Recruiting international students requires patience, diligence

Note: This is the first in a three-part series on international students and recruiting efforts at Wayland, presented during International Education Week, Nov. 14-18.

PLAINVIEW – Patience, as the axiom goes, is a virtue. As far as Debra Sherley is concerned, it is also a major requirement for her job at Wayland Baptist University.

Sherley is international student advisor and recruiter for Wayland, working specifically with students from other countries who desire to enroll at the university. The process is daunting enough for American students, but for internationals, Sherley said the difficulty is multiplied.

“I don’t just get them here. We go through tons of paperwork to do that,” she said. “They have rules weighing over them that if our students had them, they wouldn’t do it. But the U.S. degree is so esteemed, they’re willing to do anything to get here.”

Wayland’s international student population comes from several continents, and a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and experiences. For some, coming to Wayland is the first time they’ve left their country. For others, travel abroad is nothing new. One thing they all share, however, is the effort they’ve put into getting here.

Sherley is the link for these students, and an integral part of their putting all the pieces in place at the right time. Her knowledge of international regulations, especially concerning education, is crucial to get the necessary paperwork in order.

“I walk them through all the steps of the process in very plain language,” she said. “There are basically 12 steps, and I send them all the documents they need, the information sheets and any online links to get the paperwork done.

“Usually by the time they arrive here, I have one or two inches of emails from them in our correspondence back and forth.”

Sherley said the process begins with paperwork, of course, including the regular forms required by Wayland such as applications and forms for housing as well as government forms such as the I-20 which declares their intent to enroll in a university. That form requires students to declare a major and show proof of financial ability to pay for their education. They must also set a time limit for how long they will require to complete a degree.

The student must then apply for a visa to study in the U.S. and visit the U.S. embassy in their area for permission. The visa application requires a personal interview – usually lasting only a few minutes – and the lines to do this can take students all day or sometimes two days depending on the crowds. If the embassy is not in their own hometown, they must figure in travel and expenses just to get the U.S. approval to study here.

And as Sherley points out, the approval is not automatic. In some countries where relations with the U.S. have been strained, such as the Middle East, visas have become much harder to obtain. And if the embassy staff denies their visa at that appointment, the student must wait another six months before applying again.

Sherley said the average time for a student to move through the entire process is 5-6 months, but some students have taken longer depending on visa problems or hang-ups somewhere down the line. There’s also the time factor of getting paperwork to the U.S. by mail, though much can be done electronically now that saves time and postage expenses.

Time lags are often not able to be avoided, however. In the case of one young man from Serbia, for example, his transcripts from a university he had attended there had to be translated into English for transferability. He also had each professor write course descriptions for his classes so advisors here could translate them into corresponding courses for transfer credit. All of that, of course, took time.

Another young man from the Ukraine had to travel 12 hours to take his SAT test and made another 12-hour trip later to Kiev to get his visa. The fees and travel expenses associated with all that are the student’s responsibility, Sherley pointed out. And any fees coming to the U.S. must be in American dollars, sometimes hard to come by in some countries.

The cost associated with study in the U.S. is a big factor as well. Since international students cannot receive federal aid, they must prove that their families can pay for their cost of education. Many come to the U.S. on athletic scholarships – most of which do not pay for the entire cost of college – and that helps subsidize their education. But Sherley said it’s not the free ride many think it is.

“When athletics is a requirement, it’s done in exchange for expenses,” she said. “It’s like their job almost. If they get hurt or lose their scholarship, most cannot stay in school.”

And as Sherley pointed out, collegiate athletics demands much time and being away from school for many, adding more stress to the load for international students. Jobs are nearly impossible to hold and students are not allowed to work off campus in most cases and on campus only out of institutional funds, which are limited.

Sherley said after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the restrictions for visas became tighter. She’s hoping now that some of that is relaxed and international students will have an easier time coming to study at Wayland.

She is glad that the university has seen the importance of her role, though, and allowed her to pursue recruiting efforts and explore new possibilities for international education during her time here. The rewards are great, not only in the cultures with which she has become familiar but the relationships with the students that count her as a friend.

“I’m their mama, their daddy and sometimes their insurance agent,” she laughs. “They come and see me about nearly anything because they know I’ll help them out. I know them and they trust me. I treat them as if they were my own children, giving them motherly advice and encouraging them.”