CHARLESTON -- Eastern Illinois University's reach is expanding when it comes to the countries represented on its campus.
According to university officials, international students from 52 countries are enrolled at EIU, a jump from 41 last year, with the inclusion of countries like Madagascar and Russia.
But the expansion was not enough this fall to overcome the blockade of visa denials to admittance. The two factors didn't balance enough to see an increase in international enrollment as officials have previously seen.
According to university officials, there were 378 enrolled international students last fall. Now, that number is down to 323, and school officials are pointing to the increasingly stringent visa process today as the culprit for the decline.
"One of the major things that affected our enrollment is the visa denial," said Andy Kabasele, Assistant Dean for International Education.
Kabasele said 171 visas have been declined for applicants attempting to make it to Eastern this semester alone, a record at the university. Most of these denials affected applicants from Nigeria, India and Sri Lanka.
And Kabasele said university officials are seeing this, and sometimes worse, across the country.
Kabasele said the current foreign relations administration is putting a tighter leash on those being let into the country and it is becoming more difficult to get qualified and well-meaning students into the U.S.
The prospective students are getting stopped at this visa application process, often for one reason: a suspected "intent to immigrate."
Speaking for students going to Eastern, the university official said that is far from the case.
"In reality, does the student intend to immigrate? I don't think so," Kabasele said. "It depends on each consulate and each individual."
Kabasele said the university has to simply accept the decisions by these consulate officers, all of which have varying opinions on what are the grounds to deny a visa.
The visas these students are going for are temporary ones, and consulates handling these cases are calling for a form of proof to ensure they go back to their home when schooling is done. Kabasele said national immigration officials want to ensure people coming in don't use the short-term visa process to immigrate permanently into the country.
Eastern officials are attempting to combat these visa denials by encouraging applicants to apply again but with documentation showing a connection to their country, whether it is a job they have in their country or something else entirely. Kabasele said they are also reaching out to state and U.S. officials to help ease and open up the application process for students coming in.
Until these tightened policies on immigration are reversed, Kabesele expects these students will head to other countries like Canada for their education, as they already have done.
A second-year international graduate student, Ihab Saud, is concerned about the dip in enrollment. For him, it is important to have a deep pool of other international students to connect with.
"We don't click immediately with American students here," Saud said. "We need to find someone who is from a different culture and different perspective in order for us to click with them."
The international populations are normally tight-knit, he indicated. These tightened policies on immigration worry him, especially as an Iraqi student, but he is more troubled that many are being stopped at the gate.
"Overall, (international students) like to interact with other cultures, because that is the main reason why we left home," Saud said.
At the forefront, Saud said, he came to EIU for the education, but surrounding oneself in a different culture was and is almost as important.
Kabasele hopes for the process to run more smoothly for applicants. He expects it might get harder, but believes Eastern will reflect the increasing enrollment it had seen last year.
Kabasele added that the expanded diversity within this pool of students is promising and exciting for him and the school.
Despite the dip in international numbers, EIU enrollment went up 7.1 percent this fall.
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