Officials in the international affairs (IA) office at UMR breathed a sigh of relief recently, having met the deadline to implement a new government-mandated registration system for international students.
Friday, Aug. 1, was the deadline for colleges and universities to create records for all international students and scholars in the new Student Exchange and Visitor Information System, also known as SEVIS.
Through the SEVIS database, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is able to track international students and scholars entering the United States to study or conduct research at American colleges and universities. The information stored in SEVIS will be available to U.S. consular offices worldwide, as well as to Homeland Security officials at American ports of entry and other U.S. government entities.
The system was in the planning stages for several years, says Gene Beyer, assistant director of international affairs at UMR, but it wasn’t a priority until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"After 9-11, tracking of international students became a higher priority and congress mandated the implementation of the SEVIS system," Beyer says.
To comply with the mandate, a new record had to be entered in SEVIS and a new I-20 form issued for every international student and scholar attending a U.S. college or university. On the UMR campus that amounted to more than 800 records.
Technical problems were common throughout the implementation of the system, making the deadline more difficult to meet. But UMR’s implementation went more smoothly than many other schools’ thanks in large part to the work of the UMR information technology department.
"UMR’s IT group has just been phenomenal," says Jeanie Hofer Smallwood, director of international affairs at UMR, a sentiment echoed by Beyer.
"IT did an incredible job, starting from ground zero with no model to work from," says Beyer. "It was a challenge, but we’ve been very fortunate to have so much cooperation and assistance."
The new system has led the IA staff to expand its focus on educating and communicating the regulatory requirements with UMR’s international students, faculty and staff.
With the new system, an international student’s academic information is fed directly from the registrar into the SEVIS database, bypassing IA officials. Immigration rules require international students to take a full course load, but with the proper paperwork on file in SEVIS, some exceptions can be requested. This paperwork, however, must be documented and loaded into the system by IA personnel. Unless the students keep IA staff informed of their status, they would be unable to assist them.
Many programs are now in place at UMR to help educate international students about their new responsibilities, says Smallwood. A series of workshops was held for current international students and scholars to keep them informed. Workshops were also held for faculty to help them meet the international students’ needs. In addition, IA staff continue to meet regularly at departmental meetings with faculty and graduate associates, who play a critical role in ensuring student requirements are met.
"Education is vital," says Beyer. "The students must know to monitor their own status and be pro-active about informing us ahead of time."