Morteza Pourdanandeh's biggest fear was that one word would stand in his way. Ever since middle school, he dreamed of studying in America, of pursuing his fascination with the United States and its worldwide economic and political influence. But there was no changing that word on his passport, his birthplace: Baghdad.
An exchange student from Linköping University in Sweden, Pourdanandeh was born in Iraq but spent his early years in Iran before his family fled, eventually settling in Sweden. "I thought I wouldn't be able to come here after Sept. 11," Pourdanandeh says, concerned his Middle Eastern background might prevent him from getting a student visa. "I had a lot of sleepless nights." But Pourdanandeh's visa was approved, and he joined the Willamette campus this fall.
When U.S. border security tightened after Sept. 11, students from abroad encountered more difficulties in coming to the U.S., and enrollment of international students in American colleges and universities declined. Today the problem isn't denial of student visas as much as delays in their processing, and delays are growing shorter as governments become more adept at conducting security checks.
"In the beginning, there was not sufficient staff to handle the increased screening required after Sept. 11," says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education (IIE), a nonprofit organization that administers more than 200 study abroad programs, including the Fulbright, each year. "Now there are not as many delays. The remaining problem is that the perception in many countries lags behind the reality. The U.S. still welcomes international students, and the process is better."
Willamette has 63 international students from 28 countries this year. Many are here on exchange programs, but 40 are pursuing degrees. Nationwide the number of international students in the U.S. was increasing in the years leading up to Sept. 11 and only began dropping in 2003-04, according to the IIE. In 2001-02, enrollment of international students at U.S. schools stood at 582,996. It grew only 0.6 percent in 2002-03 and dropped 2.4 percent in 2003-04 — the first drop in international enrollment since IIE began keeping records in 1954-55. The numbers are still declining, though at a slower rate.
While the visa process may be regaining efficiency, it is more bureaucratic and more expensive, says Kris Lou, director of international education. Once international students are accepted for enrollment, they must apply for a visa, which is based on a computerized profile generated by the Department of Homeland Security and its Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Students must go through more security checks than ever before, including a new requirement to appear at the U.S. embassy in their home country for a personal interview.
The process can hit a snag for any variety of reasons. Say, for example, a student's name is similar to one on the federal terrorist watch list. When Kiomars Qahir applied for his visa in Afghanistan, he was thankful his name was traditional Afghan rather than Arabic. Qahir knew another student with an Arabic name similar to one on the list of possible terrorists. That student's application was delayed — until the person with the questionable name was assassinated a year later.
In spite of Qahir coming to the Atkinson Graduate School of Management on a Fulbright Scholarship, completing that program's rigorous application process was not enough. He had to wait two more months for the U.S. government to finish his security clearance. By the time he arrived on campus, classes had been underway for two weeks.
"It's very frustrating," Qahir says, "because you get this letter congratulating you on the Fulbright, and then they tell you that you must gradually get ready. If you have a job, you must quit. You should get ready and pack, tell your family goodbye. If it's taking a week more, a month more, you're in ambiguity. You don't know what's going to happen."
International students weren't the only ones affected by Sept. 11. American students looking to study abroad were reminded of their place in the global community, and their fear of traveling was surpassed by their increased interest in learning about other cultures. "Ironically, the effect of Sept. 11 was not what the terrorists may have hoped," Blumenthal says. "It's not that we were scared and stayed home. Students are more interested in studying abroad, seeing the rest of the world, and going places they haven't previously visited. They realize there are a lot of things happening in the world that don't make sense unless you can see them from a non-U.S. perspective."
Sept. 11 had little effect on the University's longstanding tradition of study abroad. This academic year, 169 Willamette students are studying in Australia, Chile, China and Denmark, to name a few destinations. "We were worried that applications would be down after Sept. 11, but they weren't, which was pretty heartening," says Chris Andresen, associate director of international education. "We talk a lot about being global citizens. Our students are thinking more about building awareness of other cultures."
Gaining a global perspective was a primary reason Juline Walker ’07 studied in Chile last spring. "I think it's important to know where other people are coming from and why they think the way they do," she says. "Study abroad broadens your perspective. It takes you out of your current situation and helps you look at it more objectively."
"I'm definitely of the mindset that you can't understand your own country and your own culture until you go abroad and experience another culture," says Jennifer Birk ’07, who studied in Germany and Ukraine last year.
Faculty in the College of Liberal Arts believe so strongly in the value of international education that they passed a resolution in March 2005 advocating increased recruitment of international degree-seeking students and continued support for students to go abroad.
"The presence of international students on campus is extremely valuable," Lou says. "We do send a lot of students abroad, but if we didn't have international students here, the 50 percent who don't go abroad would be missing a vital component of a liberal arts education."
The Atkinson Graduate School of Management actively recruits international students and has enrolled 27 in MBA programs this year. AGSM alumni will represent the program at world MBA recruitment fairs this fall in Cairo, Dubai, Sao Paolo, Santiago, Lima, and Mexico City. They have already held sessions in Thailand, Japan, China and India.
The College of Law, which has five international students this year, offers a one-year master of laws degree (LLM) focusing on international law issues. The program is geared toward international lawyers seeking an understanding of American law or toward American lawyers who already hold a JD.
Willamette's partnership with Tokyo International University will celebrate its 40th year in 2007. The 90 Japanese students enrolled in TIUA this fall are active members of the campus community, and their presence, along with curricular and cocurricular offerings, makes the University a premier choice for students interested in Asian studies and culture.
Rositsa Atanasova ’07 came to the U.S. from Bulgaria because of her belief that American degrees offer more flexibility after graduation. The classical studies major has studied eight languages and spent last academic year in France. A research grant from the Lilly Project — which helps students discern their life's calling — allowed Atanasova to interview female French Muslim university students about issues of identity.
"I think it's good that most people want to travel now," Atanasova says. "Americans are very open to other cultures, they just haven't been exposed to them. I think the diversity of immigrants along with national pride and tradition help make up for America's isolation."
Shijun Chen ’09 says Chinese colleges are not as rigorous as their American counterparts. He came to Willamette to experience American culture, but he now realizes he may have something to offer as well. "I believe what Americans learn from a book or newspaper about China could be a bit different than what I know from my experience," he says.
International students say they often become the 'spokesperson' for their home country when international affairs are discussed in class, just as American students do when they study abroad. Qahir, the Fulbright scholar, sees it as a golden opportunity.
"We're coming here as an ambassador of our countries, to show Americans that we're not all the same. They've heard about the extremists, the terrorists, but we're not all like that. There are people in Afghanistan just like the ones you know from your hometown. They have the same goals, they have the same dreams. I'm looking forward to being an ambassador for peace."