System to track international students goes online

3:13:02 PM CDT - Friday, February 14, 2003

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

If Danny Santanu, a WSU computer science major from Indonesia, decides to switch his field of study, drop a class or move to a different apartment after this week, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service will have to be notified through a new online system meant to keep tabs on international students in America.

Every postsecondary institution in the United States, including technical schools and beauty academies, was to start reporting information on international students to the new national database, known by its acronym SEVIS, starting Jan. 30.

That deadline was extended to Feb. 15, as a large number of schools finally got approval to start using the system in the final two weeks of January. With the sheer volume of schools trying to meet the Jan. 30 deadline, the Web-based system became bogged down.

Starting Feb. 15, WSU and other institutions will have to report any changes in an international student's status, including a change of address or employment, through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. The university has until Aug. 1 to enter information on other foreign students who are enrolled but don't have any changes. WSU has about 1,500 international students.

Also starting Feb. 15, any new student will need to be processed through SEVIS. U.S. embassies and consulates that issue visas will have access to SEVIS, too.

Mike Philson, executive director of international education, says the new system may cause some delays in students receiving documents they need for visas. Philson's office is overseeing WSU's compliance with SEVIS.

Some other new INS procedures are also causing some delays, and even some denials, for students, particularly those coming from predominantly Muslim countries.

Students who want to come to the United States to learn English, in programs like WSU's Intensive English Program, before enrolling in an academic program are particularly scrutinized.

One of the bombers involved in the 1993 World Trade Center attack had come to WSU to study in the program. It was following that attack that Congress passed legislation to start developing a student tracking system.

The Sept. 11 attacks, which involved terrorists who'd studied at U.S. airline schools, injected a new urgency into getting the system online. The USA Patriot Act, passed in October 2001 by Congress, included the deadline for SEVIS.

At WSU, implementing SEVIS has meant spending thousands in funding and personnel hours.

"We spent about $30,000 on the software and hardware," says Philson. A new server dedicated to SEVIS had to be installed, and a temporary position was created for someone to coordinate the process.

Sue Werle, who's worked in the international education office for several years and is WSU's SEVIS coordinator, calls the process "labor intensive." Philson calls it "a big headache, to put it mildly."

Werle has spent the last several months going to conferences and training sessions on SEVIS.

She's read hundreds of e-mails on a listserv of her counterparts at the thousands of other universities learning the new system. She says that's been the best resource for understanding and working with the system.

She's also been working with the nine other people on campus, in the Graduate School and other international programs, who will help input data.

Universities have always had to send student information to the INS, but doing it online will make that information more current. The new system will also alert university officials when a student's passport or visa will expire. Through SEVIS, however, students have to provide more personal information, including such things as a mother's maiden name.

While Philson says the system will ultimately help ensure students stay "in status," and help the university keep in touch with students, he has some concerns.

Like many others in international education, he wonders about the message the tracking system sends. The hassles of coming to the United States to study will probably make places like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, not the United States, the major destination for study abroad for international students.

That would be a loss, Philson says. "Education is one of the most successful foreign policy initiatives, and in a sense we're shooting ourselves in the foot by making it more difficult for anyone to come to the United States." Philson notes many world leaders were educated in the United States.

"I can understand the desire to ensure greater security, but you have to be realistic about what this will accomplish," Philson says. "International students make up less than 2 percent of all foreign visitors to the United States. We've always sent information about international students to INS, but what's being done about the other 98 percent?"

The system will also track professors, researchers and staff members who hold visas given by the U.S. State Department. WSU has very few individuals in that category, according to Philson.

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