What you should be looking at if you’re applying to a US college: Chief of Consular Services to TNM

In an interview to TNM, Chief of Consular Services Kent May addresses the issue of fake universities, common mistakes student applicants make and more.
What you should be looking at if you’re applying to a US college: Chief of Consular Services to TNM
What you should be looking at if you’re applying to a US college: Chief of Consular Services to TNM
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An estimated 1,86,000 Indian students are pursuing their education in the United States, with more students who vie for the F and M visas every year. The F-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa for students who want to go for academic students and language training, while the M-1 is for vocational students. Chief of Consular Services Kent May tells TNM about the things students looking to the USA should be looking out for, the problem of fake universities, common mistakes and more.

Q: Where does India currently rank in the number of students that you intake?

We have over a million foreign students in the United States. And a little more than 1 in 6 students is an Indian student. We have about 1,86,000 Indian students in the United States. So that's a huge number. That number has doubled in the last decade, and we are continuing to welcome thousands of Indian students every year to the United States.

Q. In 2017, student visas issued to Indian students fell by 28%. Was that deliberate? In some colleges, there was a 40% decline in applicants from India as well. Is there a correlation?

We do see numbers go up and down. In recent years, we have had as many as 77,000 Indian students apply in a single year, and we have had as few as 24,000 Indian students apply in a given year. The long-term trend is up, and that is where we would want to focus. We want to look at the long-term trend and the long-term trend is positive. As I said, it’s doubled in the last 10 years. In the last five years, the number has grown 86%. So, there is a large growth still in the number of Indian students in the United States. I go back to the fact that out of the million plus foreign students in the US, 1,86,000 are Indian students. That's a huge number.

Q: Did the number go down during the recession years?

So, there are years when we receive fewer applications. There are years when we receive more applications. Right now, one piece of good news for Indian students is that the approval rate is up, even though the overall number of applications has declined slightly. The issuance rate is rising. And I think what that tells me is that students are finding the right fit. Again, what we don't want is students who are unprepared when they come for their visa interview. We want students who have done the research, have talked to an education advisor - for example EdUSA - and who really have found the program that is the right match for them. And those are the students who are going to be successful in getting visas. When I see, even in a year when the overall number of applications falls, if I see the issuance rate go up, I think there is some good news in that.

Q: What fields do students largely opt for?

I think one of the advantages that US education offers is that it offers a diversity of programs. So, we always think out Indian students going for STEM. And many do. There are also many Indian students who go to study other fields. They go and study medicine, they go and study Liberal Arts. Indian students go and study a wide variety of both undergraduate and graduate fields and that is one of the advantages of US educational institutions is that there is so much diversity. We have about 4,500 accredited universities and colleges in the US and those range from large, well-known institutions to small colleges and we encourage students to take a look at all of those options, to work with an education advisor such as the US-India Educational Foundation, and to be prepared to find the best fit for them. What we want is for students to find the best possible match for them. It may not be a big name school, it may not be a school that immediately brings recognition, but its a school that's a good match and a good fit for that student. And again, we have about 4,500 accredited universities and colleges in the United States. That's a big number and there's a lot of diversity in those programs.

Q: The problem of fake universities: How are you tackling the problem of fake universities and the problem of agents?

Use the public sources of information that are available. Travel.state.gov is the website for the Department of State and that includes information for American citizens, for visa applicants of all kinds including students and that is where the one-stop shopping for the right information about the United States Department of State. Another way to avoid being scammed is to look at using an educational advisor, such as the US-India Educational Foundation. Always look for authentic US government information. There is no need to book a private agent, there is no way to get a faster appointment or a better time slot or a better chance through a private agent..And people do end up losing money. We also see people who fall prey to scams by universities that are not legitimate. That is not most of the story, thankfully, it is just a small part. Most students who have applied for visas have applied to legitimate universities. The proportion of students falling prey to such scams is thankfully small. Our advice here is, one, look at the public sources of information from the US government available. Two, talk to an advisor and three, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If someone says I can arrange all this for you if you just give me so much money and you just let me put together a set of documents for you, and I will take care of everything else...it sounds too good to be true and probably is.

Q: Do you think a part of the reason the students may opt for agents is that the process in itself is too complicated?

I think sometimes students do opt for these agents because they are afraid they won't be able to navigate these processes on their own. And that is why I would direct them to travel.state.gov. If you look at it, it's a very easy to use site, it has a lot of great information. I do think though there are some students who are afraid that they won't be able to figure this out on their own, and they may think it is easier to go through an agent. And that is simply not the case, and it usually ends up badly because they pay money to someone who isn't able to help them. And then it's really sad when they don't get the visa.

Q: So are there no legitimate agents?

Well, there certainly are legitimate travel agents, there are legitimate educational advising operations. But there are some who are not legitimate. A good place to start might be the university itself -- there may be an international students' office, an educational advising office, college counselling offices. I would advise students here to find a reputed advisor and EdUSA is one of those.

Q: There have also been cases of students using fraudulent documents to ensure they get a place in the course or a visa. How do you tackle that problem as well?

We don't need fake documents to issue a student visa, we only need legitimate documents. Let me go through what those are:

1. An approved form I-20 from the college or university that has accepted the student. This is specific to the university and is only issued by them, so every student will have a legitimate Form I-20.

2. We need evidence that they have paid their fees

3. We need to see they have enough finances to cover their course of study. In some cases, it is given in the I-20 form that the university is providing the student with some aid or scholarship. If there is no aid given, the student may have loans or independent finances. This needs to be clearly indicated in the documents.

4. We also need to see that the student has the clear intent to leave the country upon finishing their programme. This doesn't mean that the student should not pursue another programme or gain employment in the US. But at the time of the interview for their visa, we need to know that they will finish their course of study and that they don't have some other purpose for coming here.

So there is no need for an agent, when there is so much information available in the public domain.

Q: With the Donald Trump-led administration tightening the H-1B visa rules, how does this affect students studying in the US? Is there cause for alarm if they are looking to pursue jobs?

Every student should take it one step at a time. For a student visa, they have to show their current intent is to leave. In the US, you get to be a part of a global community of students and meet people from so many parts of the world. So I would advise students to take it one step at a time. First, do I want to study in the United States, and if I do why? What programme is the right fit?

In terms of the H-1B programme, we still see a keen interest in the programme this year, and it is a global programme, so we will continue to see a keen interest in it. And it is designed to ensure US firms and the US economy benefit from it. And it works both ways, while Indian businesses and people have benefitted from working there, the US too has benefitted from their experience. But the primary benefit has to be to the United States and to the US economy.

Q: Do prospective students have to be worried about racism?

We deplore any act of racism, any act of discrimination anywhere. On a campus, in a community, anywhere. So, unfortunately when these events do happen, we have to be sympathetic to the victims and we have to recognise that these are the sorts of incidents that can happen anywhere. We don't stand for them, we do not support them in any way and we deplore any act of racism or discrimination - whether it's on a US campus, whether it's on the street, and we would expect the same here. We would hope that any decent person would feel the same.

Q: What are the reasons visa applications have been rejected?

Every student and every applicant for every kind of visa has to show that he or she is eligible for the category of visa to which he or she is applying. That includes students. So, there are two things that I would say. One is, including student visas, the student or the applicant has to show that they overcome what we call Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That section presumes that anyone who applies for a non-immigrant visa is a potential immigrant unless he or she can show otherwise. At the time of the consular interview, the second part of the law that is important to understand is that the burden of proof is on the applicant, and that's the way our law is written. Section 291 of the Immigration and Nationality Act says that the burden of proof is on the applicant. So, I would say that most students are successful. Those who are not successful are often the ones who are not prepared for their interviews and maybe, it could be, that they haven't found the right fit. And so, when they come and have that interview and the consular officer says 'Tell me why you're interested in this program' 'Tell me how this is a good match for you' 'Tell me how you're going to pay for it' 'Tell me what your plans during your course of study and at the end of your course of study', it may be that in the short time allotted for that interview, the student hasn't really thought through those answers. So I would encourage all students as they prepare for their visa interviews to really think through 'What is the purpose of my travel to the United States to study. What do I want to get from this program and what do I hope to bring back to India at the end of  the program. How am I going to pay for it? Who can help me? And how can I show that in a short period of time to the consular office who is interviewing me?'

Q: Do students need to give a certain English proficiency test to qualify? Will it be taken into consideration if someone has studied English throughout their education?

What we need to see is that the student is going to be able to meet the level of proficiency for the program. So, that's something that should be clear. The level that the program requires should be clear and the level of the students' ability to meet that should be clear to us. Where we sometimes see a mismatch is when there is a clear requirement to have a certain level of English proficiency and when the student comes to the interview window or presents the results from a widely accepted English test, we see a mismatch there. So, provided that the student is able to show us that he or she is able to meet the proficiency required, then that piece is set. And again, it is the totality of the circumstances.

Q: What is the common blunder that applicants make?

Being unprepared. When I say unprepared, not thinking through what they are going to say at the interview and what story they have to tell. 'Why is this program right for me? How am I going to pay for it? Do I intend to depart at the end of that program?'

So, I would say that if there is one common mistake that students make is being unprepared for the interview. Coming in and not knowing what it is that they are going to be talking about. And I think there is enough information out there on travel.state.gov, other sources have it as well that can educate students ahead of time, that can give them the right information and so that they can come prepared.

The US Consulate will be holding a Facebook Live on May 9 to answer questions. They will also have a Student Visa Day on June 6, where the entire day will be blocked out only for student visa interviews.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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