By Kamakshi Dadhwal
In the United States, almost all colleges have a sophisticated orientation process for international students. At UTampa, the event lasts for about three days, going from registration, to security information, to group bonding activities. One would think that UT’s administration would mention all the necessary legal steps a student has to take to remain an authorized international student in the United States. Although the people at the Office of International Programs claim to mention everything in the orientation, several international students confirm that there are instances where the office has failed to provide adequate information about the most basic, yet important, regulation.
“I’m a freshman. It has been a month since we got here and I have discovered more important things about immigration rules by word of mouth than I did at the orientation,” says Mariama Marissa. International students require a form called the I-20, which they receive via mail from their respective universities, to legally enter the U.S. The I-20 needs to be signed every year for it to be valid at the time of immigration. Many international students have no idea about this requirement, indicating a lamentable miscommunication between UT’s Office of International Programs and the students themselves. This isn’t to say that the students have no responsibility in contacting the administration in order to maintain a legal status; students need to play a proactive part in diminishing the divide between the Office of International Programs and themselves. However, after spending the summer back home, one doesn’t exactly expect or desire a full helping of inconvenience, with a side of unnecessary stress.
At the airport, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) takes any student with an invalid I-20 to a separate waiting area to be interviewed. They try to “verify” the student’s enrollment, while the student fears potential deportation. My personal experience at the Chicago immigration services, being pulled over to the side to be asked questions about my background and enrollment at UT, was frustrating and scary. It is unfortunate that any students should face such a taxing situation when it would have taken marginal effort to get that signature, if only she or he had been informed earlier.
Once the verification is complete, the student is instructed to go to the university, get the I-20 signed and then have the university send it via U.S. mail to the USCIS headquarters in Washington DC. Failure to do so within a month results in deportation. It’s an easy procedure when you subtract the anxiety of getting it done in time. UT’s Office of International Programs is very sympathetic towards the student’s problem, but does not take on the responsibility of sending the document to DC.
The Office of International Programs maintains that the orientation fully informs students of all the necessary procedures at the beginning of the year, and that there are other reasons why students may not know of these procedures. “Although we mention every single detail regarding immigration in the orientation itself, there is a lot to process in a small span of time. Students often miss details because it is impossible to remember or note everything down at once. Also, the orientation is mandatory for all international students to attend but for whatever reason, many students don’t attend it. As a result they completely miss out on the information about important immigration deadlines and forms,” says Ms. Rosa Mercado, International Student and Scholar Advisor at UT. The administration should reiterate important deadlines for the benefit of international students who attended the orientation, noted everything they could, and yet found themselves being pulled to the side when reentering the US.
To the administration’s credit, there is a section on Blackboard exclusively for international students. Mentioned in the section, somewhere in the plethora of other “advisories,” is the requirement to have an I-20 signed yearly. Unfortunately, according to many incoming freshman and returning international students, nowhere in the orientation does anyone mention this Blackboard section. “I didn’t know until another international friend of mine told me about this rule. I believe that just having a Blackboard page with an update at the very end of the year isn’t exactly taking responsibility,” said international student Sonam Kale.
Aside from the total change in society and lifestyle, students who apply to study in another country have to go through the pain of a lot of paperwork, even before they set foot on foreign soil. After three months of filling out paperwork and filing applications for visas and admission, international students finally get to attend college. They don’t deserve any more stress after the already drawn-out process. UT’s Office of International Programs, and anyone else who is involved in planning the orientation, should make sure that they iterate a fact as important as getting one’s I-20 signed and emphasize it over the year for freshman, at least. There are many more ways to reach out to students on campus besides emails and Blackboard. Perhaps pamphlets could be handed out and it could be mentioned in bold on one slide in the orientation presentation.
This issue can really affect one’s time here in the States. As an international student, I know it is my responsibility to have my papers in order at all times, but I also understand the anxiety that I could have escaped.