How 9/11 reshaped USF

When Indian graduate student Reetu Singh applied to USF in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, it wasn’t another terrorist attack that worried her, but the possibility of getting a rejected stamp on her passport.

“You go to the consulate and you see three people in front of you getting rejected for a (visa); you get scared,” she said.

With visa applications to study in the United States being intensely scrutinized, the fear of rejection is causing an increasing number of overseas students to opt for countries other than the United States to continue their education. Of the ten students from Singh’s graduating class who pursued Ph.D.s overseas, only two applied to the United States, Singh said.

Nationwide, univertsities report that applications from foreign students have fallen by an average of 31 percent compared to 2001 enrollment, according to a survey conducted by the Association of International Educators.

Three years after Sept. 11, the decline is just one way the terrorist attacks have impacted USF. Away from the adverse publicity generated by the FBI’s indictment of former computer science professor Sami al-Arian on charges of aiding terrorists, the tragedy has wrought change in a number of areas of campus life.

Like other universities, USF has seen a fall in applications from overseas students. Applications fell by 14.5 percent in 2002, with a further decline of 3.5 percent the following year.

But, conversely, the impact of Sept. 11 has been detrimental not just to USF.

Funding for the USF Center for Biological Defense has almost doubled since Sept. 11 due to the perception that the United States may be the target of bio-terrorism.

Meanwhile, contrary to many expectations, the popularity of programs such as Study Abroad have soared as U.S. citizens have sought to understand how the United States is perceived around the world.

With four of the 19 hijackers gaining entry to the United States on student visas, it was inevitable that obtaining such a visa after Sept. 11 would be more difficult. According to a 2002 Associated Press report, the application process increased from around a week to as long as three months.

The implementation of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, to track foreign students further dampened overseas students’ enthusiasm for stateside education. The Department of Homeland Security introduced a SEVIS fee that is levied during the visa application process. Some universities, including USF, also levy a SEVIS fee against overseas students to cover the cost of maintaining the system.

The net result has been a decline in the number of applications from overseas, particularly among graduate students. Grad school applications from international students declined 32 percent from 2003 to 2004, the Council of Graduate Schools reported earlier this year.

That America is no longer viewed as welcoming to overseas students was reflected in a 2003 survey conducted by the Association of International Educators. Of higher-education institutions reporting a decline in applications by international students, 94 percent cited a perception that U.S. visas were too difficult to obtain.

For countries competing with the United States for the best overseas students, emphasizing that perception has proved an effective marketing ploy, said Pat Pekovsky, director of international admissions.

“Australia, Canada and the UK have been actively recruiting, saying ‘America doesn’t love you, we do,'” Pekovsky said. “The perception among students is that the United States is putting up barriers to them coming here.”

At USF, the number of overseas students has continued to decline, falling from 1,730 in 2003 to 1,588 in 2004. Hardest hit by this decline have been the engineering, business and public health colleges.

Pekovsky said the United States in no longer the automatic choice for many overseas students. USF, like many other colleges across America, can no longer rely on unsolicited applications to meet its recruiting targets.

“Now we’re finding (that) in order to maintain the number of students we have, we’re going to have to actively market USF abroad,” Pekovsky said.

To that end, admissions now employs a full-time overseas recruiter, Evelyn Levinson, to work with the Fullbright Commission and some of the 450 overseas education advising offices to attract students to USF.

The events of Sept. 11 also served as a wake-up call for campus police about the presence of a large overseas community within their jurisdiction, said University Police Sgt. Mike Klingebiel.

“(After) Sept. 11, we began thinking about our international community,” he said. “We became more sensitive to our international community. We saw we did not have a good way to communicate with those individuals who might be non-English speaking.”

UP receives a list from International Students and Scholar Services each semester detailing overseas students’ names, country of origin, local addresses and phone numbers and contact information.

UP has implemented a number of changes to bolster campus security since the terrorist attacks, Klingebiel said. While the details of many of these are not publicized for security reasons, in July 2002, UP reissued procedures to follow on receipt of a bomb threat, including a facility that allows UP to trace a call.

The presence of potentially hazardous substances on campus in science labs and at the USF Center for Biological Defense also prompted a tightening of security.

“We really did get an education as to the types of facilities the university does have,” Klingebiel said. “We became more aware of their existence and worked with those facilities to ensure their security.”

In addition to the benefit of increased security, the terrorist attacks have transformed the CBD. Prior to Sept. 11, the research center housed a director and three research faculty members.

Today, the center boasts 25 research staff members, five other staff members and three Ph.D. students. More importantly, the center’s annual budget has increased from $3 million in 2001 to $8.5 million for financial year 2005 to 2006.

The expertise developed at CBD proved invaluable when department of health officials began to be inundated by the general public during the anthrax scares in October 2001.

“People were bringing suitcases and airline tray tables and computer keyboards into the Department of Health saying, ‘This has powder on it,'” Center director Jacqueline Cattani said. “The department of health had a logistical problem of where to put all these articles.”

In response, CBD provided training and devised procedures for DoH officials to safely handle and test the suspected articles. Previously, only the FBI had been trained to test for bio-terrorist agents.

Other accomplishments of the CBD include the development of a quicker method of confirming the presence of anthrax and a health surveillance system that provides early warning of bio-terrorist attacks or naturally occurring outbreaks of epidemics via symptom information received from clinics and referral hospitals.

Cattani said the increased collaboration among government agencies fostered by the terrorist attacks has benefited the state when responding to disasters such as Hurricane Charley.

“There has been a criticism that a lot of funding has gone to research on bioterrorism that may not be warranted given all of the other problems we have in the country,” Cattani said. “But one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that public health infrastructure is being developed as a result of this.”

Another area that has grown since the terrorist attacks is the Study Abroad and Exchange Programs, something that surprised even its staff.

“Everyone predicted that after Sept. 11, the same thing would happen to study abroad as happened to international student admission,” said director Susan Ansara.

In fact, the opposite occurred. The number of students participating in the program increased by 23 percent in 2002-03 and by 43 percent in the last academic year, Ansara said. Some of the increase Ansara attributes to more direct recruiting, the targeting of honors colleges and the availability of more scholarships implemented to counter the anticipated drop in demand.

But a major factor in the increase is students’ curiosity to better understand the world outside the USA, Ansara said.

“Students came in saying, ‘I think I don’t know enough about the world, I want to know why other countries don’t like us,'” she said.

Nevertheless, some USF students don’t want life abroad to be too challenging.

“Before Sept 11, we had only one program in Australia,” Ansara said. “Now we have six different programs there. It’s seen as a safe destination, an English speaking country where students can continue their study.”

While it is impossible to know how long the changes brought about by the terrorist attacks will persist, three years later the impression remains that life in the United States may never be the same.

“We now realize how international affairs affect us locally,” said Klingebiel. “No longer can any American say it’s only occurring over there. It can and it has happened here. Daily, we get the international reminders of terrorism and the experts state it’s not a matter of if but when another attack on the United States will occur. We’re going to continue to try to be prepared for that.”