Government Rep Touts Visa Gains

Visa problems prevented six students—four fewer than last year—from making it to Cambridge in time for enrollment this semester, according to recent figures from the Harvard International Office.

The improvement is consistent with a decline in visa delays nationwide and is the result of recent government efforts to make the visa-issuing process—wildly unpredictable since Sept. 11—more efficient, an administrator in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Tuesday.

C. Stewart Verdery Jr., the DHS assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning, said his agency is now making a special push to ensure that foreign students aren’t deterred from studying in the United States. The push responds to a 32 percent drop in international student applications to the country’s graduate schools.

“We see these students coming in as the next generation of foreign leaders,” Verdery said. “We need them to be exposed to the best that America has to offer—our democratic traditions and capitalism, our media, our entertainment, our values.”

Following the government’s implementation of stricter border controls following Sept. 11 and the ensuing drop in international applications last year, University President Lawrence H. Summers sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell and DHS Secretary Tom Ridge ’67 last April demanding improvement in visa-processing procedures.

Verdery said Summers’ letter caught the attention of “everyone from the president on down.”

At a Faculty meeting Tuesday, Summers said he was pleased that fewer international students were prevented from attending Harvard this year, but cautioned that “this is still a matter of continuing concern.”

“It will be important that we focus on our recruiting of foreign students,” he said.

Verdery’s brief visit to Cambridge this week, during which he spoke to administrators from the International Office and several of Harvard’s schools, was his first meeting with University leaders not working exclusively on federal relations.

According to International Office Director Sharon Ladd, governmental response was significantly more efficient this year than it has been in the past.

“What happened this year was the government said to us that they had organized their cases in such a way that they felt the majority could be settled in 30 days or less,” she said. “Essentially, that was our experience.”

Hoping to bring the number of international university applicants back to their former level, Verdery said he has recently been working to publicize stories of students who have successfully obtained visas to study in the United States.

“We’ve got to make sure that the welcome mat is known overseas,” he said. “The competitiveness of attracting students and researchers is increasing, so we’ve got to meet that level of competition.”

Still, he says he’s relying on universities themselves to help.

“We’re working hard at our end, but it has to be a cooperative effort with universities themselves,” he said. “They need to get the word out as to their own programs and benefits, in that we’re not catering those.”

Ladd says the International Office discussed improvements to the visa process at its student orientation meeting this fall.