State Department representative talks visas, travel

The State Department is encouraging international students to study in the United States, Maura Harty, assistant secretary for the department’s bureau of consular affairs, said on campus last week.

Harty first met with President Donna E. Shalala and, later, with other administrators, to discuss attracting more international students to American universities. Harty said visa applications dropped worldwide immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since then, officials have seen an increase in visa requests from countries like China, Brazil, Mexico and South Korea. However, Harty said the number of Middle Eastern visa requests has not risen as much as officials would like.

“We’re still seeing fewer students from the Middle East than we’d like to see,” she said. “We want to make sure that they know the welcome mat is out, so they can see with their own eyes what America is like.”

Harty said she has traveled to the Middle East five times since assuming her position in 2002 in order to appeal directly to potential Middle Eastern students. She said she spoke to University administrators about possibly sending a State Department consular officer overseas with UM admissions officers to recruit students.

“We can help demystify the visa process experience,” Harty said. “This is a sizeable campus with a great interest in having foreign students come.”

The bureau of consular affairs had given visas to the men that eventually hijacked the airplanes on Sept. 11. Harty said that, since then, the office has had a review of every visa-application procedure. Now, officers do more name checks, and the department has invested in new technology systems. According to Harty, once a visa is approved overseas, an immigration officer in the U.S. can view that information seven minutes later.

“The level of information sharing is exponentially better now,” she said. “We need to make sure that the right and left hand know what each other is doing.”

During her visit to campus, Harty and her colleagues also gave a seminar at the Law School regarding career opportunities with the State Department and the foreign service. Student questions at the seminar ranged from what the exam to enter the foreign service is like (it includes questions from American history to human resources) to whether the department provides tuition reimbursements for students (it does).

Harty’s advice for students applying for State Department internships or jobs was to do so early, as the process includes a lengthy security check.

For students studying or traveling overseas, Harty emphasized the importance of being well informed about the country the student will be visiting. The State Department’s website allows U.S. citizens to register so that, in case of an emergency, the traveler can be tracked down.

“Before e-mail, we spent a lot of time tracking students down, especially if they didn’t keep in contact with their parents,” Harty said.

The website also provides information sheets and e-mail updates on foreign countries.

Harty stressed the importance of abiding by the laws of other countries.

“We’re not able to spring people from jail just because they’re Americans,” Harty said, citing drug, alcohol and road safety violations as common problems travelers face abroad.

To register with the state department before traveling abroad, visit To find out about internships and careers at the state department, visit

Patricia Mazzei can be contacted at