Is big brother watching our international students?

The world became a different place for many following the September 11 attacks, but now the United States. may become a different place for many international students.

“Since September 11, the international student community has rolled really well with the punches,” Christina Luther, assistant director of Portland State’s International Studies Program, said. The added security and scrutiny international students endure to study in the United States has been trying, but Luther says they’ve been taking “everything in stride.”

Now, another stride is coming their way. HR 3077, a bill currently awaiting a vote by the U.S. Senate, proposes amendments to parts of the Higher Education Act of 1965 dealing with international studies programs at universities nationwide. One of the prime changes to the legislation includes establishing a federal advisory board, which would oversee all of these international studies programs.

Luther feels that such a board could be a good thing – “only not under the current administration.”

Whether the advisory is a good or a bad thing depends on how it is implemented if the bill passes. Luther fears “it’s being formed to monitor … to restrict rather than promote diversity.”

Gil Latz, interim vice provost for the Office of International Affairs at PSU, said that while there is currently “no direct dollar relationship” between the Title VI grant funding addressed in the bill and PSU’s programs, “intellectually, we would have serious concerns.”

Latz relates HR 3077 to the National Defense Educational Act passed during the 1950s. Under this legislation, a focus was placed on critical language study and many international faculty members were hired. Both items are given attention in the amendments to the Higher Ed Act.

“The concern in this case is the oversight committee,” Latz said.

Faculty worry that curricula could be mandated by this advisory board to fit the wants of the current administration.

However, a fact sheet recently released by John Boehner, chairman of the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, stated, “The advisory board is prohibited from influencing curriculum.” The fact sheet goes on to clarify that the board’s authority only involves advising and making recommendations to the education secretary and Congress.

Luther worries that despite these specifications, the board could still have significant sway over how universities run their international studies programs.

Under Title VI, grant monies are awarded to different individuals and programs within international studies.

Luther fears that grants will be threatened if someone receiving grant money speaks out about the government in a way the administration finds unsatisfactory or in some way disseminating.

“The objective of education,” she said, “is to question the establishment, not accept it.”

Luther and Latz both shared another concern: the ability to continue bringing international students to PSU. Reports have already shown that international student enrollment has dropped at the university, especially in light of increased discrimination following Sept. 11, 2001 and the growing complexity in obtaining a student visa while dealing with the INS.

“International students are already more and more hesitant to study in the United States,” Luther said.

She and Latz also referenced the new SEVIS system: Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a manner of electronically tracking all international students in the United States. As of Aug. 1, 2003, Congress mandated that all international students be registered with SEVIS.

The SEVIS system and increased INS regulations require individuals seeking a student visa to study in the United States to conduct an interview with a representative of the U.S. government. Many are also photographed and fingerprinted.

Latz said the photographing and fingerprinting are having a significant effect on PSU’s international students from China and from predominantly Muslim countries, among others.

All of these increasing regulations, including the proposed advisory board, act as deterrents to international students. As a result, Luther pointed out, Canada, Australia and the U.K. are all putting in extra efforts to recruit international students, as interest in studying in the United States wanes because of all the extra restrictions and complications.

This legislation is “just another message that their activities would be closely watched,” Luther said.

Latz also pointed out what a crucial role international students play. “These are the people that become our best allies,” he said.

These students live in the United States, often marry U.S. citizens and sometimes go into diplomatic work between the United States and their home countries. They understand the United States and can, therefore, be a good liaison between two existing governments.

“Those kind of links are in jeopardy,” Latz said.

Abroad, the bill has “a bit of a chilling effect,” Latz stated. “Other countries are reading this and getting a negative view of the United States.”

“They’re getting a message,” he added, “that we don’t want them here.”