline,” Austell said. “I think we’re in really good shape to comply with the law.”

INS released a sample version of SEVIS on July 1 for universities to test. But according to the Associated Press, less than 300 institutes implemented the program and some reported glitches in the system.

Austell said USF ranks third in the state with about 2,500 international students. He said he is aware of the concern about the university’s ability to meet January’s deadline and about how students would be affected.

“Students who are already here wouldn’t be penalized as much as incoming students,” Austell said. “Any school that fails to be in the system risks not being able to take in foreign students.”

The University of Florida, which has about 200 more international students than USF, is hoping to have the system implemented by October to start testing.

Austell said Information Technologies has been responsible for writing codes for the database and helping those who will monitor the Web site understand technical information.

The INS Web site will keep track of students’ enrollment status based on fields of study and credit hours; Austell said when students change their major or drop courses the system will alert the university.

The university is required to communicate with the student and then report any change in the student’s enrollment to the INS.

“Any action running reports of any difference, we have to report,” Austell said. “We will try to monitor that and assist the student in every way.”

Austell said once the changes have been reported into the INS system, universities have the authority to have that student removed from his or her institute.

“We can’t expect (INS) to make judgment calls for us,” Austell said. “We have a strong duty to make sure information is in accordance with the law and that will be the challenge.”

The INS put about $36 million into launching SEVIS at about 74,000 national institutions as part of the USA Patriot Act passed in October by Congress.

After learning hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks had expired visas, the INS agreed that the Internet system would be more efficient than tracking students on paper-based documents.

Austell said the system should make it easier on the student to obtain enrollment at universities.

“These are model students doing exactly what you would expect of any student,” Austell said. “It makes the student very visible.”

Austell said it would be more difficult for international students to use their visas to stay in the United States for reasons other than academics. But for security purposes, Austell said the INS might screen some students more carefully than others.

“SEVIS will not racially profile; that’s not what it’s designed to do,” Austell said. “Arabic men aged 17 – 40 are screened much more carefully. That is the direction at this point of the U.S. government.”