It's been a bruising year for everyone involved with international education. And no one in the community of international educators can yet breathe a sigh of relief, because soon colleges and universities, trade schools, certificate programs and even high-school exchange programs will face a critical milestone.
Thirty days after their (student) enrollment periods end, "Every single (school with an international enrollment) will be reporting on every single student in the same relative time frame," says Ursula Oaks, spokeswoman for NAFSA: Association of International Educators. With a total of over half a million international students enrolled at postsecondary institutions and over a million international and exchange students in the United States, "It'll be quite a data load to the SEVIS system."
What is the SEVIS system and why is it causing such stress? In the alphabet soup of educational acronyms, this is one whose importance has been looming larger than ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System or SEVIS is an Internet-based program which the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service put in place to monitor the movements and enrollment status of international students in the United States. And according to international educators, it's changing the face of the field.
"The profession can't function any longer without the technology component, and that means hiring people with technical skills," says Peter Briggs, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University. "Some people are actually choosing to leave the profession because they don't want to make the adjustment.
"We're no longer spending our time doing the sorts of things, using the kinds of intercultural competencies, that drew them into the field," Briggs adds. "How do we spend our time these days in international education? Mostly we spend our time on SEVIS."
In Washington, D.C., the city with the fourth largest concentration of international students in the nation, "Out-office has been putting in umpteen hours of manpower," says Dr. Grace Ansah, director of international student services at Howard University.
At the University of Southern California, the school with the largest international student enrollment in the nation, top administrators like the deputy chief information officer of the university. the vice president of student affairs, the director of the office of international students and scholars, and leading admissions officials "sat around a table and banged through the issues week after week after week," says Dr. Michael Thompson, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid.
Similar stories can be told at every school with a significant international population and many of those with smaller populations. However, the view from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the division of Homeland Security formerly known as the INS, is that "SEVIS is going great. Even though there has been all the criticism" in the media and from schools experiencing problems with their implementation, "from our side, it's been very successful," says Garrison Courtney, ICE spokesman.
"We have over a million students in the SEVIS database so far. We usually see a million students annually, so we're about right where we should be," Courtney explains.
And despite gloomy predictions that the specter of Big Brother would keep international students away from U.S. shores, there's been a jump in visa applications. "The State Department has approved 233,000 new students for this year, so that's a substantial increase," Courtney says.
But the view from the trenches is less sanguine.
"Frankly," says USCs Thompson, "this has been enormously challenging, with the government riving us deadlines to implement but not providing either the procedures or the software in a timely way for us to do the things we needed to do. …