This was my first NAFSA: the Association of International Educators conference and attending it was one of the best last minute decisions I have ever made.
[quote]“It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, the other is nostalgia.” – Frank Zappa.[/quote]
NAFSA FIRST TIMER
This was my first NAFSA: the Association of International Educators conference and attending it was one of the best last minute decisions I have ever made.
Over 800 professionals in international education field from 8 states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont gathered in Albany, New York on October 28-30, 2014 to celebrate merits of international education and think together on its challenges.
During these three days the representatives of many great colleges and universities that belong to NAFSA Region X & XI shared their research findings on best practices serving international students, developing successful overseas educational partnerships, increasing conversation rates in study abroad, and making study abroad carbon conscious, as well as transitioning to paperless system and using smart technology in the international office
All in all, over 60 sessions and six pre-conference workshops were available to attend, including a large-scale effort to raise funds for both regions scholarship programs. The keynote speaker, Robert Leavitt, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, U.S. Agency for International Development, shared insightful stories about his over 20 years successful international career experience.
One piece of insight that resonated with me was Mr. Leavitt’s approach to finding common ground with the local people wherever he may have served be it African countries, Japan or elsewhere. He was successful because he made sure to understand and respect the local traditions and customs no matter how strange or wrong they seemed to him. That way he earned the local respect, cooperation and assistance, and to me that seems to be an exemplary way to lead and succeed in any place and time.
The officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Office of Private Sector Exchange Program Administration, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection were there to inform about the updates and changes in immigration regulations, and exchange views on current and upcoming issues in international education.
They all emphasized the importance of communication and feedback from the NAFSA community and acknowledged that many of the improvements that have been implemented or are undergoing review today are due, in part, to the timely and constructive feedback of international educators.
You can find detailed information about those changes and updates on NAFSA website or on the websites of those respective government organizations.
WHY GO TO NAFSA CONFERENCE?
- Give back (in my case: by volunteering at the conference & following up with this piece)
My number one goal for attending this conference was to gain knowledge about the technical aspects of advising international students, such as developing familiarity with Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) reporting requirements, as well as federal laws and regulations pertaining to advising F-1 students, and for hosting J-1 students & scholars at academic institutions.
For this reason, I also registered for a pre-conference workshop on F-1 Student Advising: Intermediate (F-1 for Beginners were quickly sold out). Attending this workshop improved my understanding of immigration related issues at the subsequent sessions, such as Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP) hot topics, and best practices related to USCIS.
Finally, I was there to make meaningful connections with those who care about mentoring and helping out aspiring professionals. Later, via email-communication, I interviewed some of those professionals for this article.
F-1 STUDENT ADVISING WORKSHOP
In this intermediate level workshop, we tackled some of the more complex, or “gray,” situations in advising international students & scholars. We discussed a range of case studies on the topics of Designated School Officials (DSO) Responsibilities, Maintenance of Status, Travel, Transfers, Employment, Change of Status, and Reinstatement. By addressing these case studies we learned how to advise students when regulations and guidance do not give clear answer to student situations.
Peter O’Meare of Harvard University, Susan Shea of Boston College, Timothy Sroka of Northeastern University, and Jodi Hanelt of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, did an excellent job as our trainers for this workshop.
As a first timer, and as someone who has not been working hands-on with F-1 students, my head was spinning with the use of terminology, abbreviations (RTI, CFR, CCD etc.), and numerous mentions of form numbers (I-797, I-515A, I-539, etc.). On the other hand, working on those case studies with seasoned professionals gave me a chance to learn about different ways of interpreting and advising F-1 students in situations where clear guidance is not available.
Besides, writing this piece was another chance for me to revisit the workshop materials and my notes, and contact one of the trainers and participants of the workshop to ask additional questions that interested me.
TERMINATE, DO NOT TERMINATE?
During our discussions at the F-1 Student Advising Workshop and the following sessions, the term “termination” could be heard numerous times. Peter O’Meara, Advisor to International Students & Scholars, Harvard International Office, says “terminations are considered to be quite serious and,” since he works in a large office in a large university, “would never make a move to terminate an F-1 student without first obtaining all details of the situation from all involved and bringing the matter to the director of my office for her final decision.” Prudent, measured action after considerable evaluation, says Mr. O’Meara, is required.
Likewise, Tomasz Tuleja, Senior Program Officer, American Language Program, School of Continuing Education at Columbia University, says that “SEVIS records can be terminated for several reasons, such as: ‘No Show’, ‘Authorized Withdrawals’, ‘Unauthorized Drop Below Full Course’, and ‘Failure to Enroll’, etc. This is in no way an exhaustive list, but it does include the most common termination reasons.”
|NO SHOW||Termination takes place when a new student does not show up for classes.
|AUTHORIZED EARLY WITHDRAWAL||Termination takes place when a student withdraws from the program and is leaving the US.
|UNAUTHORIZED DROP BELOW FULL COURSE||Termination takes place when a student drops below the required full-course of study without DSO’s prior authorization.
|FAILURE TO ENROLL||Termination takes place when a student fails to enroll for the next session of study.|
Terminations could have far-reaching negative implications and consequences. The student may have to leave the U.S., and there is no guarantee that he or she could come back in legal status again due to their termination history. But in any situation, our trainers stressed, international student advisors should serve as an advocate of the student and exercise discretion wisely. I agree with them.
I also agree with Marjory Gooding and Melinda Wood who in their excellent book Finding Your Way: Navigational Tools for International Student and Scholar Advisors suggest that, “People who take jobs like international advising often are people who seek to solve problems,” and that success in international education requires more than a genuine interest in working with international students.
Since international student advisors have judicial and enforcement functions they have to constantly learn and educate themselves on the complex and ever-changing immigration rules and regulations. “When it comes to knowledge and skills when tackling the “gray” areas, notes Mr. Tuleja, “I would say that DSOs should complete the online SEVIS tutorial in SEVIS, and follow all government laws, guidance, and regulations pertaining to the subject matter.”
Where else should we look for information and resources? Generally, the NAFSA website is a good resource for exploring international education, getting involved, or finding your NAFSA community.
Mr. Tuleja also recommends the Federal Register, and various government websites as excellent sources of information. “In addition,” he advises, “DSOs may want to attend NAFSA conferences and obtain a NAFSA manual. SEVIS manuals are available as well as is the SEVIS Help Desk for guidance. There are plenty of resources out there to help DSOs handle their job duties.”
NON REGULATORY INFLUENCES – STUDENT AFFAIRS PERSPECTIVE
In addition to NAFSA resources, it may be helpful if international advisors have an educational and practical background in student affairs: student development theories, research and practice. It is good that many advisors have study abroad or other international experiences, but is it good enough to deal with complex non-regulatory areas, such as social, academic, psychological influences in student’s life, while they move into, through, and out of U.S. higher education settings?
Without an appropriate advisor training and an appropriate college environment that enhance international student experience (diversity & internationalization) advisors and institutions may find solving even simple problems too hard. In view of that, the best practice would be taking preventive and proactive measures by investing time and funds in advisor training, developing institutional policies and procedures that serve and support international students in the best way possible.
Having those things in tact would also protect the institution and the international office from, at least, confusion and misunderstanding from different stakeholder’s on-campus with an interest in international students & scholars.
TWITTERING, WRITING & SHARING
A few days before the conference, I wanted to connect on Twitter with its participants, particularly with international student advisors (ISOs). But I found out that ISOs don’t actively use Twitter, unlike student affairs professionals, who often use it for professional development purposes connecting via #sachat & #satech. They also write about their experiences working with students at their given institutions, for example, for the The Student Affairs Feature. Where do ISOs write about their experiences, except the NAFSA publications?
As an evolving international educator, I’d like to see a continuous dialogue of international educators via social media (common Twitter hashtags for international educators are: #Intled, #Interstudents, #StudyAbroad, #Globaled, #Nafsa) and other channels available to us, because only by sharing our experiences we can develop future educators. As Stephanie Krause, Chair of Region X, notes, “we’re only as good as the information and resources that we share” (Spring, 2014 Newsletter). So let’s connect and share more often, even if we do it less.
Being connected is especially relevant and important when it comes to advocating for international students: we can let the world know about the benefits of international education only by engaging with the world, and with each other, including with members of Congress.
One way of staying connected and being an advocate is by joining Connecting Our World, NAFSA’s online home for grassroots advocacy. For example, I signed up for action alerts from Connecting Our World, and via their page I was able to send a letter to President Obama thanking him for standing up for international students and scholars in his recent executive action plan. I’m sure that the continuous effort of the NAFSA advocacy groups on this matter have also provided that push on President’s given decision.
If you’re interested in exploring more about advocacy, you may want to participate in upcoming NAFSA Advocacy Day on March 18-19, 2015 in Washington, D.C., and gain insight into the workings of a congressional office while learning about current political trends as they relate to NAFSA’s legislative priorities.
NAFSA EXHIBITORS: WHAT IS A CONFERENCE WITHOUT AN EXPO HALL?
There were over fifty exhibitors who presented their products and services at the conference. Josh Cornehlsen, International Program Coordinator at Bard College, says their goals for exhibiting at the NAFSA conference were to stay on top of prevalent issues and trends in international education, to liaise with their colleagues in the field, and to increase others’ awareness of the unique programs available through Bard Abroad. He believes exhibiting at the conference helped them achieve those goals, though not in a way that could be measured quantitatively.
Indeed, Bard College has distinctive study abroad programs in Russia, the West Bank, Hungary, South Africa, Germany, as well as a dual-degree program with American University of Central Asia located in Kyrgyzstan. Students from North American universities and colleges can apply to any of Bard’s study abroad programs.
Mr. Cornehlsen has also connected me with exchange students studying at Bard this semester via their Program in International Education (PIE). While writing this article, I’ve traveled to Bard to interview some of these PIE students to be shared with ISV audience soon.
FOREIGN-BORN INTERNATIONAL EDUCATORS
Conference organizers did not leave without attention the foreign-born international educators in U.S. higher education. As someone who wants to join their ranks, it was encouraging to see their presence and active participation at the conference. In a session titled “How “Double Tongue” Works: First Language Usage of Foreign-Born International Educators in Student Advising” the presenters (R. Morris, E. Korepanova, R.Yam) focused on the positive and negative effects of native language usage by foreign born international student advisors. I’m working with them now on my next article where I’ll cover details of their interesting research findings.
DRIVING INTERNATIONALIZATION: A TALE OF TWO REGIONS
We had two film screenings, one during a concurrent session with the director of The Dialogue, a film for initiating dialogues between domestic and international students, and one to honor the theme of the conference Driving Internationalization: a tale of two regions – The Motorcycle Diaries – to see how Che Guevara drove internationalization in his time.
In a way, The Motorcycle Diaries is about the idea that travel, including for international education, can be a major transformative experience in one’s life, though sometimes in ways unknown, but always rewarding the traveler either with food for thought or with ideas that could change the world, hopefully, always for the better. Anyways, it is a beautiful film with enchanting music based on a true story – highly recommended.
It also reminds us that writing, be it diaries, workshop materials or laws and regulations, is a good thing, especially when they do good. Because without writing and some other paperwork – you can’t really change the world.
That’s why I was and am encouraging you (if you’re, in any way, involved in international education) to write about your experience. If you have presented at a conference, write about it. If you have at least 1 year of experience working in an international office, write about it, and share it with others. Let us know the trials, tribulations and successes of your journey, let us learn from your tale of driving internationalization.
FUTURE PLANS & HOPES
I look forward to attending the NAFSA 2015 Annual Conference in Boston for new horizons in international education. And if, in the near future, you hear some exciting news about my career developments, I’ll say: it all started with the NAFSA conference.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article solely reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflects those of their workplace.