The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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International student faces uncertainty after visa expires

For the past four years, Sibongile Mlambo, a 21-year-old international student from Zimbabwe, has lived the life of the average SMU student. She is an avid dancer, Habitat for Humanity volunteer and typical woman who loves spending time with her friends. But now, with only a year and a half left of college, Mlambo is quickly approaching a time of uncertainty. She must decide what to do after her student visa expires in December 2009.

As Mlambo looks toward the future, she knows her options are limited and daunting. Soon, Mlambo will have to face whether or not her degrees in Spanish and French and her preparation for a career in physical therapy will carry her far enough on her journey of building a life in the United States.

“It’s hard because I don’t have a home in Zimbabwe anymore,” Mlambo said.

Dealing with these issues is not a unique problem to Mlambo. She is one of 861 international SMU students who will eventually face the problem of an expiring student visa.

Student visas allow an international student the opportunity to study in the U.S. Students wishing to obtain a student visa must prove that they are a bona fide student on a specific program of study. These programs of study can include undergraduate, graduate and optional practical training. A student may change his program of study but must maintain their status as a student at all times to remain in the U.S.

After their program of study has been completed, international students are given one year to participate in Optional Practical Training (OPT). This gives students one year to obtain work experience and an employer that may sponsor their application for a worker visa. After completing a year of OPT, international students are required to leave the U.S. unless they are sponsored for a worker visa.

While the uncertainty surrounding her expiring student visa may seem overwhelming in itself, Mlambo, if forced to return to her home country of Zimbabwe, will be faced with an even more difficult reality.

For the first time since she was 16 years old, Mlambo and her entire immediate family are living in the same country.

Currently, Mlambo’s two older sisters, Nomsa and Sibusisiwe, live in Austin and New York, and her twin brother, Bongani, is a student at the University of North Texas in Denton. Mlambo’s father and mother recently received work visas and have been granted permission to live and work in the U.S. Mlambo’s father recently moved to Dallas and within the next month, Mlambo’s mother will be joining him.

Keeping the members of the Mlambo family close wasn’t always so simple. For the past five years, having her immediate family in three different countries defined Mlambo’s idea of normalcy.

During Mlambo’s last year in high school, her mother, a diabetic, was forced to move to England to escape political barriers that prevented her from accessing the medications necessary to maintain her health. At the same time, Mlambo’s two older sisters were pursuing their studies at SMU while Mlambo and her twin brother remained with their father in Zimbabwe, oceans away from the three other members of their family.

As Mlambo’s student visa reaches its expiration date, she faces a reality that would mean returning to a Zimbabwe that no longer seems like home. Mlambo is now relying on the options available to her within the regulations of her visa.

After she graduates, Mlambo hopes to take advantage of the one-year, post-graduation time period that her student visa guarantees. If Mlambo is able to find a job, it is possible that the company may then sponsor her in her application for a worker visa. If granted a worker visa, Mlambo would be able to extend her time in the United States to six years and, if desired, start on a path toward permanent residency.

According to Claudia Evelyn Graves, the associate director of SMU’s International Student and Scholar Services, obtaining a visa from the United States, whether it is a student or worker visa, is easier said than done. Student visas are granted by the U.S. Department of State with hopes the student will take the skills they learn in the U.S. and apply them to a career in their home country. In fact, the decision-making process behind being granted or denied a visa is often times arbitrary and dependent on circumstances such as the mood, perception and gut feeling of the person granting the visa.

“It’s an instinct thing,” Graves said. “If the interviewer feels that the applicant will end up wanting to immigrate here, they will deny them the visa.”

After Sept. 11, there was an increased attempt to keep track of those people studying in the U.S. In order to keep track of these students, the U.S. government created the SEVIS system. This system requires all educational institutions to enter the information of their international students in a government-maintained database. This information, which includes personal information about the students’ educational plans and country of origin, must remain updated regularly.

The U.S. government also began requiring students of certain countries with a high level of supposed terrorist threat to regularly contact government offices.

For a teenage student, the application process is not only intimidating, but for many it is logistically impossible. In order to be approved for a student visa, the applicant must prove that they have ties motivating them to return to their home country. In most cases, this means proving financial ties to the home country. This is shown through material ownership of items such as cars or homes and bank statements proving financial security.

In countries such as Zimbabwe, where economic crisis is rampant and inflation is at an extreme, getting enough money together to apply for a student visa presents an enormous challenge. In a country where inflation causes the cost of bread to jump from $5 one day to $100 the next, keeping up with international exchange rates often times builds financial walls that few international applicants are able to climb.

For Mlambo, getting the monetary aspect of the application process complete was only the first step in a long journey filled with nerves and thin hope.

Mlambo describes the interview experience for her student visa as scary and tense. While waiting anxiously with her twin brother in the offices of the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe, Mlambo watched the faces of the other visa candidates with fear and uncertainty.

“You sit there, watching students go in and out of their interviews, and just judging by their face you can tell whether they were approved for their visa or not,” Mlambo said.

Mlambo left the U.S. Embassy that day smiling ear to ear.

Today, Mlambo is still smiling. However, she will soon be faced with an overwhelming question as her SMU experience approaches its final year: Where is home?

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