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Immigration program makes it easy for international faculty to settle at UW

Volume 13, Number 3 | May 2012

By Steve Kiggins
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The bluish bags under Jeasik Cho’s eyes were filled with frustration and fear.

All but alone in a foreign place that couldn’t be more different than his native South Korea, with a visa that would soon be useless, Jeasik couldn’t sleep as the same haunting questions danced inside his head and prevented him from finding peace.

He tossed. He turned. He tossed some more.

Would he succeed in changing his visa to remain at the University of Wyoming? Who was there to help him? What was the problem? Could he figure it out himself? Those are the questions—a few of them, at least—that kept Jeasik from resting each night when his head landed on his pillow.

“I found one other Korean faculty member, in the Department of Animal Science, and I contacted him. I didn’t know who else could help me,” Jeasik recalls. “He was ahead of me in the process, but there was still a lot of uncertainty.”

The pain, even years later, remains obvious on Jeasik’s bespectacled face. “We didn’t know what to do next,” he says.

Jeasik’s ordeal has a happy ending. He not only found the help he needed— Jeasik is, today, a well-respected and award-winning associate professor in UW’s Department of Educational Studies, where he mentors the teachers of tomorrow— but his experience helped precipitate meaningful changes to the university’s approach to faculty immigration.

To avoid the tumult that nearly chased Jeasik, not only from Wyoming but from this country, UW in 2007 created a new position to first assist colleges and departments in the process of hiring non-immigrant personnel—and then to help international faculty with visa issues and, in some cases, the establishment of permanent residency.

Since she became UW’s first faculty immigration coordinator, Carrie Hesco has helped 145 faculty members and researchers obtain an H-1B visa, a temporary work permit with a six-year life span, and aided 48 people in the process of permanent residency.

Hesco’s work also has helped change the face of the UW campus, one of the few melting pots for culture and diversity in a state that sports the ninth-highest white population (85.9 percent) in the U.S., and strengthened the university’s educational mission.

“Some expertise,” says Hesco, “can’t be found in the United States.”

Adds Anne Alexander, director of the International Programs, “The University of Wyoming is an extremely good university, and one of the reasons why is because we try to hire the best faculty in the world—no matter where they are from. Every department here wants the best and the brightest, and that’s why we have to hire without borders.”

Dedicated Efforts

On a December day nearly 10 years ago, Ramesh Sivanpillai showed up for his first day of work at the University of Wyoming. He was greeted by new colleagues and asked an identical question by more than a few of them: “‘So, how long are you going to stay?’” Sivanpillai recalls.

The native of India laughs and says, “Most of those people are gone, and I am still here.”

If not for UW’s dedicated efforts to faculty immigration, Sivanpillai—like Jeasik Cho—may have been long gone by now. But when Sivanpillai needed help to establish permanent residency, Hesco was there to navigate him through a lengthy process that seemingly brought new questions by the day and provide updates throughout the months-long case.

“It’s like a maze, and Carrie’s role was to guide me through the maze,” says Sivanpillai, an associate research scientist for the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center, an interdisciplinary research institute focused on the development of geospatial information and technologies and their applications in science, education, government and business. “To have someone right here on campus makes a big difference. She may not see that she’s contributing in a big way, but she is.”

There are similar tales of Hesco’s handiwork across campus.

When Po Chen was recruited to UW by the School of Energy Resources in May 2008, the Chinese-born assistant professor was eager to continue his research of earthquakes and help build knowledge in the use of seismic waves to aid energy exploration

Soon, though, Po’s days were sidetracked by the immigration process, which he found as complex as some may find his research. He contacted Hesco, and she “helped me and my wife through every step,” he says.

“It is not complicated to come to the U.S. as a student, just to study. That doesn’t take too much effort. But if you want to start the immigration process, that’s 10 times more complicated,” Po says. “Carrie is just such a very good resource. You can’t always go to a website for an answer. But you can always get answers from Carrie.”

He chuckles. “She must have read a lot to know everything she knows.”

One of the university’s more significant hires in recent years, Germany’s Hermann Schatzl, also lauds Hesco, who he says simplified a process that could have dragged on for years, thus allowing him more time to focus on his study of chronic wasting disease, a deadly threat to deer, elk and moose that was first identified in Wyoming in 1985.

“She took care of the visa, the green card, everything,” says Schatzl, the Wyoming Excellence Chair in prion biology who has a joint appointment in the departments of Molecular Biology and Veterinary Sciences. “She really does provide a full-service package.”

While the humble Hesco is quick to deflect the praise—“I am constantly amazed at how grateful our international people are for the work I do, even though I am just doing my job,” she says —the university’s unsung hero of internationalization is happy to know she makes a difference.

She’s even happier to know that, indirectly, she is helping provide students at her alma mater with a richer educational experience. “This would be a very boring place without our international faculty and researchers. I don’t think we would be as newsworthy as we are now,” Hesco says. “Any time I even just go to the university homepage, I’m amazed at the number of international researchers or faculty who are featured in the news. … If they’re not doing something newsworthy or new or unique, I don’t think they’d do it. They’re always striving for excellence. That’s why we recruit them, and that’s why we want them to stay here.”

With a toothy smile, Hesco says, “The news stories I see, I’m always like, ‘I know him,’ and ‘I know him,’ and ‘I know her.’”

Catalyst for Change

As 2003 turned to 2004, Jeasik Cho was still in limbo— unclear about why his visa application was being delayed and unsure of whom to turn for answers.

By then, Jeasik’s countryman, the faculty member across campus who had become his friend and supporter, was gone, too. “He struggled for three years, and then he left for Colorado State University,” Jeasik says. “While I was still here struggling…”

Jeasik stops and a pained expression crosses his face. He snaps his fingers and adds, “He got that H1 visa right away.”

Tired, frustrated and near defeat, Jeasik sent an email to Patricia McClurg, then-dean of the College of Education. His desperate email not only resulted in the joyful end to his tribulations, but also served as the catalyst for change in UW’s handling of faculty immigration.

“I was about to leave, because of these visa issues, but I sent one last email to my dean and said, ‘What should I do?’” Jeasik recalls. “She contacted somebody and, then, within two days, she called me and said, ‘Your issues will be taken care of in 48 hours. Be patient.’ A few days later, my application was submitted. It was something very simple, just a few clicks on a website. I made it, finally!”

And, finally, Jeasik could rest. “Three, maybe four years after I came over to UW,” he says through a triumphant smile, “I could sleep peacefully at night.”

Now a permanent resident—he says the process, with Hesco’s assistance, was “so easy, because someone at the university was here to help me and support me and answer my questions”—Jeasik is living out his American dream.

The 2008 recipient of the Outstanding Research Award in his college, Jeasik relishes the American friends—Pat, Francisco, Allen, Donmoyer, Paul, Jill and Carrie—who he says have shown him “unconditional support and love” and become his family in this country.

Also, Jeasik feels that UW appreciates him “for what I bring to my classes and my students,” and he takes pride in playing a role in the university’s internationalization efforts.

“I am,” he says, “a lucky alien.”

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