SEMO officials: Paperwork for Nafis was done appropriately

Wednesday, October 24, 2012
This image taken from the social networking site Google Plus shows an undated photo of Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis - the same man, who according to witnesses, appeared in federal court in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 to face charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to provide material support to al-Qaida. The Bangladeshi man was arrested Wednesday after he allegedly attempted to detonate what he believed to be a 1,000-pound bomb outside the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. (AP Photo)

From the time they recruited Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis until the day they transferred his paperwork, Southeast Missouri State University officials said Tuesday they never broke protocol or procedures in their brief affiliation with the former international student charged last week with trying to blow up the Federal Reserve building in New York.

For that matter, the officials said, they never saw anything that would warrant alarm or rouse suspicion during any of their dealings with the 21-year-old native of Bangladesh who was in Cape Girardeau for the spring semester.

"If anything would have happened with this, it would have happened in New York after he left here," said Zahir Ahmed, the university's director of international education and services. "I don't see how we could have done anything different."

Ahmed and Debbie Below, vice president of enrollment, insisted Tuesday in interviews with the Southeast Missourian that, while there was one blip during his admissions process, Nafis was in full compliance with federal rules in the five months he was here.

Each official said not to expect policy changes in reaction to the Nafis arrest. But one change was made after Nafis transferred but before his arrest that would have kept him from Southeast if he had enrolled today. Starting this fall, the university no longer accepts international students with gaps of more than one year like Nafis had without transcripts from previous enrollment at foreign universities, like Nafis' records from a school in his native Bangladesh.

Their comments came on a day that U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson joined a chorus of officials calling for federal investigations into how international students are tracked and, specifically, how Nafis bypassed government screenings done to combat terrorism.

Emerson doesn't believe that Southeast dropped the ball, she said Tuesday.

"I think most people would want our intelligence services to do everything necessary to find out how serious our national security threat got in the first place," Emerson said.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called on the inspector general of the U.S. State Department to launch a probe into how Nafis could be granted a student visa that allowed him to live and study in the U.S.

Schumer also wants the Department of Homeland Security to investigate Nafis' request to Southeast to transfer his school records with an eye toward answering the question of whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should have denied the request.

Given that Nafis' case remains an ongoing investigation, a spokesman for the enforcement agency declined to comment.

Emerson on Tuesday said no one should mind thorough answers to complicated questions that could have far-reaching affects on the country's 720,000 international students.

"It's not that I'm against us having international students," Emerson said. "They provide some diversity. But perhaps we're not doing careful enough scrutiny. That's worth taking a look at."

Nafis was enrolled in Southeast full-time taking prerequisite courses toward a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity during the spring semester.

But before that he had to do what every other of the 830 international students presently enrolled at Southeast had to do -- he had to apply. In a process Below and Ahmed described as nuanced, Nafis was recruited to come to Southeast in the university's efforts to maintain a diverse campus. With nearly 40 percent of Southeast's 11,000 students coming from the greater St. Louis area and another 10 percent from Illinois, only 6 percent of students here come here from 53 countries.

Ahmed makes trips to several countries and had to cut short such a trip when the news about Nafis broke. While he doesn't recall Nafis specifically, Ahmed said he is fairly certain Nafis must have attended one of the recruitment sessions when he was there last year.

Nafis did apply, but Below said that his application did not include a copy of his transcripts from his time at a private university in his home country. Below said the university does request in writing that all international applications include copies of such transcripts, but she said it is not uncommon for international students to overlook it.

She insisted that the oversight was not odd in light of what came later. She also said published reports that suggested his grades at the institution were terrible were inaccurate. She described his grades there as mediocre and noted that his initial admission to Southeast was based on his high-school grades and scores on a national exam that's similar to the ACT in the U.S.

While some have emphasized that omission, Below said that it's not uncommon for that to happen and that, in Nafis' case, it came to their attention after he had been admitted. He was immediately put on academic probation, she said. When his course work this spring was substandard -- his overall grade-point-average was below 2.0, Below said -- he was sent a letter saying he could not enroll this fall.

Nafis appealed that decision and was overruled. Shortly after, he asked the university to transfer his records to a school in Brooklyn, N.Y. That, Ahmed said, was also done in compliance with federal guidelines. Homeland Security was notified about Nafis' request in accordance with immigration rules.

But Below and Ahmed said they don't expect recruitment efforts to stall or that fewer international students will be interested in coming to Southeast.

"We have a very good reputation in a lot of different countries," Ahmed said. "I'm confident that when the numbers come out next semester, we'll be fine."


Pertinent address:

1 University Plaza, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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