Challenges persist in getting international students, scholars to campus

At a Trustee meeting, Associate Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Amy Gadsden explained how recent changes to U.S. visa policy are impacting Penn.


For some international students and scholars, getting to Penn this year has proven more difficult than ever before, due to recent changes to U.S. visa policy. 

At Thursday’s meeting of the Trustee committee on Local, National, & Global Engagement at the Inn at Penn, Associate Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Amy Gadsden discussed the predicament, the impact at Penn, and the initiatives she and colleagues have implemented to support students.

Gadsden, with Director of International Student and Scholar Services Rudie Altamirano at her side, explained the three visa categories critical to Penn—F1, optional practical training, and H1B—that have felt the burden this past year. In particular, international students at Penn and around the U.S. who’ve applied for F1 visas are experiencing an uptick in administrative processing time. This meant that for some international students just accepted in the spring, there wasn’t enough time to get to campus by the end of August, when classes began.

“Several years ago, it used to be if your application was sent for administrative processing, Penn could make an inquiry on a student’s behalf after 30 days of processing time,” said Gadsden, who is also executive director of Penn China Initiatives. “Over the last two years, that processing time, that inquiry time, has gone from 30 days to 60 days to 90 days. And then in February of 2019, the [U.S. Department of State] announced that they would increase that time from 90 days to 180 days.”

At Penn this summer, there were 143 reports of administrative visa processing, a five-fold increase from the summer before. The majority of students, Gadsden said, were Chinese students in Penn Engineering. Although many of these instances were worked out before the fall semester began, 15 students were unable to come to Penn to start their studies, seven of whom were returning students.

“As you can imagine, these are [returning] students who had spent at least a year at Penn, paid their tuition, were halfway or more through their programs, and were unable to come back to start their studies in time,” said Gadsden. “We are still working through many of these cases…but it was very traumatic for these individuals and this was hard for the schools, for the programs.”

In the case of optional practical training, or OPT for short, international students can apply to stay in the U.S. for three years to work, usually right after graduation. Like the F1 visas, there have been significant delays, too, in processing time for OPT status. Students are only able to apply for OPT 90 days before their program completion, but it’s taking close to five months for authorization, said Gadsden, who added that these students are unable to leave the country when their OPT is being processed.

“It used to be that the immigration authorities would grant a waiver to begin your job if your authorization had not been granted in time…currently that policy has been suspended,” said Gadsden. “So, we have students who are graduating who have jobs in hand and are waiting for this authorization, who are not receiving it in time, and in some cases it’s complicated their professional employment situations. They are not able to start jobs, they are losing jobs, they are not able to come back for jobs.”

For example, explained Gadsden, one 2017 Wharton School graduate had been employed in the U.S. for a year after college, but when he went home to visit his family, he was unauthorized to return.

When it comes to H1B visas, they apply mainly to international scholars, faculty, and academic researchers. The visa denial rate in this realm is being felt across the country, said Gadsden, referring to national data. Specifically, there’s been an increase in what is called “requests for evidence.”

“When we submit an H1B application, we submit a significant amount of materials to justify the hiring,” said Gadsden. “We are getting feedback, getting responses back from the U.S. government, that they are requiring much more detail on documentation, which we are able to provide, but it’s putting great strain on our staff and on our department.”

At Penn this summer, there were two H1Bs denied, cases of which Gadsden noted as “unprecedented.” One, a medical resident, the other, a quality analyst, both at Penn Medicine

“These are the kinds of applications that we would have expected to go through in the past,” said Gadsden.

Penn administrators have responded to these visa changes through policy suggestions and advocacy. One example Gadsden discussed was a letter that Penn President Amy Gutmann wrote to Pennsylvania’s U.S. senators and the U.S. House delegation in August. In the letter, Gutmann cited examples from Penn, detailing the growing concern about the deteriorating environment around visa processing in the nation’s consulates and embassies, and how the overall atmosphere for international students and scholars has changed markedly over the past two years.

“Whereas for decades we unequivocally welcomed an impressive array of international students and scholars to our campuses and communities because of the overwhelming evidence that global engagement was beneficial to our Commonwealth and nation on many fronts, today the general message being sent is mixed at best,” Gutmann wrote. 

Gadsden also described Penn’s purposeful expansion of efforts involving integration and outreach to international students. Penn can’t control U.S. visa policy, but it does have a say, Gadsden said, in the experience international students have once they’re on campus. 

In focusing on them feeling welcomed and well-integrated, Gadsden discussed the China and India Forerunner programs that began five years ago as a “pre-departure orientation” for students coming to Penn from China and India. 

Each summer, a group from International Student and Scholar Services and the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life head to Beijing and Delhi to conduct orientation programs with students and parents. A successful program, Gadsden said, the folks involved are able to help international students prepare for visa interviews, explain what they should expect at the border, and create a sense of community and connection to Penn “from the minute the students are admitted.”

Gadsden also chatted about a program that brings officials from the Philadelphia International Airport’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to Penn. The goal? To build personal relationships, so if any issues arise—for instance, if one of the 8,000 international students or scholars from Penn forget a certain piece of paperwork or documentation—rather than sending the person home, CBP officials contact Altamirano at Penn to verify the student or researcher’s affiliation with the University. 

In the coming months, Gadsden said she and her team will be focused on the Department of Homeland Security’s announcement to formalize the process of checking the social media of foreign visitors coming to the U.S. 

“This will certainly impact our students,” she said. “You’ve always been subject to searches on your digital technology coming in, but they are formalizing the process so students will now potentially have to provide information about every social media platform they are on. We need to prepare students for that.”

Gadsden also explained how there’s a concern about a potential decline in international student enrollment. Penn has not witnessed this firsthand, yet, Gadsden said, but it’s certainly an issue that’s being seen at other universities across the country.

“At a time where Chinese students coming to Penn wait 180 days,” noted Gadsden, “Canada is saying, we’ll let you know in three weeks.”