Some Wrinkles in the Welcome Mat

Post 9/11 visa problems contribute to drop in international enrollment at St. Thomas, but help is on the way

Are the ripple effects of international terrorism being felt at the University of St. Thomas College of Business?

A look at the numbers would say yes, but factors other than terrorism also affect the number of international students in St. Thomas classrooms.

A chart plotting the number of international students attending the College of Business shows steady gains from the fall of 1997 to the peak years of 2000 and 2001. After that … and after 9/11 … the line on the chart heads south.

The College of Business isn’t alone. Its international enrollment growth spurt and subsequent decline match that of the university as a whole, as well as colleges and universities throughout the nation.

At the College of Business, international enrollment climbed from 131 students in fall 1998 to 204 in fall 2001. By fall of 2003, the number had dropped back to 142. International enrollment at all of St. Thomas, meanwhile, was 311 in 1998, 602 in 2001, and 438 in 2003.

One reason for the current decline, but not the only one, can be traced to the growing difficulty of obtaining student visas. “After 9/11, for perfectly understandable reasons, the federal government made it much tougher to get a visa to come to the United States,” wrote Robert Gates in the New York Times.

“Sadly, the unpredictability and delays that characterize the new system - and, too often, the indifference or hostility of those doing the processing - have resulted over the last year or so in a growing number of the world’s brightest young people deciding to remain at home or go to other countries for their college or graduate education,” wrote Gates, who was director of central intelligence in the early ’90s and now is president of Texas A&M University.

While St. Thomas can accurately chart the number of international students who attend classes, it cannot be certain of how many potential students applied but eventually gave up trying to enroll because of visa difficulties.

One St. Thomas international student who didn’t give up is Humphrey Tusimiirwe, an undergraduate who grew up in Entebbe, Uganda, on the shores of Lake Victoria. A bright and highly recommended student, Tusimiirwe was offered a full scholarship to St. Thomas but his visa application was turned down three times. Tusimiirwe had interrupted his education to help support his mother and siblings after his father’s death. Following his St. Thomas studies, he plans to return to Uganda and help those affected by war, by HIV-AIDS, and in his words, those “who are broken by the struggle to make ends meet.”

Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, didn’t give up either. Dease was attending a conference in Uganda for Catholic university presidents last year when he met Tusimiirwe. In one of several letters he wrote to the U.S. embassy in support of the student, Dease said he would be Tusimiirwe’s mentor.

After repeated efforts to help Tusimiirwe failed, Dease turned to U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman for help. It took several calls and letters from Coleman, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and Narcotics, to eventually help Tusimiirwe secure his visa.

He arrived on campus in January, and so far one of his biggest adjustments has involved windchill factors. And happily, again with Coleman’s help, two of Tusimiirwe’s sisters have recently secured student visas. The sisters, Doryne Tunanukye and Mavreen Ananura, will attend St. Thomas this fall. Tusimiirwe’s experience inspired Coleman to recently introduce The International Student and Scholar Access Act, a proposal aimed at reversing the decline in foreign access to the U.S. higher education system.

Coleman, who announced the proposed legislation in July, said it is designed to change the way visa applications are processed, redefines criteria by which a student is accepted and improves communication and shared information between government agencies.

While visa difficulties are a reason for enrollment declines, other factors are at play, and they were the topic of discussion at the annual conference in June of the Graduate Management Admissions Council.

“This is a complex problem,” said Anne Engler, admissions director for the full-time UST MBA, who attended the Admissions Council conference. “If we are going to find a solution  we need to determine all parts of the problem, and not just pick one thing, like visas, as the scapegoat.”

Engler listed some of the challenges that were discussed at the council’s annual meeting. The international pool of potential students is in decline, for example, and students in this smaller pool can now find more graduate business programs in their home countries, or in countries like Canada, England and Australia.

Changes in the economy and the job market, for instance in the high-tech field, have made some international students reluctant to give up a job at home to study abroad.

All the attention paid to visa difficulties may lead some students not to even try toobtain one, or else seek a visa to study in a country other than the United States. And with terrorism in the news, there is a general concern about safety.

The College of Business is retooling some of its international programs (see related story on Page 10) and over the long term remains optimistic about continuing to attract foreign students to the St. Thomas campus.

“Our goal is to have a healthy and productive mix of international and domestic students in our key graduate programs, most notably the full-time UST MBA,” said Dr. Christopher Puto, dean of the College of Business. “Since the United States has dominated graduate business education for all of the last century and even now, we believe that demand for our offerings on the part of international students will remain solid.”

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