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Government eases application process for Internationals

Background checks and post-arrival monitoring hardly seem like the proper welcome for international students coming to the United States. For a time, post-Sept. 11 changes such as these to the visa application process resulted in a drop in the enrollment of international students in American universities.

However, a recent study released by the Institute of International Education stated while the number of international students studying in America has declined somewhat, the decline is not as significant as it was during the 2003-04 school year. This suggests international student enrollment may soon be on the rise after several years of stagnancy or even decreases in enrollment since Sept. 11.

According to Marcia Taylor, the interim director of USF’s International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), USF’s international enrollment has increased.

In addition to an increase in enrollees, Taylor said USF’s patterns regarding enrollment of different nationalities also mirrors the Institute of International Education’s study.

“We’ve seen a similarity with countries. The number one (country) is India, our number one is India. In the top one or two is China. Our number three is China. Number two is Colombia. So we’ve seen certainly a pattern,” Taylor said.

“This semester, we’ve certainly seen an increase in new students coming in, so we’re similar.”

In Taylor’s view, the post-Sept. 11 dip in international student enrollment is in many senses attributed to the restructuring of the visa process. Before Sept. 11, Taylor said, most students could merely walk into an American embassy, stand in line, and somewhat informally obtain their visa. In contrast, the post 9-11 changes to visa requirements not only required students to apply for appointments at American embassies, but to fill out additional forms as well.

Taylor said that institutions hosting international students also had to change their procedures. They were also required to switch to a different computer database, Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), as well as monitor the students after their arrival in the United States.

“Our students found it very difficult to get visas because they had to get appointments, they had to have this document, the I-20, produced through the SEVIS system in hand. They had to choose which school they wanted to go to. The document had to match the visa that they obtained. They had to pay a $100 fee to the government, which they still have to do, and it was much more difficult to get appointments. It was much more difficult for our students to get through the system. There was also a mandatory background check on all males between the ages of 15 and 62, and that just takes longer when you have to fill out more paperwork.”

Taylor said the United States government, at the urging of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, streamlined the visa application process this year, making it easier for international students to study in the United States.

“The U.S. government realized that students were a priority,” she said. “And so we’ve seen many memos go from Condoleezza Rice going to the embassies, saying ‘students are a priority, understand we need to make time for these appointments. We know when cycles of appointments are, please make sure that there’s more time.'”

Taylor says that this new approach expedited the application process, resulting in fewer last-minute problems for the students she counsels.

The study also found the post Sept. 11 drop in international student enrollment at American universities to be partially associated with increased competition from other English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, and even Great Britain.

Taylor said that the International Admissions office has boosted efforts to publicize USF as a brand overseas in order to combat this competition since 2003.

“They have someone who is branding USF all over the world and does recruitment trips, and has specific targeted places where they’ve gone to. They’ve made a bit of headway of getting our name out in different places,” Taylor said.

Audrey Viguier, a French graduate student and teaching assistant of French literature, said that many of her friends in France shy away from studying in America because of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq in France, as well as distance.

“But above all, it’s politics,” Viguier said.

Viguier also cited perceived deficiencies in the quality of American education.

Viguier said, however, that her reception at USF has been more cordial than the reception foreign students receive while studying in France.

“In France, they don’t care about international students. It’s like you’re here by yourself, there. But here, it’s like a family. It’s USF. They take care of students.”

Viguier credited Friends of Internationals, a Christian ministry, with helping to make her feel welcome. The ministry offers programs such as conversational English classes and the opportunity for foreign students to eat dinner in Americans’ homes.

Lindsey Olinger, an officer of Tampa’s chapter of Friends of Internationals, said that the international students she works with typically seek to get a better grasp of spoken English and above all, create relationships with Americans.

“They have lots of questions, just about culture, and how things are done. And they honestly they just want relationships – it’s all about personal relationships with people.”

As of Fall 2006, USF has 1,376 International students enrolled from 131 countries.