Traveling lecturers--a practical approach to global outreach

April 10, 2007
The OSA Foundation is working to expand its funding for traveling lecturers in developing nations.

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Many students from developing nations find foreign travel to be difficult, if not impossible, because of travel restrictions and/or lack of funds. These individuals often wish to participate in technical conferences hosted by scientific societies such as the Optical Society of America (OSA), and request help in securing a visa or financial support. It's frustrating for all parties, in that the process to obtain a travel visa can be time-consuming and for the most part controlled of the traveler's country of residence. Funding support can be a challenge as well, but at least host organizations are able to give requestors definitive answers.

In the case of the OSA Foundation, the fundamental goals are to assist students in developing nations to advance their technical knowledge and cultivate professional careers. Funding student travel to conferences is certainly an important way to achieve those ends, but many students are unable to travel to the U.S. and therefore alternatives are needed.

One successful approach taken by nonprofits is to fund traveling lecturers. The OSA program serves its worldwide network of student chapters and local sections, allowing each to request a distinguished speaker annually. OSA and the OSA Foundation provide financial support.

This is a highly effective program that offers many benefits. Visa restrictions are generally not a problem for those traveling to developing nations, and because guest speakers address groups of attendees, they can make a larger impact than programs that subsidize individual student travelers. Whenever possible, the OSA staff works with the speakers and their in-country hosts to arrange additional presentations to nearby university groups or professional organizations. At the conclusion of a trip, the lecturer and host are asked to submit summary reports, which provide highlights of the topics discussed and ideas exchanged. The professional networking aspects of the visit are also addressed; building relationships is clearly one of the most valuable and lasting outcomes of these activities.

This program has been so successful that the OSA Foundation is now working to expand its funding for chapters and sections in developing nations. Efforts to stay connected and provide electronic resources are increasing rapidly. Podcasts, shared databases, and chat forums are just a few of the ways OSA is bridging communities and disseminating materials. To learn more about these programs, please visit: or contact me directly at [email protected].

Background on visitor and student visas

The U.S. Department of State Web site provides information about travel visas ( ). The following are some key points from the State Department's site:

Students who are traveling to the U.S. primarily for tourism, but who want to take a short course of study of less than 18 hours per week, may be able to do so on a visitor visa and are advised to inquire at the appropriate U.S. Embassy or Consulate. If the course of study is more than 18 hours a week, the student will need a student visa. The "EducationUSA" Web site created by the Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is a helpful resource for information on educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate study, opportunities for scholars, financial aid, testing, admissions, and much more.

In most countries, first-time student visa applicants are required to appear for an in-person interview. However, each embassy and consulate sets its own interview policies and procedures regarding student visas. Students should consult Embassy Web sites or call for specific application instructions.

June, July, and August are the busiest months in most consular sections, and interview appointments are the most difficult to get during that period. Students need to plan ahead to avoid having to make repeat visits to the embassy. To the extent possible, students should bring the requisite documents, as well as any other materials that might help establish their ties to the local community.

Changes introduced shortly after September 11, 2001, involve extensive and ongoing review of visa issuing practices as they relate to U.S. security. It is important that students apply for a visa well in advance of their travel departure date.

Grace Klonoski is the senior director of OSA Foundation and Member & Education Services for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; e-mail [email protected];

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