Student visa process poses threat to MHC international community

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BY SAVANNAH HARRIMAN-POTE ’20

International students who choose to study at Mount Holyoke often travel thousands of miles from their home country to the United States, but their journey to the College begins long before they board a plane. According to the U.S. Department of State (DOS), citizens of other countries who wish to study at an institution of higher learning in the United States must first obtain a Nonimmigrant type F-1 visa.

Although the application process varies depending on where the student applies, every applicant must interview in-person at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. This step proves especially difficult for applicants who live in countries without established diplomatic relationships to the United States Citizens of Iran who wish to study in the U.S. must travel to embassies in the neighboring countries of Turkey, United Arab Emirates or Armenia to conduct their interviews. 

The National Association of Foreign Student Advisors also notes that all interviews are conducted in English, rather than in the language of the applicant’s home country. The DOS also requires all applicants to submit a “passport valid for travel to the U.S., a completed form DS-160 Nonimmigrant application with $160 submission fee, one (1) 2 x 2 inches (51 x 51 mm) photograph taken within the last six months and an approved original signed Form I-20 from your U.S. school or program.”

These barriers often discourage students from other countries who wish to study in the United States. Irina Ronina ’20 is one of three international students from Russia to attend Mount Holyoke in the 2017-2018 school year. Ronina has been studying in the States for the past six years, since her first year of high school. While it had always been her dream to study in the U.S., she was initially intimidated by the visa application process. “It’s a very convoluted process,” said Ronina. “The sentiment at home is, ‘Oh, you want to study in the United States? Good luck getting a visa.’”

Once a prospective student has completed the visa application process and obtained their F-1 visa, they must renew and maintain that visa throughout all four years of college. The DOS qualifies that “neither possession of a previous visa nor application for a visa serves as a guarantee that the applicant will be issued a new visa.” An international student may have their visa revoked if they seek off-campus employment or are arrested and convicted of crime. Additionally, international students must be registered full-time with their institution in order to maintain their status, unless they can demonstrate an academic or medical justification for a lighter course load.  

Visas may also be affected by factors outside the student’s control; government shutdowns impact U.S. Embassy staffing and processing times, and exchange rates make application fees more expensive for students in some countries as opposed to others. “I have many friends from home who can’t renew their visa because they don’t have the right documentation or the processing time is too long,” said Ronina. “It’s a game.”

According to the Mount Holyoke website, the College is home to 48 international students from Pakistan. Among them is Tehreem Mela ’20. Mela has experienced similar challenges to her international peers, but says that students from Pakistan have unique hurtles to overcome.
“We’re worried about getting our visa[s] because we come from a country that has been flagged by the U.S.,” she said. Though Pakistan is not included in Trump’s travel ban, Samaa TV, a Pakistani news outlet, reported a 40% decline in Nonimmigrant visas issued by the U.S. DOS to citizens of Pakistan in 2017. 

After graduation, international students may complete Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to work in the U.S. for up to one year with F-1 status. Once OPT concludes, international students have a 60-day “grace period” during which they must change their status or depart the U.S.

According to the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, “international students comprise 27 percent of Mount Holyoke’s student body and are citizens of over 70 different countries.” Over the past 10 years, that percentage has steadily increased; in the 2007-2008 school year, international students accounted for only 16 percent of total undergraduate enrollments. Additionally, the U.S. News ranks Mount Holyoke second in international student undergraduate enrollment among U.S. liberal arts colleges for the 2017-2018 school year. 

Mount Holyoke has branded itself as a community dedicated to diversity, from the new Global section of the Dining Commons to our long-standing cultural houses.  International students make up almost a third of the student body and contribute significantly to the multicultural community. But international students’ continued  attendance at Mount Holyoke depends upon their access to student visas.

“It’s really impossible to convey how complicated the process is,” said Ronina. “I have my whole life here. But every time I go home, I’m scared that there is a chance I might not be able to come back. I have been here for six years, but every day I have a plan B.”

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