In the days following Sept. 11, the mantra repeated everywhere was “nothing will ever be the same”—whether it referred to partisan wrangling or a kinder, gentler society. A year and a half later, the idea of irrevocable change seems overstated except if you are Joyce Randolph, head of Penn’s Office of International Programs (OIP). For OIP, the changes precipitated by 9/11 continue to reverberate in day-to-day decisions.
The good news is that for the first time, OIP is all together in a light-filled, newly renovated space on the ground floor of International House. In addition, Randolph and her staff were recently awarded an Honorable Mention in the University’s Models of Excellence program for their proactive response in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
For students from Penn studying abroad, who fall under their jurisdiction, little has changed. However, for international students, researchers and scholars coming to Penn, the ever-changing rules and a new electronic tracking system have turned getting a visa into a exasperating waiting game.
Q. How many students from abroad do you deal with in an academic year?
A. Last year, 2001-2002, there were 2,820. That number represents international students on non-immigrant visas. There are a lot of other international students here, but they could already have permanent residence or they are dual citizens or something like that. That is one reason why our campus looks so diverse when you walk through it. Of that number, about 2,000 are graduate and professional students. In the undergraduate population, it has been at 10 percent international for the past dozen years or so.
Q. Have the new visa requirements affected the number of international students at Penn?
A. There has not been a marked change in numbers of international students except for the intensive English language program and certain short-term summer programs. That reflects a national trend.
On the other hand, there have been many, many delays and frustrations and ever-changing regulations that are a source of anxiety and frustration for students. We had a relatively small number of students who were not able to get their visas in time for the start of classes. 99 percent of those students simply deferred matriculation. We haven’t really felt the impact, though we have read that other universities are experiencing that.
Q. What role does OIP play in assisting students?
A. We try to help as much as possible. Before Sept. 11, if someone was experiencing problems, we could try to contact appropriate people in the Department of State or enlist members of Congress who might be able to be helpful. It was a lot easier because the cases were few and far between.
For students who we were trying to provide assistance to get here for Sept. 2002, we did all of the usual things and after a while we started getting back automatic responses that said, Don’t do this anymore, it’s not going to do any good. Add to that the new data-tracking service called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System). It is a new Internet-based data tracking system for all students from abroad and all scholars on J-1 (non-immigrant) visas. We no longer have the authority to issue visa documents.
We have to send a request up through the Internet to the Department of Homeland Security [to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, successor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service] and wait for them to approve it and then magically a form gets printed out in our office that the student has to fill out. What used to be a very straightforward process [showing a simple graphic] now looks like this [a graphic that looks like a plate of spaghetti]. Now there are many many points where the process can be slowed down or stopped. This is the obstacle course that a person from abroad has to navigate. You never know how long it will take.
Q. Have you had to increase staff because of this?
A. Yes, as this started to develop, I put in a request for three additional staff, first to make sure we have the hardware and software for this kind of data reporting. We will grow from a 21-person office in June 2002 to 24 people this fall.
Q. Study abroad is something that Penn promotes heavily to its undergraduates. How many students participate each year?
A. I would say between 600 and 650 students study abroad for a semester or an academic year. Most of our students have always gone to Western Europe. Australia and New Zealand are increasingly popular. Even before 9/11, very few students went to the Middle East or North Africa. Even before Sept. 11, we had suspended Penn Abroad in Israel because of the violence that has been going on there since October 2000. An equal number, almost, of graduate and professional students study abroad for credit in a very decentralized way.
Q. What are some of your most popular study abroad programs?
A. Studying in the United Kingdom is the most popular country, but it is not one program. Most students cluster around London. The King’s College program is for English majors and run primarily by Penn’s English department. Most people opt to take a course where going to plays is part of the curriculum. We hire an outstanding London theater critic to teach and offer commentary.
There is also a program in Oaxaca in southern Mexico that was developed by Nancy Fariss in the History Department and others in Latin American studies. It is not your typical language and literature study abroad program. It is very strong in the social sciences and students do an independent study project that involves working with people in the community.
Q. How does OIP prepare students for life in a foreign country?
A. Students participate in two pre-departure orientations. They are happening now. One is cross-cultural. We schedule it so that people going to different sites come together. We provide case studies and role-playing about what they might encounter. This is where we stick in many safety precautions like, Please don’t dress like an American or stick in a pack of Americans. There is a second, program-specific orientation and that is very practical. We have handbooks for many of the programs that are filled with information like how to open a bank account. We also have a book, “The Practical Penn Abroad,” that has all of the rules and regulations.
Everybody who has studied abroad or worked abroad experiences culture shock when they return, so we also do a whole day in the early fall for students who have just returned. These re-entry conferences, as we call them, were started by us and are now a
model for a lot of other places.
The biggest re-entry issue we hear from students is, I’ve changed so much. I have a different perspective on what it means to be an American.
Q. Your web site has a lot of information on it —from exchange rates to links to international news services like BBC and al Jazeera. How do you decide what to include?
A. We try to keep up with what are the best sources of information and link to them. Shortly after the war started, we sent out a bulk e-mail message to all students and scholars to express concern and say if you have worries, please come in and if you want to track what is happening from different perspectives, here is a balanced set of resources. Communication is the most important tool we have—both with our students and researchers and with parents of study abroad students.
Above: Randolph (bottom row, center) with some of the international and study-abroad students her office serves.
Originally published on April 17, 2003