Adapting to a New System

Rod Searcey

Shortly before the start of fall quarter last year, some 40 international students still had not received visas—and were stranded at home, waiting to come to Stanford. Fast-forward a year: this September, the number of visa delays was hovering at about five.

Not that getting there was easy. Like all postsecondary schools nationwide, Stanford had to cope with the requirements of a new and often frustrating federal computerized system for keeping tabs on international students. Starting in May, Bechtel International Center director John Pearson and his staff closed the center two days each week so they could enter student data—country of citizenship, local address, academic major, dependents, expected end date of program, among others—in the web-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

The staffers met the August 1 filing deadline for all but a dozen of the University’s 2,900 continuing international students. And those 12, Pearson says, could have been working anywhere in the United States, perhaps on authorization other than a student visa, or they may have left the country. “This is a new [requirement]—that we are now responsible for knowing where they are and updating addresses,” he adds.

Ever since it was revealed that some of the September 11 hijackers had entered the United States on student visas, tracking international students has become a federal priority. More students are undergoing background checks, men from 20 mostly Muslim countries are being fingerprinted and photographed, and Pearson now carries a cell phone to take calls from officials at ports of entry.

With more than a million international students in the SEVIS system, Pearson says things went more smoothly than expected. “There were times up until August 1 where it was bewilderingly slow, and it did log people out a lot,” he notes. “Students’ records were known to disappear, and you might suddenly get students on your list who were from another school.”

Having cleared the initial SEVIS hurdle, Pearson remains concerned about the visa delays and denials that international students face. “It’s really about people’s lives,” he says. “When you go overseas for a conference for three days, and suddenly it’s six months before you can get back [to the United States], that’s tough.”