There’s no place like home for the holidays, unless getting there requires up to $1,000, a visa and a myriad of paperwork.
Freshman David Percobic of Serbia-Montenegro and some of the other 1,900 international GW students from more 100 different countries know this situation well, especially around holidays when students trek home to see their friends and family.
“During Christmas, I’m not sure if I’ll go home. It’s expensive,” Percobic said. “A lot of my cousins live in Paris but I need a visa to go there too.”
The Lafayette Hall resident said in addition to the cost, bureaucratic delays and complications are another possible deterrence from flying home. He said that while he was trying to obtain clearance last summer to attend GW, he was faced with extensive paperwork and documents.
“The American embassy (in Serbia-Montenegro) turned me down for one stupid little document,” said Percobic, who had to travel back and fourth from his home to the American embassy to get the document he needed. “When I got that paper they gave me the visa. They’re really strict.”
Students who must deal with international concerns that are often never considered by American students can find help from GW’s International Service Office. Susan D’Amico, the office’s associate director, said her group helps students prepare for a trip back home.
“Continuing international students may travel abroad and return for classes in January,” she said. “In order to re-enter the (United States), students need to have their documents in order, including a valid student visa.”
D’Amico said in the past, national security concerns made it time-consuming and tedious for international students to leave and re-enter the country. But recently, the U.S. government has made significant investments in embassies to speed up the process.
“Consulates have been instructed to give priority to international students in the visa appointment system,” D’Amico said.
She added that students have seen a visible improvement and can travel with greater ease to their home nations.
“Some students from the Middle East reported special efforts by the U.S. Consul to accommodate them,” D’Amico said.
Mexican freshman Dominique Szostak Reynaud, who will be visiting her home over break for the first time since leaving for GW, said she had an easy time signing an I-20 form, which allows re-entry into the country.
“You just go to the ISO to get a signature that says you can come back in,” Raynaud said.
But some other students have not been so lucky. Gina Sebok, a freshman from Hungary, had a last-minute scramble before going home for Thanksgiving this fall.
“No one told me I needed a signature. I called ISO to check if I needed anything right before I left and they said I wouldn’t be able to leave unless I had that signature,” she said. “I almost missed my plane. It would have been a waste of a lot of money. It was really uncomfortable.”
Students such as Percobic, who are considering staying in D.C. for winter break and have no family in the U.S., can make arrangements with the University.
The Aston, Guthridge Hall, the Scholars Village Townhouses and the West End remain open for students wishing to stay on campus over winter break, D’Amico said. Students had to submit a winter break housing request form and a check for $400 to the Community Living and Learning Center by Dec. 1.
The student would also have to make arrangements with a student who lives in one of those dorms to use his room.
“In one case, the International Services Office was able to make arrangements for the student through a volunteer. The host family was from her country,” said D’Amico, adding that this was a rare occurrence.
For internationals opting not to stay in a residence hall or in the D.C. area for winter break, getting back into the U.S. can still cause problems.
“I got visas before Chavez was elected in 1997. You have to renew student visas every year,” said Carolina Nelson, a freshman from Venezuela, referring to her country’s president, Hugo Chavez. “They make it pretty hard. They started restricting how many people can get visas after he was elected.”
Nelson said her sister experienced problems at the U.S. embassy while trying to leave the country to study in America.
“She was stuck in Venezuela for two months,” Nelson said.
Some international students said they have not experienced such difficulties.
Jasmine Bi, a freshman from China, has had no problems with her visa.
“It wasn’t that hard for me,” she said. “People tell me I’m lucky.”