NYTIMES, August 9, 2010
WASHINGTON — Even as a teenager in Iran, Atefeh Fathi knew she would eventually study abroad. Now 30 and studying engineering at the University of Oklahoma, Ms. Fathi said that although she had applied to universities in Sweden and Canada, her first choice was the United States.
“Everyone says the U.S. is easier for foreigners” to acclimate to, she said while on a break from working in her university’s laboratory. As children, Iranians are taught English in school, making it easier for them to blend in immediately in the United States.
Ms. Fathi is part of a wave of Iranians studying in the United States in numbers not seen in more than a decade. Since 1979, when tens of thousands of Iranians studied in the United States, the number of Iranian students in the United States has taken an almost uninterrupted nosedive, bottoming out at fewer than 1,700 students in 1999. Since then, the number of students has begun a slow but steady rise, with more Iranians in the country now than at any other point since 1994, says the Institute of International Education in New York.
“In specific areas like engineering, the best schools in the whole world are in the U.S.,” said Naemeh Esfahani, a 29-year-old studying industrial engineering at the University of Southern California. “If you’re a good student, there is no reason wasting your time being in other schools.”
But just to get to the United States ambitious students face obstacles ranging from the inconvenient to the daunting, testing the mettle of even the most steadfast. Student visas can take many months to obtain. Because of security concerns, Iranians face background checks that the State Department refers to as additional administrative processing by the American authorities.
Because there is no American Embassy in Iran, students must travel to American embassies or consulates in other countries to apply. Ms. Fathi submitted her visa application in Cyprus, which she estimates cost her $5,000 in travel and other expenses.
Once she was finally approved, Ms. Fathi received a visa that allowed her to enter the United States only once, meaning she could not leave the country to return home or to travel abroad without beginning the process all over again. A State Department official said the policy, one of the strictest, reflects Iran’s own restrictions on Americans entering the country — it can be difficult for Americans to obtain visas to enter Iran unless they are part of a chaperoned tour group or related to an Iranian citizen.
If they exit the United States, Iranians can reapply for a visa, but they risk delays or not being approved at all. Read more...