300 fewer international students attending UA as U.S. restricts visas

By Walter E. Staton
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Thant Sin Min tried three times to study at the UA, but each time that the UA accepted him, the United States did not.

It wasn't until his third attempt to get a visa from the U.S. consulate in Burma that Min, a mechanical engineering sophomore, succeeded.

Visa restrictions imposed by the Department of Homeland Security have dramatically impacted the number of international students studying in the United States, said Kirk Simmons, executive director of international affairs.

Last fall, UA had more than 2,900 international students. This spring, the number has dropped by 300, Simmons said. Spring enrollment is usually down by 100 to 150 students, but this semester's large drop has raised some eyebrows.

"I've been in the business for 30 years. This is the most dramatic down I've ever seen," Simmons said.

The main reasons for the drop in international students include stricter visa procedures after Sept. 11, 2001, and increased competition from universities in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom, Simmons said.

When Min searched for a university, he applied to schools in the United States, Canada and Japan, but kept his eye on Arizona.

"I really wanted to come to the United States," he said.

He first applied for his visa before Sept. 11. The consulate turned him down, saying he didn't have the financial means to study in America although he had a full scholarship, Min said.

The consulate also told him he needed a U.S. bank account.

"It was impossible for my family to get a U.S. bank account," he said. "It's unbelievable they would require that."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Min said the interviews got harder. The consulate saw 15 people per day, and only one got a visa, Min said.

The drop in enrollment has also hurt the UA and the Tucson community financially.

An international student contributes around $25,000 to the local economy during an academic year. This semester's drop in enrollment translates into a loss of a few million dollars for the community, Simmons said.

Losing international students also impacts the university in ways much harder to calculate. Frequently, students collaborate with their old professors years after leaving Arizona, Simmons said.

If students aren't here, they can't make those connections.

"We have a long historical reputation for providing graduate education to international students who go home to their home country and build their universities," Simmons said. "The UA has a tremendous reputation for academic infrastructure building abroad."

Joanne Lagassˇ-Long, director of international student programs and services, said the drop in students is a major concern for the UA.

"Departments want the best students in the world to help with their research," she said.

President Peter Likins said it is important to look at this as a national issue that affects the entire country, not just the universities. But he is aware of the problem here at the UA, pointing out the 85 percent drop in students from the Persian Gulf states alone.

Likins said another discouraging problem is that students cannot get their visas renewed until they return to their home country, which discourages them from studying in America.

"If you were to go home for Christmas vacation, you're stuck," Likins said.

Min is all too familiar with this issue. He wants to visit family in Burma, but his one-year visa has already expired.

He is allowed to stay in America as long as he remains a full-time student, but if he leaves, he would need his visa renewed to come back to the United States.

"I don't know if I can get another visa," he said.