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U.S. Campuses Remain Welcoming Environment for International Students

Tighter visa controls, but foreign students are valued, U.S. officials say

By Anthony Kujawa
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- International student advisors at U.S. colleges and universities say changes in U.S. visa regulations, and media portrayal of the United States as an unwelcome environment for foreign students, have affected student enrollments from Middle Eastern countries.

Yet they say U.S. campuses continue to value the many contributions that international students make to their educational institutions and they continue their efforts to create a welcoming environment for them.

"Students and families overseas have been besieged with so much negative information that it is starting to take its toll," said Fanta Aw, Director of International Student Services at American University in Washington, D.C. "They are making deliberate decisions about where to send their children as a result."

However, Bodour Behbehani, a fourth year student at American University from Kuwait told the Washington File that while many students are afraid to study in the United States, "personally it is the best thing I ever did. I don't regret it and I am not scared here."

Sadek Ustwani of Syria, also a student at American University, said the campus community is made up of people from many ethnic and religious backgrounds. "People are very tolerant of each other," he said. Ustwani added that most of the universities in the Washington, D.C., area are promoting a common sense of "brotherhood" among different ethnic and religious groups on campus.

Discussing the coming together of Jewish and Muslim communities on campus, Ustwani said, "we feel we are living in a microcosm. People are so understanding and willing to help each other out in times of difficulty. It is really great to be here."

Although the students did mention experiencing some incidents of racial discrimination off campus, they said their campus community was safe. While the students have had a favorable experience studying in the U.S., they said potential international students often have difficulty obtaining student visas. "About 80 percent of students in the U.S. from Kuwait are female," added Behbehani, describing the difficulty of many male students from Kuwait to obtain student visas.

A report, "In America's Interest: Welcoming International Students," released January 14, by the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), highlighted barriers that limit international student access to higher education in the United States.

While acknowledging that U.S. security imperatives have changed since the September 11 terrorist attacks, "what has not changed," says the report "is the need to sustain and bolster the long-standing recognition that international educational exchange advances the national interests of the United States by fostering mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation with other nations, and that educating the world's future leaders is an indispensable investment in America's global leadership."

"International student exchanges are part of the solution to terrorism, not part of the problem" said the report, which views the friendships and person-to-person relationships developed through such exchanges as laying a foundation to counter threats of terrorism.

Fanta Aw of American University said that her office strongly supports student clubs and organizations, which foster friendship and raise awareness about issues in many parts of the world. At American University, "international education exchange is not just one-sided, but bi-directional," she added, pointing to such programs as the International Friendship Program and TALC -- "Talk Taking Action to Learn about Culture," two of the many forums through which U.S. and international students exchange views on her campus.

International students at American University said that cultural exchange and the development of personal friendships were an important aspect of their study abroad experience in the U.S.

Bodour Behbehani, who is president of American University's Arab Student Association, said that American students often ask about her country and are interested in learning about her culture.

Within the past year the Arab Student Association has held numerous events, including a debate on a possible war in Iraq, a fundraiser for a homeless women's shelter in Washington, a documentary week -- showing films about Palestine, and a panel discussion on the topic of U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Registration and Civil Rights. Behbehani said the goal of the association is to inform students and let them know about the many Arab cultures. (Note: The INS officially became the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services -- BCIS -- a part of the new Department of Homeland Security, as of March 1, 2003).

Behbehani mentioned that usually more American than international students attend the Arab Student Association's events and that she is often contacted by U.S. students interested in speaking with her about issues in the world and in the Middle East.

"I feel that they [U.S. students] are concerned about their country: we are the U.S., we are a democracy, we are land of the free, we want to know if people have civil rights problems," she said of U.S. students showing concern for people from the Middle East living in the United States.

The NAFSA report calls for the United States to "continue to nurture our greatest foreign policy asset: the friendship of those who know our country because we have welcomed them as students." Yet in the past year many students have found it increasingly difficult to receive U.S. student visas.

While many view the United States as closing its borders to international students, data on student numbers do not support easy generalizations. According to the International Institute of Education's 2002 "Open Doors: Report on International Education Exchange," 582,996 international students studied in the United States in the 2001-2002 academic year, a 6.4-percent increase from the previous year.

Although data on international students studying in the United States in 2002-2003 (the first full year after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks) is not yet available, in fiscal year 2002 the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs issued a total of 547,191 visas for the F (academic study), M (vocational study), or J (cultural exchange) categories. While this is a 12.5-percent decrease in visa issuance from FY 2001, it is still an increase over earlier years. In fiscal year 1989, the State Department issued a total of 373,932 visas for the F, M and J categories. In 1979, the figure was 224,030.

According to an online survey conducted in October 2002 by the International Institute of Education (IIE) of 324 educators from the IIE Network who identified themselves as representatives of universities and four-year colleges, 57 percent of respondents said that the level of enrollment of international students remained unchanged or increased in the fall 2002 term compared with fall 2001. Of the 42 percent of respondents who reported declines, only 3 percent said the decline was more than 30 percent.

Eighty percent of the respondents said they have not seen a substantial drop in international student enrollments from most countries. Enrollments of students from Middle Eastern countries have declined, according to the IIE 2002 Open Doors report. But "With the exception of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, there have been no substantial declines in international enrollments from most Islamic and other major sending countries," the report says.

Data released by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs on visa issuance in the F, M, and J categories shows a significant decline in many nations from fiscal year 2001 to 2002. In Saudi Arabia, F, M and J visa issuance decreased from 7,562 visas in FY2001 to 2,902 visas in FY2002. In the United Arab Emirates, the figure decreased from 1,287 to 486 visas during the same period -- a 62 percent decline in each nation. In Pakistan and Iran, F, M, and J visa issuance declined 53 and 52 percent respectively from 2001 to 2002.

Commenting on these figures, State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs spokesman Stuart Patt said that there has been a significant decline in visa applications worldwide between fiscal year 2001 to 2002 that has affected all categories of applicants, not just students. Since September 11, 2001, he said there has been over a 25-percent decline worldwide in U.S. visa applications.

"Refusal rates may be up some, but it [the reduced F, M and J visa issuance in FY2002] is primarily a function of the number of applications," he said. Patt said the F, M, and J visa applications in FY2002 from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Pakistani and Iranian nationals, for example, declined 57, 48, 38 and 27 percent, respectively.

Patt said that the United States does not want to discourage legitimate academic exchange, but that national security interests require it to look at many applications more closely and to put more applicants through an interagency review.

Selected applications are now forwarded to Washington, where they are checked with security agencies, he said. "The process takes a little longer, but if there is nothing derogatory the visas will be issued."

Patt added that, "There seems to be a general supposition out there that we have special rules for students. That is not true. Students are affected the same way as all other visa categories."

Discussing these figures with international students at American University, Behbehani said that while her campus community provides a welcoming environment for all international students, "there are a lot of rumors and that is what scares Middle Easterners from coming to the U.S."

Ahmed Hassani from Oman, also a student at American University said, "I am for security, I am for the INS," but complications in receiving student visas are causing some students to study in other countries.

Commenting on the special registration process under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) which requires nonimmigrant males 16 or older from certain countries to appear for an interview and register with the INS (now BCIS), Behbehani said that if the U.S. government wants to be aware of people entering their country, "they should do it for all countries, not just a few specific countries."

In remarks February 27, 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell described the U.S. policy on student visas as "based on the democratic values of an open society and the perception that foreign students make an important contribution to our nation's intellectual and academic climate, as well as to our nation's economy." [Foreign students contribute an estimated $12,000 million dollars annually to the U.S. economy, according the NAFSA.]

"We must continue to nurture these vital relationships even as we improve the security of our borders," Powell said.

When asked for advice on ways students interested in studying in the United States can navigate the visa application process, Stuart Patt said, "The only real advice is to apply as far in advance as possible." As the United States is putting more visa applicants through interagency security reviews, he said, it takes more time to process those applications.

For comprehensive information on studying in the United States, see the U.S. Department of State's "Education USA" Website at:

More information about U.S. non-immigrant visa policies can be found at:

... Payvand News - 3/15/03 ... --

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