Mecca for all

Despite the privacy issues of homeland security measures, Reno draws students from around the world

Yiwen Zhang says Reno is a good place to get started in the United States.

Yiwen Zhang says Reno is a good place to get started in the United States.

Photo by David Robert

“Reno fits me best,” says Yiwen Zhang, president of the International Affairs Club at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her black hair blends with her dark leather jacket and, draped over her shoulder, flows down past her waist, as she relaxes in a wingback chair in the Mackay School of Mines library.

“Reno provides me with the environment and opportunity to have the experiences that will allow me to understand what is going on in the world, so that I will one day be in a position to help people,” says the student from Harbin, China. “I looked at bigger cities like San Francisco, New York, Boston, but people at those schools are more aggressive, and the price of living is very expensive.”

Zhang chose UNR as a starting point in America. She will complete a four-year program in two and one-half years and graduate in May. An international-affairs and economics double major, she next plans to study law at a larger school, feeling that she has prepared herself for a more competitive setting.

UNR’s international student body has more than doubled during the last 15 years. Since 1999 the number of international applications at the University of Nevada, Reno, has increased by more than 70 percent. Though new Homeland Security methods of tracking international students are complicating education for some students who choose to come the United States, Reno is still attractive to foreign students.

As evinced by Zhang, the 825 international students are full of potential, and many agree that Reno’s less crowded atmosphere is ideal. But some assert that the implementation of a nationwide student tracking system will cause potential students to think twice about applying to UNR and other universities in the United States due to increased hassles and lack of privacy.

In addition, the tracking system has fomented concern that American schools will lose students to Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada. In particular Australia, where the government subsidizes international education, stepped up its recruiting efforts immediately following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. On the other hand, students intent on coming to the United States now have to wait longer—up to a month—to procure a visa.

Schools across the country expected decreases for fall 2002 because of these factors. Then the Institute of International Education released the new statistics on Nov. 18. Nothing’s changed. There was a 6.4 percent increase nationwide in the number of international students, matching last year’s increase before the terrorist attacks.

Yet the fear is understandable considering what the Bush administration has done during the last 14 months. The USA PATRIOT Act, signed into law by President Bush in October 2001, mandates the appropriation of nearly $37 million for implementing the Student Exchange and Visitor Information System (SEVIS), an international student tracking program, by the end of January. With the creation of the Homeland Security Department, just last week, scrutiny of foreign students will likely increase even more, since the Immigration and Naturalization Service was one of the agencies incorporated into the new department. Administrators are determined to cope with the extra work the tracking program entails.

“SEVIS is what all this paperwork is about,” says Susan Bender, director of the Office of International Students and Scholar. She nods to a stack of papers on her desk. “Next week we’re adding memory to all our computers so that we can accommodate the software needed for the program.”

SEVIS requires that OISS notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service if any student changes his or her major or address, graduates, drops below full-time status, drops out or is suspended. Students are required to keep OISS informed.

Despite increased restrictions on foreigners and a wary attitude, the American government seems to recognize that educating international students is a big market, Bender says. “I think that’s one of the reasons they’re having the system implemented after spring semester begins, which gives us about eight months to get the system working before the big rush in fall.”

Other countries have demonstrated that they understand the value of international students.

“No matter where you work or study these days, you’re in a global environment,” Bender says. “Learning about other cultures and perspectives is essential. Anyone who graduates without that kind of understanding is disadvantaged in today’s world.”

Though the total number of international students at UNR is about the same as last year, enrollment in her program is down about 25 percent from last fall, says Deirdre Vinyard, director of the English as a Second Language Program.

“Students who come just for English training are now more likely to look elsewhere,” Vinyard says. “We’re putting a lot of effort into reminding parents of international students that Reno is a small town and reassuring them that it’s safe.”

Until late November, students from five countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria—were subject to extra scrutiny by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They were required to report in person to an INS bureau within a few days of touching U.S. soil. Now, 15 other countries have been added to the list, most with high Muslim populations.

“I am in contact with several students from the Middle East who would’ve stayed and worked in America after completing their Ph.D. programs, but they have now decided to go back home,” says Varough Mohammed Deyde, who speaks from experience. He is the president of the African Students and Scholars Association and a doctoral student in cellular and molecular biology. He wants to complete a post-doc at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta before returning to Africa to fight viruses and help build a bridge between Africa and the West. “We all understand that the terrorist attacks somewhat justify what is going on,” he says, “but many Muslims are frightened for their safety and prefer not to be in America now.”

But for every student from the Middle East who is discouraged from coming to America, there seems to be another to take his place. Of the original five countries on the special registration list, only Iraq showed a decrease—a slight decrease—from 155 students nationwide to 147. Many other countries with high Muslim populations, such as Turkey, which has more than 10,000 students in the United States, showed increases. Though the original five special registration countries have been expanded to 20, most of those 20 send miniscule numbers of students to America, so the change may not have a negative effect.

The tracking system is "annoying," says Yiwen Zhang, as she folds and clips the rope of hair that has not been cut since elementary school. "But I understand why it has been created."