University of Rochester

International Incidents

Post–9/11 rules complicate life for students from other countries studying at Rochester. By Ryan Whirty | Illustration by Michael Osadciw

When Qin Zhang, a graduate student in Rochester’s mechanical engineering program, arrived on campus in 2002, she had hopes of returning home to China every once in a while to visit.

But that was almost three years ago. After experiencing the hassles resulting from the post–9/11 heightening of federal monitoring of international students—on one trip home her visa application was delayed two and a half months—Zhang is considering forgoing any more trips to China until she finishes her Ph.D. Going home just might not be worth it.

“It’s a big risk for me to go home,” she says, noting that the delay she experienced is actually relatively short compared to the experiences of other international students. “America is the best country to come to [for an education],” she adds, “but [U.S. officials] need to make it more comfortable for students.”

Zhang isn’t the only one put off by the extra security for international students: According to a November report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), international student enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities dropped by 2.4 percent in the 2003–04 school year, the first decrease since 1971–72. Last March, the Council of Graduate Schools reported that its survey of 450 member institutions showed a 5 percent decline in foreign applications for graduate study from 2004 to 2005. That followed a 28 percent decline in the previous year, according to the council.

According to IIE figures, Rochester’s total international enrollment fell from 1,337 in 2002–03 to 1,156 in 2003–04, or 13.5 percent.

Such declines have been especially acute for graduate programs, which are home to 85 percent of the Rochester’s international students. Dean of Graduate Studies Bruce Jacobs says that while there has been a drop in doctoral enrollments for both U.S. and international students, the decrease for foreign enrollees is 11 percent greater than that of American enrollees.

Educators at Rochester and across the country cite numerous reasons why international students are turned off from American schools. At the top of the list are extraordinary delays—or outright rejections—in the visa approval process, as well as the intense federal tracking and monitoring system international students face in the United States.

Tack on hefty processing fees for various documents—such as a new $100 tracking fee each foreign student now pays to the Department of Homeland Security in addition to the $100 visa application fee—and many aren’t surprised that international students are turning away.

“The evidence is growing stronger every year that we’re clearly the losers when our record of visa denials causes talented people to cross Rochester off as an educational or employment goal,” says Joseph Eberly, professor of physics and astronomy. He adds that “the topic of ‘foreigners’ among us has been made irrationally sensitive by occasionally wildly unfounded claims made for what appear to be purely political purposes.”

Many of the federal laws and directives instituted since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—such as the USA Patriot Act in 2001 and the Homeland Security Act a year later—have made life more difficult for both students and officials.

Cary Jensen, director of University International Relations, says administrators must provide detailed reports on every international student each academic term. “There are all these things you have to report,” he says. “[If] they change their address, they change their major, they drop below full-time. . . .”

Jensen says much of his and his colleagues’ time is now consumed by helping international students maintain their “status,” or their right to stay in the country once they arrive. He says keeping a student’s status requires adhering to a number of legal requirements—including providing proof that a student is in the country for educational purposes only, an increasingly challenging requirement as students approach graduation and seek job opportunities in the United States.

Sylvia Kless of the International Services Office agrees. She says such added responsibilities prevent her from doing what she really loves: helping the University’s international students adjust to life in the United States and guiding them through their Rochester experience.

“My background is in counseling,” she says. “I can’t spend a lot of proactive time helping students with cultural adjustment and programming because we’re dealing with a myriad of regulations that are increasingly complex and restrictive.”

The strain is particularly felt by students studying mathematics, engineering, and the sciences—subjects federal officials consider sensitive in light of the terrorist threat. Carla Gottschalk, the mechanical engineering department’s graduate coordinator, says Chinese students have been especially subjected to long delays when trying to return from China. As a result, she says, some of them have decided to stay in Rochester over the summer and holiday vacations out of fear that their paperwork will be held up or that they won’t be allowed back into the country at all.

Before returning to his native Sri Lanka for his wedding in December 2004, microbiology & immunology graduate student Thaminda Ramanayake says he was so worried that he might get held up coming back to Rochester that he obtained a letter from the department confirming his status as a student in the physics and astronomy program with a detailed description of what he’s studying.

He also decided to apply for his visa at the U.S. embassy in Sri Lanka on December 15, a full two weeks before his flight back, because he knew a grouchy embassy official could reject his application for any reason. “It could be that he didn’t have coffee in the morning,” he says. “They could say you’re involved in terrorist activities.”

As it turned out, Ramanayake got lucky: He had no problems returning to Rochester. That was especially fortunate, given what he and his family experienced just two days after his wedding: the devastating tsunami that took hundreds of thousands of lives across Asia, including dozens of Ramanayake’s relatives and friends.

Many educators in the United States and at Rochester fear that if students like Ramanayake decide to go elsewhere for their education—schools in other English-speaking countries like Australia, Britain, and Canada are actively recruiting top international students, and developing nations like China and India have been furiously improving their higher-education systems—the United States in general could suffer.

That’s because international students might be more important than many realize. According to the IIE report, international students contribute about $12 billion annually to the American economy.

In addition, Rochester officials say, international students contribute to U.S. society by playing a part in countless scientific and entrepreneurial efforts that improve the quality of life. Jacobs says, for example, that of the 400-plus Rochester alumni serving on top college faculties across the country, roughly one-fifth of them were international students.

“[International students] have been very important in [the Rochester] story, and I’m sure they’ve been good for the very best schools in the country more generally,” Jacobs says. “Many have been given the responsibility of training the best students. That’s an outcome for the entire country.”

Fortunately, Rochester officials see some positive adjustments being made to the federal security system. Kless says, for example, that many students have begun receiving priority in getting visa appointments so they can enter the country before the start of classes, and the State Department is extending some clearances to four years so students can come and go more easily.

And a November 2004 article in U.S. News & World Report noted that then Secretary of State Colin Powell asked consulates to work harder to speed up the visa application process. The result, the State Department said, was a drop in processing time from 70 to 22 days.

In essence, many at Rochester are hopeful that a happy medium can be reached.

“I believe that with enough input from the academic community, there can be solutions which help maintain homeland security, while at the same time minimizing the adverse impacts,” says Arie Bodek, chairman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

As for Zhang, she hopes U.S. officials will realize how much international students contribute to the country and, as a result, make life easier for such valuable resources.

“[The government] should provide an environment to make the students want to stay here and make the country better,” she says.

Ryan Whirty is a Rochester-based freelance writer.