For the first time in more than 30 years, enrollment of international students in the United States has dropped, the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors survey reported last month. The University lost only 17 international students last year but ranked seventh among about 2,700 U.S. institutions in international student enrollment with a total of 4,584 foreign students.

Janna Hutz
Rodolfo Altamirano, director of the International Center, sits in his office yesterday. (SHUBRA OHRI/Daily)

Last year, international student enrollment fell from a national total of 586,323 students in the 2002-03 academic year to 572,509, a decrease of 2.4 percent, according to the Open Doors survey.

The University offset last year’s small decrease in international student enrollment with an increase of 50 students this semester. The University has historically been a leader in international student enrollment, said International Center Director Rodolfo Altamirano.

“There are many reasons why U of M is still on top,” Altamirano said. “U of M has a world-class reputation of excellence through generations.” Other reasons he listed included a sprawling alumni network and world-renowned professors.

International student Prateek Chourdia agreed that the reputation of the University’s business and engineering schools was a major factor in his decision to enroll.

“(The engineering school’s) faculty, infrastructure and location … have a world-wide reputation,” said Chourdia, an Engineering freshman from Singapore.

The University’s appeal is not only a product of its academic reputation, but also of the support the University provides to make international students feel comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings, Altamirano said.

“I have always had an open-door policy where students can come in and share their perspectives, ideas, give suggestions, open their hearts or just talk about their lives as students. We want to make the International Center their home away from home,” Altamirano said.

The International Center informs students about national regulations and the resources available to them at the University, as well as engaging in political advocacy for the students.

Though the University has been relatively successful in attracting foreign students, post-Sept. 11 regulations have depressed international student enrollment nationwide.

“It has been very difficult for our international students to come to study in the U.S. When I came to study as an international student 21 years ago, I had to deal with a strict policy, but there is no comparison to what international students are facing right now,” Altamirano said.

He pointed to a visa application process that can take months to complete, security checks at ports of entry and a $100 fee imposed by the Department of Homeland Security as examples of more stringent regulations. The department also maintains an electronic database that tracks foreign students.

“Applying to a university in the U.S. as an international student is quite a complicated routine. First you must research the university and gather information about it. Then you have to get the university to send you course packs,” Chourdia said.

“A lot of the … information is mailed to international students at the same time it is sent to students in the U.S. However, the information takes more time to reach international students, which causes them to miss deadlines and pay late fees.”

LSA sophomore Sikander Ahmed agreed with Chourdia that the application process for foreign students is time-consuming.

“It took a lot of time for everything to get processed,” said Ahmed, an international student from Pakistan. “The application process for the U.K. was much easier. It didn’t take as much time or require as much paperwork.”

Altamirano said the visa application process has become so difficult that it has acted as a major deterrent to international students applying to study in the United States.

“If action isn’t taken, we could lose our international students to other countries,” Altamirano said, adding that Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France and Germany are all proactive in recruiting international students. “If it’s too difficult to come to the U.S., they might head to where they feel more welcome,” he said.

Chourdia attributed the difficulties of the process to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“The visa application process in England was less stringent because they didn’t suffer terrorist attacks. The U.S. immigration process has been extremely strict. There are quotas for international students and international workers, which have been shrinking more and more over the last four years,” Chourdia said.

Altamirano said international students can help improve foreign relations.

“I think it’s very critical that we welcome international students as a part of this university and country,” he said. “It is important for them to see past the image of the ‘ugly American.’ If they have a positive, enlightening experience here, then when they go back they will be our unofficial ambassadors and will have a positive voice for the United States.”

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