The process of applying and choosing amongst colleges is nothing short of daunting. But for most, there is also the assurance of closure once admissions offers come in and the final reply envelopes are sent out. For international students, though, a new process begins well after college applications.
“It’s a little more difficult for [international students] because they’re not familiar with the system,” said Brendan O’Brien, director of the International Students and Scholars Office.
The first and perhaps most important step in the process international students must go through after accepting admission to Cornell and other American universities is proving that they have sufficient funding to attend. While graduate students often qualify for research or teaching assistantships, there are limited resources for undergraduate students, according to O’Brien. Out of approximately 1,000 international undergraduate students, Cornell is usually only able to fund 15 per year. Others are left to “show that they have their own personal funds,” O’Brien said.
Once that happens, students must begin to apply for a United States visa. This usually involves waiting for an I-20 form to be sent from Cornell, a document produced through a government database, going through a security check and finally waiting for the visa stamp.
Bo Pedersen, a fourth-year graduate student from Denmark, said the process was actually “pretty smooth” despite the fact that he was late in applying. However, his tardiness did cost him a trip to the embassy and a month-long wait.
“We try to have everything in place shortly after admissions so that they’re applying for the Visa very early in May,” O’Brien said.
Although the visa application process should only take a few days, many students do run into trouble.
“[There] have been a number of times that students have been delayed with the security check,” O’Brien said. “[For example, students] can run into problems if they have a common name.”
In this case, the student shares a name with someone about whom the government has some security concern.
Out of over 3,200 total international students, only a handful experience these issues each year. Those students have at times been forced to postpone their studies for a semester or even a year. In rare cases, the student is unable to make it to Cornell as a result. According to O’Brien, there are no students so far this year in such a position.
However, once the student is in the United States, they need to make sure to have proper documentation with them at all times, apply for work authorization and be aware of all deadlines and expiration dates.
“A student can make a relatively small mistake … and that can be pretty serious,” O’Brien said.
Once a student fails to meet a deadline or get proper documentation, they are no longer legally in the United States. At this point, students are faced with only two options: apply for reinstatement or risk getting deported. Unfortunately, this is “not totally infrequent,” according to O’Brien, especially with Cornell students who are “very busy and very engaged in their academic pursuits.”
Zhongchao Li, a first year graduate student from China, risked not coming to Cornell at all. Li said it took over two months for her to get a visa status change. She finally received the documentation on August 15, just a few days shy of graduate orientation.
“I suffered a lot and even felt tortured in spirit because I was so nervous about it,” Li said.
She went on to claim that she is far from being the only one.
“I knew a lot of students whose situation is very close to mine. I was the lucky one.”