Yew Choe (Joe) Wong was lucky. The Malaysian civil engineering student’s months-long wait for a visa in 2002 only cost him his first semester at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But the long wait and deep silence from U.S. authorities about his visa status was harrowing enough.

Even with help from local politicians and nonprofit groups, Wong got nowhere. "They never told me exactly what was going on," he says. "I just sat there waiting frustratingly."

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With little to bank on, Wong began applying to engineering schools in Australia for fear of losing his Malay government sponsorship. Luckily, his U.S. State Dept. visa approval finally came through, allowing him to start classes in December 2002. Fellow Malaysian students also waiting for U.S. visas were less fortunate. "The whole group, about 50 people, instead of going to the college they got admitted to, were relocated to school in New Zealand," says Nur Azlina Abdul Aziz, a Malaysian classmate of Wong’s who reached the U.S. one month before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She got her visa in just a few weeks.

Wong was never told exactly why his application was delayed but his status as a young man from a Muslim country likely tells the story. "I am not a Muslim myself, but they told us it was new regulations that subjected students from Muslim countries to a tougher screening process," he says.

Wong is now set to complete his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and economics, followed by a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering, by December 2006. He’s not gambling with his status here by applying for another scholarship or extending his visa.


In the post-9/11 world of heightened global tensions, security paranoia and ultra-tight restrictions on travel and immigration to the U.S., foreign students desiring academic and research opportunities at American universities–particularly in engineering–are caught in the squeeze. "The U.S. is the only country in the world this restrictive," says Victor

“The U.S. is the only country in the world that is this restrictive,” says Victor Johnson, an official of an international education association in Washington. The U.S. now interviews 95% of all visa applicants, up from 20% before 9/11. “There are just more long lines,” Johnson says.

C. Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a Washington, D.C., lobby group. He says the State Dept. now interviews 95% of all visa applicants, up from 20%. "Students had to get interviews in the past, but now a lot of others have to, also," says Johnson. "There are more long lines."

Foreigners now endure more expensive and complicated processes for student visas. Many are opting to forego the effort altogether for well-funded and welcoming opportunities in other countries. Engineering schools report that the problem is most acute at the graduate level, but undergrads and even faculty are affected. While officials claim roadblocks are easing and not all schools face problems, others worry that the damage has already been done and that bigger consequences loom for engineering schools as foreign students disappear.

It’s in the Numbers

Statistics tell the tale. The number of all foreign students in U.S. universities dropped 2.4% in 2003-04, "the first absolute decline in foreign enrollments since 1971-72," says Open Doors 2004, a survey issued in November by the Institute of International Education, Washington, D.C., with State Dept. "support."

A separate survey released in mid-November by IEE and other groups tracking foreign students in 500 institutions found more dire results. Two-thirds of schools with the most international grad students report declines this year and new undergraduates fell off in 38% of schools. While Middle Eastern students were hit hard, China and India also are exporting fewer students to the U.S. Engineering programs seemed to take the biggest hit, with 40% of schools showing graduate student declines and only 18% increases. Click here to view chart


Engineering and construction deans around the U.S. confirm the trends anecdotally, and note their impacts on current and future operations. "International applicants for our graduate program have not declined since 9/11, but the number who actually come after being offered admission is down about 30% because of difficulty in obtaining student visas," says John Schaufelberger, chair of Seattle-based University of Washington’s Construction Management Dept.

While the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, has the most overseas students in the U.S., its nationally ranked engineering school didn’t seem to benefit. Its graduate population held steady, but grad-level applications dropped 20%, says L. Carter Wellford, chairman of civil-environmental engineering. "There’s a feeling about the U.S. that is not as comfortable as before," he says. "We’re making the choice not to accept bright foreign students."

The number of graduate students in USC’s construction management department fell to 53 this year from 62, with only 23 foreign students from 12 countries. Last year it was 40, from 40 nations. "We’re a private university dependent on tuition and we took a hit there," says Hank Koffman, CM program director.

Opportunity Lost?

The drop in foreign students not only costs colleges often higher tuition rates, but dilutes the campus population, says Mostafa Khattab, associate department head for Colorado State University’s construction management program. "We are losing the opportunity for our students to have faculty and students from other countries...