Foreign student researchers face hindrances

Snags in planning and paperwork can leave foreign students far from professors relying on them for research assistance.

Elizabeth Dunbar

University admissions officials said they are searching for reasons why international graduate student enrollment and applications decreased sharply for 2002-03.

While they cannot entirely explain the drop, they said recently amended restrictions on science students might account for some of it.

International students studying in research fields face a long journey – both in miles and in paperwork – before they can participate in University research.

Snags in planning and paperwork can leave international students an ocean away from the University professors who rely on them for research assistance.

This can delay research results and possibly complicate projects’ funding.

Applying for a visa

Research at the University relies heavily on student researchers from outside the United States. More than one third of University graduate students studying science do so only with permission from the U.S. State Department.

Once admitted to a U.S. university, foreign students apply for visas with the U.S. consulate in their home countries. The process usually involves an interview and supporting documents proving a student intends to study in the United States.

After Sept. 11, 2001, increased State Department scrutiny slowed the visa process for international students seeking to study in the United States.

“It just takes longer,” said Craig Peterson, University’s International Student and Scholar Services office assistant director. “Some will take 60 days, some will take 120 days and we just don’t know which is which and why.”

Peterson said the biggest backlog is for males from the Middle East.

“It usually takes them four to six months to get a visa,” he said.

The State Department cross-references each student visa application with a “technology alert list.” The list of sensitive science fields – originally written during the Cold War – was designed to prevent certain information from falling into enemy hands.

The State Department instructs visa officers to carefully review applicants from state sponsors of terrorism who wish to study in certain science-related fields.

The broad list of fields includes biotechnology, missile propulsion, nuclear technology and even urban planning.

Some University officials said they think students from countries other than those on the state-sponsored terrorism list are also heavily scrutinized.

“One of the big things is the scrutiny of Chinese admitted students has increased,” Graduate Admissions Director Andrea Scott said. “Often times there really is no explanation.”

Visa delays, research waits

In June 2002, electrical engineering graduate student Shahrouz Takyar applied for a visa at the U.S. consulate in Iran. He said officials there told him the process would be completed within two months.

But when classes started in September, Takyar was still stuck in Iran, waiting for his visa to be processed. By the time Takyar’s visa was finally approved in January, he had already finalized plans to study in Canada, where he had an offer from another university.

Visa delays, such as Takyar’s, do not just affect students. They can hold up research by University faculty members, who hire international students as research assistants before visa applications are approved.

Ali Nasiri-Amini, who works on the same National Science Foundation research project as Takyar, said the team could have made more progress had Takyar been available last semester.

“Definitely if we had had him here, we could have published more,” Nasiri-Amini said.

Qualified students are in such high demand that faculty must look abroad to fill research positions.

Aerospace engineering professor Gary Balas – also Faculty Senate Research Committee chairman – currently has several international students and scholars working with him on research projects.

“You have to basically be a gambler,” Balas said, explaining that he never knows for sure if he’s going to have enough research money to support his students or enough students to work on research.

Balas said the Department of Defense and NASA research projects he works on have strict timeframes, meaning that he must have students to immediately start project work.

“Once you’re under the contract, they need you to spend money rapidly,” he said. Balas said he typically “overshoots,” offering jobs to more students than he expects will come.

“I’ve been lucky. It’s always worked out well,” he said.

Last fall, Balas encountered difficulty when he offered a research assistant position to a student from Indonesia who could not get a visa. Though Balas said the situation was unexpected, he said he will not change the way he admits students.

“I’m looking for the best and brightest,” he said.

However, some faculty might not always be able to wait for students with pending visa applications, Peterson said.

“If the work is dependent on someone who can’t get there, are you going to get the grant renewed? You might not,” he said.

Some faculty members might start choosing less qualified students if they know there is a better chance of them arriving.

“If a faculty member is looking to hire someone, they might pass up a more qualified Middle Eastern student for one who has a better chance of getting here,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a crazy thing to start thinking that way.”

Keeping research public

Even after their visas have been approved, plane tickets purchased and bags packed, international students still face restrictions on what they can study in the United States.

U.S. regulations prohibit sharing certain classified information and materials to noncitizens. According to a University Board of Regents policy, however, the institution cannot conduct research with publication restrictions.

Faculty and research sponsors are forced to work around restrictions when the research at hand falls under the government’s restrictions.

Balas said he encounters the restrictions every few weeks.

“We always try to work with the company to get a model or component that doesn’t have those restrictions,” he said.

For example, Balas said he asked for a generic model of an F-16 fighter jet instead of the specific classified model for one project.

“Agencies have been more than willing to try to have us work with a generic model,” he said, adding that there is no difference in carrying out the research.

Ed Wink, associate vice president for sponsored projects, said the University’s policy against classified research is fairly universal among public research universities. As a result, grant agencies work within the policy.

“The environment we operate in is one where anybody who has ability to do research can participate,” Wink said. “We are trying to keep that open environment protected.”

In negotiating research contracts, Wink said he and his staff look for restrictive language and then try to negotiate it out.

Sometimes, grant-writing agencies have been overzealous in what they deem classified or restricted, but overall, Wink said the rules have not been too overburdening on the University.

Balas said he does not think the regents’ policy will change anytime soon.

“The ‘U’ has a very strong policy about what type of research they’re going to accept,” he said. “We should try not to erode those policies for short-term gain.”

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