College students change their majors like they change their underwear. They change them frequently, but nobody else can force them to do it.
For some Venezuelan-born students on campus, however, switching majors has been necessitated to comply with a change in national requirements rather than a change of heart.
The more than 200 Venezuelans at UM comprise one of the largest represented nationalities among international students on campus.
“We’re the gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Mark Reid, the executive director of international admissions.
Most of these Venezuelan students receive government benefits to study in the United States, but a policy dictating students’ choice of majors that takes effect this year may limit their ability to seek funding or force them to change career paths.
The new resolution defines areas of knowledge that Venezuela’s Ministry of Higher Education prioritizes when it comes to increasing the talents of its citizens. First-year and incoming students at UM are especially affected.
Moving to Miami
Higher education in the United States is attainable for Venezuelan students because of the Comisión de Administración de Divisas (CADIVI), or the Commission for the Administration of Currency Exchange.
As Venezuela’s governmental agency in charge of currency exchange, CADIVI provides U.S. dollars for bolivars, the local currency of Venezuela.
Currency exchange is necessary for many transactions, including those made by students attending college in the United States who need to pay their tuition bills. CADIVI offers Venezuelan students a lower exchange rate, which makes studying abroad more affordable.
Payments to students studying abroad are considered a “priority good,” among other essential items, like food and medicine.
The exchange rate for priority goods is 2.6 bolivars per dollar, whereas non-priority goods – like tobacco, cell phones and computers – are traded at a rate of 4.3, according to a report published by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
This means that students coming to the U.S. from Venezuela only have to pay a little more than half as much as it would normally cost to purchase U.S. dollars and attend school abroad.
CADIVI funding grants Venezuelan students like junior Ana Vera, the president of Union Venezolano (UNIVEN), the opportunity to study at UM at an affordable price. UNIVEN is the Venezuelan student organization on campus.
“If I didn’t have CADIVI, I don’t think I would be here,” Vera said. “It’s so expensive, the difference in currency trading. This helps a lot.”
A computer science major, Vera chose to study in the U.S. because the country is more technologically advanced than Venezuela.
“Technology moves faster here, and I feel more in touch with everything,” Vera said.
In Venezuela, students must choose between studying either the humanities or the sciences by the end of their ninth year of schooling. This typically dictates the majors that students can opt for at the college level, Reid said.
“Even before they’ve had a chance to make up their own mind about their career goals, they have to make those decisions, and the big benefit of the University of Miami is that they’re able to go into that field, but they can also combine it with a minor or maybe a double major,” Reid said.
But Venezuelan students at the University of Miami – or any foreign university, for that matter – can no longer expect such an exploratory higher-education experience if they still wish to receive funding support from CADIVI.
Limited choices of major
According to Reid, since the major restriction policy is currently affecting first-year students, the shift in enrollment across schools and colleges at UM may become apparent once the major restriction policy affects incoming classes.
Funded majors are listed by category: basic sciences, architecture and engineering, technology, agriculture and fisheries, health, education, sport sciences, social sciences, and the arts and humanities. While the list appears comprehensive, political science, philosophy, psychology, history and religious studies are just a few of the majors offered at UM that are not covered by CADIVI’s policy.
CADIVI is looking to support subjects and careers that help Venezuela’s system, Vera said.
“If you study politics, I think that’s one of the majors that they don’t support because you should be studying that in Venezuela,” Vera said. “If you study law here, you cannot work there because it doesn’t apply.”
Still, Vera thinks that students should be free to study what they want.
“A person who wants to study abroad and learn about different things that they don’t offer there in Venezuela should be free to study what they want and what makes them happy,” Vera said. “By narrowing their options, it is restricting them to choose form a range of majors that they probably don’t like.”
Senior Martha Franco, who is majoring in motion pictures, agrees. She called the new policy “senseless.”
“No government should decide what a citizen should or should not study,” Franco said. “Supposedly, they are doing it to promote students to remain in the country and study the careers available there.”
Reid said that the new rules make it more difficult for Venezuelan students to receive a favorable currency exchange rate. It has led some students to change their majors.
“Business has been very popular for Venezuelan students at the University of Miami,” Reid said.
Roughly 40 percent of Venezuelan students are currently enrolled in the School of Business Administration, according to data from the Office of the Registrar. International commerce, however, is the only listed major that relates to the field of business.
Students attending college in the United States must apply to exchange currency at the reduced rate through CADIVI. The applications are essentially requests for permission to purchase U.S. currency using Bolivars for the payment of academic activities abroad, according to Venezuela’s Ministry of Higher Education.
The process is extensive and does not guarantee that the transaction will be granted, according to The PIE News, which provides news and business analysis for Professionals in International Education.
Also, the Venezuelan consulate in Miami – which served Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas – was shut down in January. All paperwork must now be submitted through the consulate in New Orleans, which must do the work of two consulates by covering a greater U.S. region.
This problem has slowed down the processing of applications, and many Venezuelan students at UM are still waiting for their funding to come through.
Vera said it took four months to get her CADIVI funding this year. Her application was rejected three times before she figured out how to make all of the proper corrections.
“I started going to class and I hadn’t gotten my CADIVI funding,” Vera said. “But I know people that have had to drop classes because they are late with their payments because CADIVI hasn’t given them the funding.”
Franco submitted her application to CADIVI in July and was just recently notified that she had been approved.
“Last week they gave the authorization to the bank to exchange the money. I was extremely worried. At one point I thought they were going to reject me.”
Franco said she had to ask one of her family members to loan her the money she needed to register for this semester in the meantime.
Junior Arianne Alcorta, who is majoring in broadcast journalism and sociology, said she was one of the first of her friends to have the CADIVI funding come through.
“I’m lucky, and it’s like a lottery so you just have to wait,” Alcorta said. “It’s not in an order or anything.”
The closing of the Miami consulate has impacted much more than the processing of currency exchange. In January, news of its closing immediately worried Venezuelans in the U.S. who thought they would not be able to vote in the upcoming Venezuelan presidential election.
“We think that, as the Venezuelan elections are coming, they are not interested in having the Venezuelan consulate here so people can’t vote,” Vera said. “Now we’ll have to travel to New Orleans, making it harder to vote.”
Alcorta explained that the majority of Venezuelans in the United States are against the current president, Hugo Chavez, who has been in power for 13 years.
With the election taking place Oct. 7, local Venezuelans are planning a trip to New Orleans, and UM students plan to participate.
A group called Voto Donde Sea, or Vote Anywhere, has planned bus rides to the consulate in New Orleans. Students plan to make the 14-hour bus trip to cast their ballots. Others are looking into flights.
UNIVEN has been fundraising on campus to help students afford the trip to New Orleans to vote.
“Many people think the international votes don’t get to Venezuela,” Alcorta said. “That it’s not worth it, but we have 5,000 people going to New Orleans.”
The outcome of the elections will have an impact on Venezuela’s future. One is that the elected president – Chavez or an opponent – can determine the fate of Venezuela’s rules restricting majors and future education policies, according to Reid.
“There’s the uncertainty of what will happen with Chavez in the presidential elections and what the impact will be if he’s elected or whether there will be a new president,” Reid said.