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Helping International Scholars Thrive at UC Davis

Each year, UC Davis Services for International Students and Scholars (SISS) provides day-to-day support and long-term expertise to around 10,000 international students, faculty and researchers—including accompanying family members—from more than 100 countries and six continents. From immigration and visa advising to employment and dependents’ needs, the SISS team works closely with international students and scholars—non-degree-seeking professionals such as faculty, academic researchers, postdoctoral scholars, staff and visiting professionals. In addition to this invaluable professional expertise, scholar services staff, alongside the Global Affairs programming team look for ways to make international scholars at UC Davis feel at home.

Building Community

We play a unique role as our immigration work is very specialized and the institutional expertise lies within our office. We also understand the importance for our scholars to make connections on and off-campus and we are a resource of support for them,” said Simone Kueltz, associate director of international scholar services. “One of the programs we offer that helps scholars adjust to the new culture and environment at UC Davis is our monthly Scholar Coffee Break. This is an opportunity for incoming, new and existing scholars to connect with each other and our office, network in a virtual environment and exchange information.”

The International Center Building in the late afternoon shade. The trees are turning with the autumn season and some have fallen on the concrete walkway outside the building. A sign above the main entrance reads, "International Center."

Each year, Kueltz and the SISS team of six experienced scholar services staff members work with over 140 contacts at academic departments across the university to determine and support the appropriate immigration status of each scholar coming to UC Davis. SISS also regularly works with the Office of Research, the Partners Opportunity Program, Graduate Studies, Academic Affairs, Campus Counsel and Federal Relations (to support case-specific congressional inquiries).

“SISS serves as the campus resource for comprehensive immigration and visa advising and processing,” Kueltz said. “Our experts help create a diverse and global community that supports the university’s teaching, research and outreach mission. This is our most critical service. Without it, international faculty, researchers and postdocs would not be able to work here, and visiting scholars would not have the opportunity to collaborate with their UC Davis counterparts.  Our international scholars greatly contribute to UC Davis’ success.”

Decades of Experience

For the SISS team, being an expert in visa classifications comes with experience—most specialists have been with SISS for 15 to 20 years. Through it all, they have seen a wide range of immigration issues and complicated case scenarios.

For example, Kim Haky, the team’s senior immigration advisor, has been in the field for close to 30 years.

“Our main responsibility is to ensure that scholars have the proper immigration status to be able to work—they can’t work unless we’re compliant with all immigration laws and regulations,” she said. “This includes world-renowned faculty in research, teaching and clinical roles. There is so much riding on maintaining their status and the work is very time-critical.”

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Haky primarily works on permanent residency cases. She’s helped international faculty back when they started the process 20 years ago. She points out that by staying for the long term and developing their careers here, these faculty members are now the ones sponsoring and hiring the next generation of international scholars for their departments and labs.

“I really enjoy getting to work closely with all these amazing people,” she said. “I love helping scholars find success and enjoyment at UC Davis by playing a small part in improving their lives while also contributing to UC Davis’ teaching, research and service mission.”

Finding Solutions

Just when the SISS team thinks they’ve seen it all, a new and unusual case presents itself, and those many years of experience are put to the test.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, an international scholar was running out of immigration status time while leading a cutting-edge research project. Despite strong support and sponsorship for another visa status by the employing department, the scholar was unable to travel home, apply for the new visa to re-enter the U.S. and activate the new status. The team analyzed possible alternatives and worked closely with the scholar and department to explore different strategies that would permit the scholar to continue research. In the end, the team collaborated with UC Davis’ Federal Relations office to support a congressional inquiry and worked with the U.S. Department of State (DOS).

“We investigated possible options related to the J program that DOS oversees but knew that the government rarely approved these options. In fact, one had never been approved in the past and chances of success appeared to be slim," said Kueltz of the challenge. "Nonetheless, we worked tirelessly to prepare a strong application and it was approved! You can’t imagine the relief the scholar and his family felt knowing that they were safe and he could continue his important research project here.” 

A Dedicated Team

For Kueltz, being part of an experienced and passionate team that takes pride in their work is key to balancing out the stress that comes with restrictions related to immigration regulations and government agency policies, especially for scholars arriving from countries without diplomatic ties to the U.S.

A drone shot from above of the main UC Davis Health hospital and attached buildings at sunset.

“Helping them achieve their goals feels very rewarding to me, and I value that through my work, I can meet and support brilliant scholars from all over the world,” she said. “I know from personal experience the challenges in adjusting to life and work far away from home and how important it is to have resources that welcome and support you.” 

Daniel Padron, an international scholar intake advisor, feels the same way. He’s helped J-1 scholars find schools for their children, secure social security appointments, prepare for visa interviews at consulates in their home countries, and even facilitate travel for Iranian scholars to third-party countries so they can apply for visas.

“My role also provides guidance to the UC Davis Medical Center, the main campus and each UC Cooperative Extension up and down California,” said Padron.

“I make it a point to work with campus partners so our scholars don’t jeopardize their status by participating in unpaid lab work or even volunteering. If they volunteer for a job that somebody else would be paid to do, that would be a serious violation. So I make sure my departmental contacts are part of the scholar’s success here.”

As part of Global Affairs, SISS shares the university’s values of furthering a diverse and inclusive community and building meaningful partnerships in an interconnected world through the goal of Global Education for All. Padron says he feels proud to be part of a team so instrumental to research, educational exchange and teaching that transcends borders.

“I see myself as a facilitator, in a small way helping open pathways for people from all over the world coming to UC Davis,” Padron said. “I may not be able to give them tax information... but when scholars come to me asking how to meet people, I’m able to point them to the International House or to our quarterly evening discussions. There are so many ways our office helps beyond visas and immigration. I’m just grateful to be a part of it.”

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