Foreign Scholars Hindered

Post-Sept. 11 regulations mean delays, setbacks for foreign students

All Harvard applicants are accustomed to waiting by mailboxes, but long after receiving his acceptance letter, Kooi L. Pang was still looking for envelopes.

The Malaysian masters candidate at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) got his student visa three months later than he expected. Ultimately, the document arrived just in time for Pang to make it to Cambridge on the last day of add-drop period in the fall of 2002.

Pang’s visa application was caught in a freeze by the U.S. consulate—one of several backlogs and delays that came about as legislation designed to protect the country from foreign terrorism came into effect.

Pang says the close call frightened him so much that he didn’t leave the country for more than a year afterward. He was so frustrated during the months when his visa application was pending that he nearly threw in the Harvard towel entirely, he says.

“This visa thing really made me not want to come back to school at all,” he says.

Pang’s predicament isn’t unique—and neither is his response.


Recent backlogs and red-tape jungles have made study in the United States increasingly difficult for some students—particularly those coming from Middle Eastern and East Asian countries—who find themselves caught between deadlines.

And now what was once international administrators’ worst fear is becoming reality: Some of the world’s top scholars are beginning to favor universities in other, more accessible countries.

Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) has reported a 15-percent drop in the number of foreign applications it received this year. And considering that the number of international graduate applications nationwide declined by 32 percent over the past year—affecting 90 percent of graduate programs, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools—this is more likely a trend than a fluke.

The possibility of losing Harvard’s international community—comprised of 3,500 students and 2,000 other scholars who as of three years ago were the majority of the University’s postdoctoral fellows—has been enough to incite a response from Harvard’s highest office.

Last month, University President Lawrence H. Summers wrote letters to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge ’67. Summers cited the recent drop in applications as evidence that new visa procedures established after Sept. 11 are persuading the best and the brightest to seek education elsewhere.

“If the visa process remains complicated and filled with delays, we risk losing some of our most talented scientists and compromising our country’s position at the forefront of technological innovation,” Summers wrote.

For international institutions like Harvard and its peers, regulations established in the name of national security have meant months of extra work for administrators. And in spite of these efforts, some say, barriers erected in the wake of Sept. 11 are turning away the world’s top scholars.


Congress and the White House put new pressure on the visa processing system following Sept. 11. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2002, when scholars abroad first planned to join their classes in the United States, that students—and the administrators who helped to bring them into the country—first began feeling shockwaves from the new procedures.

Consulars advised of delays in visa processing of up to three or four weeks. But as backlog dragged on for months, students like Pang faced the reality of not being allowed to enter the country in time for classes.