Maura Harty is the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
International Education Week, November 12-16, 2007, was a time to recognize and celebrate the many ways in which international education enriches our communities, our nation and the thousands of students and scholars who take part in international exchange each year. During International Education Week and throughout the year, the U.S. Department of State is proud of its role in supporting international and American students as they advance understanding through international exchange.
The Department of State promotes and facilitates the travel of international students and scholars to our shores. In 2007, we issued a record number of student and exchange visitor visas – over 650,000 – more than 10 percent up from last year. According to the Institute for International Education, over 223,000 American students studied abroad in countries on every continent in 2006 (the last year for which data is available).
According to the Department of Commerce, international education is America’s fifth largest service export – bigger than medical services. International students contribute over $14.5 billion to the institutions they attend and the surrounding communities – up a billion dollars from last year, and the largest increase to date. Their research and scholarship spurs innovation and fuels our knowledge-based economy. Even more important is the priceless impact of the interpersonal exchanges created through international education. The best advertisement for America is America. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has observed, “Our country has no more valuable asset internationally than the friendship of millions of young people, citizens and leaders around the world who understand the United States because they have studied there.”
International education empowers people. Every person who studies abroad is, in effect, an ambassador for his or her country, expanding their personal horizons and the horizons of others. Through exchange programs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, many thousands of international students and scholars have felt the transformative power of international education to bring people closer. These include students like Mahid from the Philippines, who studied in the United States on an exchange program for students from countries with significant Muslim populations, who said, “I feel fulfilled and proud of myself because I have introduced my culture to the Americans; I have bridged cultures!”
The Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs has increased the transparency, efficiency, and predictability of the visa process across the board, with a special focus on student and exchange visitor visas. We provide more information on our websites to guide students through the visa process. We made it possible for students to apply for their visas up to 120 days before the start of their programs. Every embassy and consulate has established programs to put students at the front of the line, so that they can start their programs on time. The overwhelming majority of qualified students are issued visas, over 95 percent within a few days of application.
We have achieved much, but recognize we must do more. As the number of potential students continues to grow, we will continue to work to make the process smarter, and implement other changes to ensure that America’s welcome to international students begins with the visa process.
Changed visa procedures are only part of the story. We also have to get the word out about opportunities for international study to students in America and around the world. Officials from the U.S. Departments of State and Education have led delegations of college and university presidents overseas to meet with students and academic administrators. Embassies around the world are reaching out to high schools, universities and vocational and technical schools. Department scholarship programs open the world to American undergraduate and graduate students, and the National Security Language Initiative encourages American students to speak critical foreign languages.
To international students, I hope that you will consider furthering your studies in the United States. My pledge is that our welcome will begin with prompt, efficient, courteous service at the Embassy or consulate.
To American students, I hope that you will consider studying abroad as part of your academic programs, so that you too can share a little bit of America with the international community, and build lasting ties between the United States and other countries.