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15 admitted Heller graduate students denied visas

Following a trend marked in other Massachusetts schools, 15 Brandeis international graduate students were denied their visa applications to the U.S., preventing them from attending the Heller School of Social Policy and Management.

All 15 graduate students were from Africa, wrote Assistant Dean of Admissions for the Heller School Lynn Davis to The Brandeis Hoot in an email, and the students can defer enrollment for a year—attending Brandeis in Fall 2020. 

“The Heller School did not have visa denials for anyone else. We don’t know why each was denied, although there has been a lot of press about other schools experiencing the same. We did see an increase in visa denials last year and this year,” wrote Davis to The Hoot. She continued, “We did plan for the visa situation and were able to meet our enrollment target.” 

Visa application denials can occur for a variety of reasons, according to the U.S. Department of State website. Applicants must prove that they don’t intend to immigrate to the U.S. and that they have adequate financial support for their stay. Applications that don’t demonstrate these facts or lack other information can be rejected. 

All graduate students rejected were from Africa, and two countries—Ghana and Nigeria—were among those whose nationals faced visa denials, according to International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO) Director Jodi Hanelt. The Department of Homeland Security announced sanctions against Ghana in January 2019 because the state did not accept the return of its nationals, according to a Department of Homeland Security article.

Other Massachusetts schools have experienced similar problems, like Harvard University, where a student from Lebanon’s visa was cancelled after officials found his friends’ political social media posts, according to a New York Times story.

The Harvard student’s experience, wrote Davis, is consistent with what Heller has experienced this year, referring to the Aug. 28 article. The Department of State updated visa application forms in May to request additional information, including “social media identifiers,” from applicants because of a 2017 presidential executive order that increased screening and vetting for visa applications, according to the Department of State website.

“Scrutiny in all immigration and non-immigration visa categories is on the rise,” said Hanelt in an interview with The Hoot.

Brandeis is among several other universities taking steps to address the increased scrutiny on international applicants. President Ron Liebowitz is one of the 43 presidents of colleges and universities that signed a letter written to the Massachusetts Congressional delegation raising awareness over delays in visa processing and delays in programs that connect students to U.S. employers, according to an earlier Hoot article.

International students contribute greatly to the Massachusetts economy, reads the letter, which goes on to detail the impact of visa delays and uncertainties on students and universities.

The letter is among several initiatives the university is taking to address visa denials and delays, said Hanelt in an interview with The Hoot. The ISSO is actively communicating with university deans and the provost, said Hanelt, and spoke with Provost Lisa Lynch when the ISSO noticed an increase in denials in July and August. The ISSO—which deals with student issues ranging from health leave to financial difficulty paying for Brandeis—also met with students during orientation.

Hanelt said the ISSO plans to send four staff members to the Association of International Educators’ (NAFSA) fall conference in Worcester, MA at the end of October—which holds workshops and forums on student advising and education abroad, according to the event’s online schedule. NAFSA will also host a national conference in May 2020, said Hanelt.

The ISSO is also monitoring a legal case that challenges practical training opportunities for international graduate students that allows them, including those at Brandeis, to remain in the U.S. and receive a year of practical training in their field of study, or two years for students in the STEM fields. 

“Our students really do benefit and the institution benefits from being able to do those trainings and work options,” said Hanelt.

Though the case does not represent an immediate cause for concern, as stated on the ISSO website describing it, Brandeis is joining other universities in authoring an amicus brief—or a formal declaration to the court—to submit to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. 

Other areas of Brandeis have been impacted by increased scrutiny on visa applicants. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was notified about five cases of administrative process for students from China, said Hanelt, which is a processing delay that can last between six to eight weeks. The International Business School (IBS) had one denial and two reported administrative process cases, said Hanelt. This represents a slight uptick in administrative process cases overall, said Hanelt.

“It’s a difficult time to be sponsoring students and scholars,” said Hanelt. “Administrative processing is somewhat of a black box that we all face.”

Administrative process usually affects those in the technical fields, like the sciences or maths, said Hanelt, and can encourage students to look at peer institutions in countries like Canada. It can also interrupt studies or programing with delays dragging into the academic year.

The delay is often accompanied by requests for more information from a student’s professor—such as on his or her background and course of study, said Hanelt—and is part of an effort by the U.S. government to ensure safety and security.

Hanelt stressed the importance of international students to the Brandeis community, saying Brandeis is committed to getting students “exposed early and often to our global partners.”

“To imagine a campus without international students would be quite difficult,” said Hanelt. “You are only going to gain a better global understanding from international students.”

But despite increasing delays and denials, on the application side of Brandeis’ graduate programs, international applications are on the rise for both Heller and IBS. 

“Brandeis International Business School experienced a 12 percent increase in applications from international students for 2019, due to continued strong interest from China. Our Admissions team closely monitors interest from prospective students and applicants and continues to travel to numerous international markets including Latin America, Europe and Asia to promote our programs and engage with alumni in these regions,” wrote Assistant Dean of Admissions Kelly Sugrue to The Hoot in an email.

Davis also added in an email that international applications to the Heller School had increased compared to last year.

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