A Chinese student studying at Harvard had to go back home last year to attend his father's funeral.
It took him five months to get permission from U.S. immigration authorities to return to his studies here.
It's stories like that that are causing a drastic drop in the number of foreign students studying at universities in the United States.
According to a recent report, foreign applications to American grad schools declined 28 percent this past year. Meanwhile, the actual number of students in the country is already down more than 6 percent. Here at the UW-Madison, applications have plummeted from the typical 8,000 a year to 3,000. Overall, enrollment is down 3.8 percent.
The xenophobes among us undoubtedly think that's good news - opens up more spots for our own kids, after all.
In reality, though, it's terrible news, both in terms of what it means to many of our universities and to the country itself.
Educating foreign students in the United States has become a $13 billion annual business that helps many cash-strapped universities make ends meet. Foreign students not only pay the full cost of their education, but frequently a little more.
But, because many of the students stay here after completing their degrees, it also helps fill science and engineering jobs in the United States that would otherwise go begging because of inadequate numbers of U.S. students in those fields.
Further, as outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed out, foreign students who return to their home countries carry American friendships and ideas with them.
"I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here," he remarked.
Our nearly impossible security requirements that treat every applicant as a terrorist suspect, along with many unusual requirements in the Patriot Act, have frightened many prospects away. Instead, many are now opting for universities in Europe, which have been taking advantage of our bureaucratic and complex system.
Obviously, in this post-9/11 world, security concerns must be met. No one dismisses that fact. But there's no excuse for months and months of delay that only serve to force young applicants to throw up their hands in dismay.
If we're going to remain a big player in the world, spreading the American ideal and the promises of democracy, we better get this problem fixed, and soon.
Dave Zweifel is editor of The Capital Times.
© 2004 Capital Times