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First Monday

Public Affairs


Deadline met: International student files updated

September 4, 2003

Jay Ward and his colleagues in the Office of International Programs are not ones to shy away from a challenging assignment. Most days they're interpreting the legal maze of visas that allows foreign students to study at the University.

When word came last year from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that a new database updating information on all foreign students must be in place by Aug. 1, even the international program veterans knew the road to meet this deadline would be daunting.

"This has been a monumental task," said Ward, coordinator of international student services, who likens the challenge to climbing a mountain with no summit in sight.

For years the federal government hoped to launch a new database with comprehensive information about foreign students. Budget cuts kept the system in the planning stages. When the U.S. learned that some of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were in the country as foreign students, government officials quickly moved ahead with the program and SEVIS -- the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System -- was fast-tracked.

The University met the deadline to enter information on about 1,900 current students into the SEVIS database. Staff members worked around the clock to contact students and update information. There were thousands of telephone calls, letters and e-mail messages and even a bit of detective work to track down students who moved and didn't leave forwarding information with the office.

Ward and the staff are still trying to contact about 100 students. As of now there are no penalties for filing late information but eventually the right to host international students could be revoked at universities that fail to comply with the new SEVIS policy.

"The Office of Homeland Security understands the challenges we faced and they gave universities some flexibility," said Ward.

While the international programs office did the bulk of the work it was the University as a whole that allowed the office to meet the deadline. Last year representatives from the offices of admissions, registration, undergrad and graduate programs, the American Language Institute, the College of Extended Learning and student systems and support began gathering weekly to handle this large-scale project.

"Thank goodness we work at a campus where we receive so much support because this office could not have done it alone," Ward said. "Everyone made this a priority for them and we are so incredibly grateful to them."

And now in this post Sept. 11 world the scope of the international programs office has changed. In the past employees spent most of their time advising students on legal and in-depth immigration issues, issues but their duties now are more technical and database-oriented.

"Things we could do blindfolded in pre-SEVIS days take us so much more time today. SEVIS demands that we do things differently and it takes time away from counseling," Ward said.

Yenbo Wu, director of the Office of International Programs, added that international student offices nationwide will continue to be advocates for students even as they are asked to take on a Big Brother role.

-- Christina Holmes


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Last modified September 4, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs