Foreign student issues get attention

URBANA – International students do much of the work in research labs at the University of Illinois, providing the basis for important scientific discoveries. After graduation, they supply brain power to U.S. universities and corporations.

But the ability of the UI and other universities to attract international students has been hampered by more stringent visa requirements after 9/11 and competition from universities in other countries. So discussions by federal officials – starting with President Bush – about efforts to bring more such students to the United States was welcome news to Chancellor Richard Herman.

Herman was among 100 college administrators in Washington, D.C., last week for a summit on international education. Bush used the summit to announce a new foreign language initiative, but he also said it is in the national interest to solve visa issues.

"The signal that was coming from the United States was, 'Stay away,' or 'It's hard to get in.' (The administration) is determined to change that signal," Herman said. "One of the most important things that was said (at the summit) was they understand the visa situation, the difficulties of international students coming here."

The percentage of international graduate students at the UI has dropped the last two years.

Applications fell by 25 percent for the 2004-05 academic year, but the UI ended up with a drop of 2.5 percent in the number of international students. They made up 37.2 percent of all graduate students, down from about 40 percent during the previous three years. The percentage of international graduate students fell again this year, to 36.5 percent of the UI's graduate students.

Julie Misa, director of the UI's Office of International Student Affairs, said State Department officials seem more sensitive to student visa issues recently.

"It has gotten better over the last several months, but the memories still linger," Misa said. "Students are fearful of traveling home or going to international conferences for fear they won't get a visa to come back."

Herman said the free flow of scholars into the U.S. benefits universities and the private sector.

"Some of our most capable people have come from abroad and some have chosen to stay," he said. "Universities like ours have benefited greatly from scholars who have wanted to come and work here. Whether or not they come here and go back, it improves relations with the country when they return, having alumni throughout the world.

"Also, many of the research problems we work on require global engagement to work on them well," Herman continued. "The environment is the most obvious one. We can't solve the problems of the environment, the most significant ones, within our country's borders."

A new International Fulbright Science Award for Outstanding Foreign Students in Science and Technology was announced at the summit. The award will help students come to the U.S. for graduate study.

Karen Hughes of the State Department said at the summit that the administration wants to market the U.S. as "the world's education destination." She said efforts will include organizing traveling delegations of university officials to promote American education.

Herman said he also wants to encourage more UI students to study abroad. And he said Bush's foreign language initiative fits perfectly with his efforts to increase relationships between the UI and Chinese universities.

The initiative aims to increase the number of Americans fluent in critical foreign languages such as Arabic, Chinese and Russian, by increasing federal spending on K-12 language training, encouraging partnerships between K-12 and higher education, and bringing more native speakers to the U.S. to teach.

Herman said he would like to expand opportunities to learn the Chinese language in Champaign-Urbana by working with the school districts.

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