An International Shift

In the legal aftermath of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, legislation was passed mandating that the Immigration and Naturalization Service create a computer-tracking system for international students and scholars within the U.S. The result: SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System), an electronic program intended to streamline the flow of information. Its planned January launch has raised eyebrows--and a number of questions. Catheryn Cotten, director of Duke's International Office, comments.
October 1, 2002


Cotten: welcoming foreign students, while protecting national security

Cotten: welcoming foreign students, while protecting national security.

Why should America, at this time, welcome foreign students in its universities?

The obvious answer, of course, is that internationalization is good for any major university. One of the touchstone, core theories of Duke at one time, and probably continuing, is that there is no great university that isn't an international university. And that is an effort that we've been working on for a number of years. We've had international students since the very early years. One of our first was Chinese--that would have been way back at the turn of the century--so we've always been an international university. You cannot function in a global environment unless you are ready to function at all levels.

Is Duke subsidizing an education for a student who very well may leave with that knowledge and information?

Every student is subsidized at some level. We've recently launched financial-aid opportunities for undergraduate internaional students. The undergraduate international population finds it difficult to get into Duke and to afford it. So Duke has made a conscious effort to encourage those students to apply by providing very limited, but certainly available, financial aid.

We subsidize lots of things in this country because it is worth it to us to do so: every time someone drives down the road, uses the public library, or even buys a glass of milk (there's a subsidy that goes to milk farmers). Subsidies at certain levels produce benefits at a much higher level in certain areas.

International students are going away with a better understanding of America. Whether we ought to have an effort to export culture or merely an understanding of America is under consideration. It is the case that dozens of world leaders that we work with in this war on terrorism were educated in the U.S. An understanding of how this nation functions is a very positive thing to do for our national security, not to mention our economic prosperity.

How exactly does SEVIS work?

In the Duke system, the admisisions office sends an electronic notice to us with all of the information for the admitted student. We then move that information from the Duke system directly into the Immigration computers. So we put in the name, the date of birth, place of study, dates for the program, how it's funded, all of this on an electronic document called an I-20. The data on that person are in the Immigration database before the person ever enters the U.S., which gives everyone along the line--consular officers, immigration officers, anyone who needs to look at it--the ability to do so.

The primary difference is that we're cutting down on time by moving from a very old, very cumbersome paper process to an electronic process. Whether the student needs to be authorized for curricular practical training or to transfer from one institution to another, an undergraduate to a graduate program, for instance--all of this can be done online.

SEVIS reports the whereabouts and status of foreign students at the beginning of each semester. If a student left mid-semester, couldn't it be several months before his or her absence is reported to the INS?

This system requires us to tell Immigration that a student is coming and then whether or not he or she reported to school at the end of drop-add. Once school has started, we do not go back every week to check in the classroom to see if this English 101 student is going to Biology instead. It's not possible to do. But at the same time, tourists come in and they're admitted for a period of time and no one sees them after they come into the port of entry. The tracking of students is much better than the tracking of tourists. That's basically nonexistent.

There is no way to track every alien who comes into the U.S. I think what we're doing now for students is basically as much as we need to do. We're ensuring that they're here and that they're in school for the time we expect them to be. At Duke, like at many other institutions, we don't take attendance. It's the responsibility of the students, whether they go to class or not, to show up for exams and get passing grades and move on to the next semester. There has been talk of tracking each and every course that a student takes in order to ensure that people from certain countries don't get access to certain technologies. Whether you can control knowledge and what people do with that knowledge is up for debate. I think the idea of tracking every single course could be more confusing than it is useful--how do you know the real content of the course?

There are 70,000 institutions that accept the I-20 form (student visas) in the United States. Will all of these be tracked by the new system?

If you are a private proprietary school--e.g., the Magic House of Nails or Reverend Rufus' Religious Academy--these are often in the trade or technical field and they won't necessarily be recognized by the state or an accrediting organization. They will be primarily businesses, and Immigration will look more closely at them and will potentially be sending people out to do site visits.

Where are international students likely to settle beyond college?

U.S. law currently says that an F1 student or a J1 scholar must intend to return home in order to be eligible for the visa to enter to begin with. We are generally attracting to major universities the best and the brightest, which means that they have the intellect and the skills to benefit any country where they live, theirs or ours.

So there's this ongoing discussion about whether we need to be shipping them back to their home countries so that they can change the life there. Or whether we ought to keep them here and use their skills in ways that benefit America. And I don't have an answer. People who care about the world and about America are on both sides of that question.