A whole new world by Sherry Bithell

Imagine for a moment that you are a college-age student living in another country. You decide that earning your degree from an American university such as Virginia Tech will give you a better education and possibly even provide a better life for your loved ones. It's not a decision you make lightly--you will have to leave behind your family, friends, and everything you know, perhaps for the next several years.

Making your way to Blacksburg will take several months, due to an exam and application process that includes being interviewed at a U.S. embassy. And it's expensive--tuition alone is $10,600 a year, and several government and university fees only add to the cost.

When you finally arrive on campus, you must immediately check in with the university and register for classes, even though you probably feel--as one international student describes it--as though you've landed on another planet. Chances are that you have jet lag, may not speak the language well, and don't know anyone.

International students have always trod a hard path. And with the difficulties they already face compounded by new restrictions implemented in the wake of Sept. 11, many have begun to feel that they’re no longer wanted here.

Hurdles, not welcome mats

Applications to U.S. universities from foreign students have dropped since fall 2001. Nationwide, international graduate student applications, for example, declined by 28 percent this year, and this trend is apparent at Virginia Tech. Before Sept 11., says Monika Gibson, director of student services for the Graduate School, the number of international graduate students--who comprise nearly 74 percent of Tech's overall international student population--had been increasing at a rate of 6 to 8 percent a year since the mid '90s.

But now, Virginia Tech is seeing a decline in first-time enrolling international graduate students. At the end of spring semester 2004, the total international student population stood at 2,051. This fall, Gibson says that in the Graduate School "international applications are down 28 percent compared to last year, and international admissions are down by 37 percent, which is a significant decrease and a reason for concern." Although many current or former international graduate students are re-enrolling, she says, "We have no way of knowing how many returning students will enroll in the fall. We are just hoping that their numbers will offset somewhat the decrease in first-time enrolling international students."

Playing a large role in this drop in international students is a series of new restrictions applied to them in the wake of Sept. 11. One program that posed a particular challenge to universities when it was first introduced is the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a computerized program that tracks foreign students while they are in the U.S. For Virginia Tech, meeting the requirements of SEVIS, which was implemented in August 2003, meant entering more than 2,000 student records.

Along with the logistical hurdle of adapting to the new system, recalls Kim Beisecker, director of the Cranwell International Center (CIC), surfaced other far-reaching concerns. "Everyone in my position around the country was in a panic, asking, 'What is this going to mean to us?' We were afraid that we'd no longer be advocates for the students, we'd be police."

To combat this fear, the international student support offices in the Graduate School and the CIC "took a different approach than most schools," Beisecker says. "Instead of looking at the system as an imposition, we asked, 'How do we do it in a proactive, organized way?'" After many months of work--including entering into the SEVIS database a record for every Virginia Tech international student--she says, "It hasn't become the horror story that we all thought it would be--a Big Brother kind of program. Have we changed some procedures? Yes. Do we have to be more careful of our role? Of course. But even with these reporting requirements, we've found that we can still advocate for the students."

Although Virginia Tech can make it easier for its international students to abide by the sometimes-complicated new regulations--which can often change at a dizzying rate--it cannot shield the students from reality. For example, in addition to SEVIS, males age 18-49 from designated countries, most of which are Muslim, are subject to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEER). When one of these students enters or leaves the United States, he must go to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office--open only at certain times--and sign "in" or "out" of the country.

Although NSEER eventually will be phased out in favor of US-VISIT--whereby all foreign visitors will be fingerprinted and will undergo a biometric scan--the real impact of these new programs, Beisecker believes, has been "the perception that international students are not welcomed by the United States. Sometimes we're counteracting rude [immigration] officials and what appear to be their arbitrary decisions. I understand that those people are very overworked and that they're charged with the frightening job of protecting our borders, but," she trails off.

However, Beisecker also thinks that Tech's determination to create a safe and accepting environment for its international students "is the reason we haven't seen a big exodus since Sept. 11." Still, she cautions, "some students read about FBI officials raiding homes or immigration officials who pull people out of rooms and put them into detention. As much as we've created a positive atmosphere on this campus, that deep-seated fear that when you make a mistake, it's going to be a real problem, is there--and that fear can't be dismissed."

A tale of two students


Ritesh Mahna
For Indian student Ritesh Mahna, "Coming to the U.S. was obvious. I don't think there's any other country like it in terms of opportunities." A Ph.D. candidate in food science, he already has a master's degree in engineering and is working on a graduate project for NASA.

Mahna says of his August 2001 arrival in Blacksburg, "I did not know anything. Nothing. I did not know a single person. Everything is different. The culture is different, the language, the value systems, the education systems. It's like the graph of life goes up when you're born and learn things, and then you migrate here and go back to zero and start over again without the help of anyone else." Still, he said, the new start "was exciting--adventurous."

And then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I have lived in places where there is terrorism, and even if you don't see it directly, you feel it, you feel the pressure," Mahna explains. "So although terrorism is not new for most Indians, this was something really strange, something you would never think would happen--not here."

In addition to their shock and disbelief, Mahna says, many international students felt anxious because they didn't know what kind of community backlash they might experience. Hearing about a Sikh in Phoenix who was killed shortly after the attacks because he was wearing a turban didn’t help alleviate that fear.

"We didn't know what to do--we'd been here for one month. We didn't know what was going to happen," Mahna says.

"We would try to avoid walking alone late at night, and I started to shave every day. Simple things, but things that matter. If I, a Hindu from India, am walking down the street with a Muslim from Pakistan, we look similar to someone who does not know. If I am walking at night and someone thinks, 'oh, a Muslim,' or 'oh, an Arab,' and tries to do something, there's not much I can do about it--there's no time to explain."

Today, however, Mahna feels much more at ease because of the support from Virginia Tech and surrounding communities. As for the new immigration regulations, he says, "They cause a little bit of inconvenience, but that's about it. I would fully support what [immigration is] doing, such as fingerprinting people when they come to airports.

"Every country should have the right to see who's coming in and who's coming out," he adds. "I'm traveling on an airplane, it's my life, too, or if my family travels to see me here, it's their lives, too. So if a little bit of inconvenience is caused, I don't mind."

Mahna believes that most of his fellow international students have adjusted to the new paperwork. As for those who haven't, he has little patience. "We've chosen to be here. Nobody has forced us to come here. People who complain, I tell them, 'You don’t have to stay.' Yes, it's gotten a little bit hard, and to get a job now is hard, but some people just complain. If it's too difficult, just go home."

Nonetheless, others have had a less positive experience with the new rules. Like Mahna, Muhammed Ahmad Chughtai, a Muslim originally from Pakistan who grew up in Dubai, came to the U.S. to "get the best education possible. It's an honor to have this opportunity," he says.

Chughtai, who will graduate in December with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a minor in math and political science, qualifies for the NSEER registration and has experienced firsthand more of the immigration changes than most students. "The fact that you're singled out, that they ask you to please follow them into a room, doesn't look nice to all the other passengers. You can see they are thinking, 'Maybe he's a terrorist, maybe he's done something.'"

And Chughtai knows that he has been lucky. He and his brother, who has completed his first year at Virginia Tech, flew to Dubai in May 2003, unaware of the new NSEER special registration requirement that had just been implemented. Although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) website states that officials "will notify individual aliens of future registration requirements," Chughtai says that no one ever contacted him or his brother.


Muhammed Ahmad Chughtai

"When we got back to the United States, the immigration officials said, 'Our records show that you're still in the country,' that we had never left," Chughtai says. He and his brother were separated and individually asked to explain what had happened. In the end, Chughtai was re-admitted to the country, but his brother wasn't.

"We were in the same situation, the same facts apply, so you would expect we would be treated the same way, but the airport officials said, 'You argued it successfully, he didn't. You can come in, and he has to leave.'"

His brother was put on the outbound flight back to Dubai, which, Chughtai says, "was actually lucky--the flight that we had come in on hadn't left yet, and he caught it back. Had he missed it, he would have been put in a cell overnight and deported the next morning. This actually happened to a few Tech students at Dulles."

Today, Chughtai's brother is still in Dubai awaiting re-entry to the U.S. The DHS won't issue a visa to him and refuses to explain why not. "They say that you have no right to a reason, and they said the university has no right to request reasons," Chughtai says, frustrated.

He pauses. "But what can you do? I'm a guest, and as long as I'm a guest, I have to respect this country's laws and regulations and abide by them. As long as we're guests, we should abide by certain rules."

Implications for the future

The question of whether the new regulations are fair, however, remains. "I understand these rules, after the horrible events of Sept.11," Chughtai points out. "But they seem to be catching the wrong people--taking the good people who are actually going voluntarily and turning stuff in and catching them for the slightest violations. The bad people aren't going to go and register."

There is some truth to his observation, Beisecker says. The majority of the new DHS rules target student visas, which comprise only 2 percent of all visas given. Yet, notably, most reports show that among the Sept. 11 hijackers, only one had a student visa--the others had tourist visas.

Given the time-consuming and expensive process of obtaining a student visa compared to the relative ease of getting a tourist visa, some wonder why international students have come under such scrutiny. Beisecker says, "A lot of politicians have looked at the new process as a pilot program that chose to monitor students because they were already partially monitored, and that learning how to computerize this group first would be easier. Whether that will come true, I have no idea."

Pilot program or not, many international students are "left feeling unwelcome, feeling singled out, and victimized for something that they didn't do," Gibson says. "We've had several cases now--20 or more in the last two years--of students going home for a short visit and not being able to renew their visa in time. They are subjected to background checks, which tend to last several months, and are stuck in their home country for one or two semesters, missing their studies and missing out on research projects and the like.

"We also don't know how many people decide not to come at all because they got word of how difficult it would be," she adds. "We have students today who decide not to go home--sometimes for years--because of fear of not being able to return."

An immediate impact

Sympathy for fellow humans aside, why is it important for international students--or researchers, educators, and other employees--to feel welcome at Virginia Tech? Because the university's international population is part of what makes an education here so desirable, says Mahna, who often speaks about the importance of diversity to such groups as Kiwanis and the Old Guard. "Here, you get to learn 10 times more than you would anywhere else. I can work on the same team with people from New York and Africa and China. It's diversity that gives so much of an edge to the U.S. I have grown richer from it."

It is precisely that diversity that makes foreign students a critical asset. Those who stay will add immeasurably to the wealth of knowledge in American industry, and those who return to their home countries likely will maintain positive international relations with the United States.

That other countries recognize the importance of international students is obvious. Since 2001, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia "are doing the opposite of what the U.S. is doing," Beisecker says. "They're welcoming these students, actually recruiting them and making it easy to get in through immigration." Karen DePauw, vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate School, also points out that Europe and Asia will soon be educating more Ph.D.s than the United States, which has traditionally been the world leader in that area--an indication that many students are finding it easier to just stay at home.

With Virginia Tech positioning itself as a leading research university that works on a worldwide scale, contributions from international graduate students--who represent more than 30 percent of Tech’s graduate students--will play an important role. "Not just for their work as graduate research assistants that is vital to the university's research agenda," DePauw notes, "but because of the cultural perspective they bring to the university community. These students are valuable to our having a globally diverse student body and their perspective gives Virginia Tech and all of its students the capacity to function in a global society."

Recognizing the vital contribution of each international student, the university will continue doing all it can to attract and retain this key element of the campus community, which, by its very presence, can extend a Virginia Tech education beyond the classroom into the world.