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In Their Own Words

A Conversation with Emily Bailey and Zabrina Williams

Zabrina Williams (L) and Emily Bailey


Q: What do you do at Reves?

Emily Bailey: I’m the Assistant Director for Immigration Services. Day to day that means I have some student interaction. I also arrange  H-1B visas, which are work-based visas, for professors and other staff members and also for visiting scholars coming to do short term research at William & Mary.

I do a lot of training presentations. For students, I’ll explain work authorization and taxes. I also train faculty and staff on immigration topics, such as the status required if they’re hiring someone or inviting a scholar.   One I’ve done recently focuses on responding to government requests, such as responding to a government audit and  RFEs [requests for further evidence from the US government].

Zabrina Williams: I am Immigration Services Coordinator/Advisor for the Reves Center, and 99.9 percent of my job entails immigration services for students. The process is all encompassing, and I am often in constant contact with students from the time they are admitted and need to request their immigration document so that they can apply for the student visa.

With the pandemic we've changed both how we communicate with students and how they receive documents – there’s a lot more conversation via email or zoom. Pre-pandemic I met in-person with continuing students for a variety of reasons, such as applying for OPT or CPT work authorization to help them through the process. [OPT work authorization allows F-1 students to gain practical experience in their major field of study for initially up to 12 months (extension is sometimes possible); Curricular Practical Training (CPT) work authorization allows F-1 students to gain practical experience in their major or academic program prior to graduation.]

I also work with the undergraduate admissions office, our graduate schools, and departments to train staff in using the iStart system to make sure that they're up to date on new processes. [iStart is a cloud-based digital customer onboarding platform created with ID scanning and recognition, database search and e-signature used to provide a variety of online services for our institution's international students, scholars, and employees -- as well as the staff that support them.] And along with the wonderful W&M IT department work to keep the iStart system running.

Q: Immigration, to someone who doesn’t do it every day, is intimidating. You have to be so detail-oriented with sometimes arcane processes. But in addition to helping with the forms, are you also a bit of counselor, coach or even a hand holder?

ZW: That is exactly right. Yeah. Hand holding, is a big part of what I think we do. Immigration regulation can be intimidating, especially for undergraduates, who are usually not sure of the process because they're just starting out.

EB: I think for me part of the stress is knowing all the immigration rules or regulations. And not only rules or regulations, but also what's actually happening. Sometimes it might not be an official change or announcement, but maybe a change in how long it takes for documents to be processed or issues arising at a certain service center. Knowing the immigration landscape is important.

As far as working with people, you need to figure out what's going on with them and what are the relevant details in their situation, which they might not even know. So part of it is drawing out what their situation is–whether they are going to be traveling internationally, or if they have employment plans or what their long term goals are. And then, given that information, you present to them their options.

A lot of times it's just telling them, “Okay.  If you do this, then this is what might happen,” or, “If you do this, this is what might happen, and here are some things that you need to think about as you're selecting a major, as you are planning to travel, planning to start work.”

So a lot of the job – and I think it’s one of the things that makes the job both difficult and interesting-- is that each person and each situation is different, and there is not always one clear answer to give them.

ZW: Yes! There’s never just a standard answer. There's no stock email you can use, because each situation is different. The smallest change in a situation can lead you down a whole other path. It's just like Emily said; it’s figuring out what the student is asking and giving them enough information to facilitate what they are hoping to achieve, but not too much information to confuse them.

Q:  In the last few years there has been a lot of turbulence and change in immigration regulations, with new instructions, travel bans, delays, confusion. How has that had an impact on you? My guess is there are things may change from week to week.

ZW: For me it's a challenge, because when you're talking to a student—say when meeting to discuss OPT you're pretty sure you know the most up-to-date information, but I’ve found myself in this past year saying to students, “When you're about to mail your application, shoot me an email just to double check, because things might change.”

For example, there is an issue now of a possible application fee increase, but there is a court case that is still pending. A decision could come at any time, and you want to make sure students completing OPT applications have the most up-to-date information before mailing.

We want to make students have the most accurate information possible.

And then, to be honest, there are times when talking to students I just say, “You know, this is the information we have now.”

I've been saying that more this past year, really the past four years. This is the information we have now, and so you might just want to check again before you do X, Y or Z just to be sure.” Students of course were aware of the turbulence of the past few years and so we try to limit their level of anxiety the best we can.

Q: How do you learn of changes in regulations? Does the government send out updates to people who are involved in immigration, or do you have to track them down?

EB: It depends. Zabrina and I are both what are called Designated School Officials (DSOs), so we have special permission from the government to issue certain kinds of immigration documents like the F-1 and J-1 visas. Because of that designation, it's like being on a listserv. Sometimes we'll get emails from either the State Department or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) or the Student Exchange Visitor Program.*

We also have a really strong professional organization, NAFSA: Association of International Educators. They do a great job of paying attention to changes and developments. As Zabrina said, sometimes court cases can really affect our work. So NAFSA pays attention to those kinds of things and compiles information that we can check. They also have some research resources that we use, with analyses of things like court cases, and they amalgamate recent guidance and recent trends. That's really helpful.

We also get information from colleagues. I may be talking with a colleague who will share something or there are some listservs that we're on, where you'll see that everybody's starting to have the same problem with something, maybe a particular Service Center where students are submitting documents and seeing delays that aren't necessarily “posted” anywhere but colleagues are experiencing them. It’s not official but it’s useful.

Q: Speaking of working with colleagues, how did each of you find yourself in this field?

ZW: For me, completely by accident. I was leaving a position, looking for part-time employment and saw ISSP was looking for someone to help implement iStart. In my previous position as registrar at a private school, I had installed new systems from the ground up, we had some international students, so I thought, “I can help them do that.” I don't remember how I started advising. I think Stephen Sechrist [former director of ISSP] and Emily just said, “You can do this.” And it just evolved over time.

I found myself in this whole second career that I was not planning for, but that I enjoy and find rewarding. I like working with young people, and I love Reves and ISSP.

EB: I taught primary school for a few years after college, and I learned that was not for me [laughs].

So, then, I was trying to find something to do other than teaching primary school, but it was the height of the 2008 recession, so I ended up getting a job as an administrative assistant for ISSP and the Global Education Office (GEO). I had two bosses: one for ISSP, and one for GEO.

Steve Sechrist had a big interest in training and mentorship, so he held mini immigration trainings. He would tell us about the State Department, regulations, and things like that. I started learning from those, and then eventually I got the choice–did I want to do study abroad or did I want to work with international students?–and I decided to work with international students.

It’s been a lot of learning on the job and attending trainings. In this field there are some academic courses and degrees that are related, but I think, for the most part, for a lot of people, it's not always a direct path. Mentorship and training are things I want to continue, because it is such a nice field, but if you don’t have someone training you, it's hard to break into it.

Q: What do you think people don't understand about what you do?

EB: I think a lot of people think we're just filling out forms and read from a guidebook, “Oh, here are the things that you need to do, International Student.” I think they probably don't understand the nuance and how often things change, and that we can be affected by political situations. There’s not always a clean answer to things. The answer often is, “We think that this has happened, this is how things happened in the past, but going forward, we're not really sure.” It requires so much knowledge and thought and understanding of details.

ZW: I agree. I think people don't realize how detailed it is. I didn't know when I started. While training I would think, “Oh, this is the answer to this,” and then realize that, no, the answer is more nuanced.

Q: In addition to dealing with lots of legal details, a lot of times you’re also dealing with people for whom English is not their first language. You're also describing regulations that even a native English speaker and U.S. citizen would find perplexing.

ZW: I can't tell you how many response emails I rewrite before sending, because I want to match their level of fluency and comprehension. That can mean not getting too detailed, but that’s hard, because it's immigration regulation, and you're trying to explain something that is not easy to understand. Then at the same time you're trying to make sure you’ve thought of all sides. My brain is usually fried at the end of the day, just from emailing [laughs].

Q: Have you seen a rise in the stress level of applicants?

EB: The pandemic has brought a lot of anxiety, but also before that due to the political situation, we have seen a lot of worry from people uncertain about long term plans and their future, and we don't always have the answers for that.

We can feel the anxiety coming across the phone or the email. One indication is the number of emails; they'll send many, many emails. You can tell.

Sometimes, our job is just to listen and to provide the best information that we can. It's trying to calm them as best you can but also being realistic at the same time, because you don't want to tell them it's going to be fine if it may not.

ZW: Sometimes you realize students are getting information from other sources, such as online chats, or other media and it is not always correct information. You can see that in the emails you receive. A lot of the time it comes from a place of anxiety (which is understandable) where students just want to be sure they have not missed anything.

We try to alleviate that anxiety the best we can. The past four years were tough enough, but then the pandemic on top of it really took it to a whole other level.

Q: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

ZW: My favorite part really is the people I work with.  I've been working a long time, but I have not worked with a group of people as professional, kind and courteous and who want to teach you.

They have no ego about you learning anything and wanting you to continue to grow in the field. It’s a team that really works well together.

For me the least favorite part has been the stress of the last few years, and then pandemic. I realize I’m stressed when I log off at the end of the day, and at nine o'clock at night I’m still thinking about a student or issue.

Letting go and not thinking so much has been the hardest part because you know students and their families are spending money to come to school, and it’s their life’s plan. While you don't want to take all that on, you do in a way, because you understand, that they have plans for themselves and they want to see them to fruition. I want to be there to help.

EB: And I would say I find it really satisfying when I can give someone information to help them make a decision, and then they have the information, and they can choose whatever it is that's best for them.

I feel really good when I can see that light in their eyes, and they say, ‘Oh, I understand that this is going to affect what kind of job I take or my major.”

I just really like when I’m able to deliver the information and it helps them, because if they didn't have it, who knows what they would do?

Because with immigration you can make decisions that can affect you for a long time without even realizing that it's such a big thing. So when I can give them information that helps them and see that it's been a positive impact in our life, I think that's really great.

And on the flip side of that, as Zabrina said, sometimes the most challenging thing is just how high the stakes it can be.

I hate having to deliver the bad news that your long awaited plan, the thing you've planned for years, is not going to work out. I have to say, “I’m really sorry, but it's not going to work out,” but I add, “And here are your other options.”

I’ve found myself in the shower thinking about a certain immigration situation, and that's when it definitely gets too much, when you're worried about the student or the scholar, and really hoping that you can help them with their situation, but knowing that you may not be able to.  

Or also just the volume of work, just because it's so much and really wanting to make sure that you're not dropping something important just because it's all high stakes with tuition or whether someone can work or attend school. It's really a lot of heavy stuff, and hoping that we can give them the information they need and not mess things up.

We're lucky, because at William & Mary we could definitely use more staff, but just compare us to University of Michigan or some other university where they handle thousands and thousands of international students. You probably can't have as much personal advising just due to the numbers. So we're lucky in that we can still have some of those face to face or zoom interactions with people and talk with them and hold their hand sometimes.

Q: Thank you for talking about your jobs. You both are usually reluctant to grab the limelight, but you do such essential work for the university.

EB: We've talked about that sometimes. If you do the job well – maybe even a little too well -- then people don't notice.

ZW: Hey! I noticed! [laughs]

*Student &  Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) 

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and acts as a bridge for government organizations that have an interest in information on nonimmigrants whose primary reason for coming to the United States is to be students. On behalf of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), SEVP manages schools, nonimmigrant students in the F (academic student) and M (vocational studies) visa classifications and their dependents. The Department of State (DoS) manages Exchange Visitor Programs, nonimmigrant exchange visitors in the J visa classification and their dependents. Both SEVP and DoS use the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to track and monitor schools; exchange visitor programs; and F, M and J nonimmigrants while they visit the United States and participate in the U.S. education system.

The F-1 Visa (Academic Student) allows you to enter the United States as a full-time student at an accredited college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, elementary school, or other academic institution or in a language training program.

H-1B Visa (Employment) applies to employers seeking to hire nonimmigrant aliens as workers in specialty occupations, typically requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher.   

The J-1 (Exchange Visitor) visa in the United States is for people who wish to take part in work-and-study-based exchange and visitor programs in the U.S.