HOUSTON Kamran Riaz, the Associate Dean of Students at the University of Houston, was in his office when he was asked to help in a very delicate situation.
A concerned Pakistani family had contacted the university to trace their son who had left Pakistan to pursue a degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Houston.
The university staff was baffled because they didn't offer such a specialisation nor could they locate a student by their son's name in their records.
The worried parents sent the college copies of signed admission and scholarship letters on University of Houston letterheads and a check from a bank in California.
“They were all forged,” said Kamran Riaz, who was once an international student from Pakistan at the university, and has been working in the Dean's office for the last 20 years.
“I have been put in some very awkward positions from time to time,” he added.
A few years ago, on graduation day, an angry Pakistani father stormed into his office, upset that his son's name was not announced like all the other graduates in the crowd.
His whole family had come from Pakistan to attend the graduation, with his son dressed in a graduate's cap and gown.
But according to school records, the young man had never taken a class at the university, let alone qualified for graduating with a four-year degree.
“His parents spent money, effort and time with the hope that they would see their son walk down the aisle at the convocation ceremony. And I had to tell them their son didn't graduate.” Riaz said. “I feel sorry for the families that get conned.”
The university has had to face similar problems with parents from other countries as well and there have even been a few instances of American parents being duped.
But the number for international students is much higher, because it is easier for students to deceive their parents living thousands of miles away, with an education system they are not familiar with.
One international student told his parents he was pursuing a degree in “social engineering” after transferring out of his engineering department to pursue a degree in sociology. He said as long as his Pakistani parents hear “engineering” in the title, they will pay for his tuition. They had no idea that American colleges don't offer “social engineering” degrees.
On his part, Riaz has had to step in and help his university deal with over a dozen cases of defrauded Pakistani parents in the last two decades.
He insists that the numbers seem high because the University of Houston has one of the largest Pakistani student populations in the US. This year alone there are 77 Pakistanis on student visas in attendance. When Riaz attended the University in 1984, there were as many as 160 Pakistanis.
But the question remains how many Pakistani parents send cheque after cheque for tuition without contacting their child's university, and never find out that they had been misled from thousands of miles away?
Just two weeks ago, the son of a well-known caterer in Pakistan was arrested for alleged links with Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber. News organisations around the world quoted the caterer saying that his 35-year-old son had graduated from the University of Houston with a computer science degree in 2001.
But the University of Houston did not have a record of him. Nor did any of its affiliate campuses. Slowly I sifted through a checklist of a dozen colleges in Houston, trying to find out where he spent his days while he was living in the US between 1999 and 2001.
I had already visited some of his past residences listed in public records. From what I gathered, he had moved around quite a bit in three years but he was definitely not roughing it out as a student. Most of the apartments he lived in were high-end, equipped with first-class gym facilities and well-manicured gardens.
Finally, I got a call from the Houston Community College (HCC). “He was registered as a computer science major here. But he never graduated.” Sharon Gee, who works with the student record department confirmed. “He paid tuition for four semesters, but dropped out of two.”
Before leaving for Pakistan in the spring of 2001, he had only earned enough credits for one semester of college. A regular graduate in the US has at least eight semesters under his/her belt before earning a bachelor's degree.
Most Pakistani parents don't know that community colleges in the US only grant two-year associates degrees. They can cost as low as $ 2,500 a year, significantly less than bachelor's awarding colleges, which range between $25, 000 and $40,000 a year.
According to the US government's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), the HCC is one of the top five destinations for all international students. There are currently over 700,000 such active students in the US.
After graduating from community college, some students do transfer to a four-year college to complete a bachelors degree.
“Parents in Pakistan send their children money on a regular basis. In extreme cases, even transcripts are forged,” Riaz said.
Riaz encourages parents to verify the college and degree their child is pursuing, before waving them goodbye at the airport in Pakistan.
The first step would be to check their child's visa documents. All international students must obtain an I-20 document from one of the 10,000 SEVIS accredited American institutions, before they receive an F1 student visa from the US embassy. The I-20 must mention the name of the college the student has been accepted into.
Unfortunately, according to SEVIS, each year roughly 200 certified schools go out of business or lose their accreditation. In such scenarios, international students have to transfer to another approved college and fill out a new I-20 form within 30 days to maintain their F1 visa status. Parents can stay up-to-date with their child's status by receiving college-issued transcripts every semester.
Since international students are protected under the Family Education Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) in the US, Pakistani parents need written permission from their children to access transcripts and records.
“Before you give them the tuition cheque ask them to give you authorisation to check their grades.” Riaz added as a message to parents.
The United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan reported more than 7,000 Pakistani students were studying in the US in 2006. That was a 20 per cent increase from the previous year. Although the numbers aren't out for this year, they will continue to be in the thousands.
Even though there have been some reports that Pakistani students are avoiding applying to the US in fear of a backlash post-Faisal Shahzad, the reality is that hundreds of Pakistani parents continue to dream about giving their children something they never had - a world-class education at an American institution.
Very few imagine that their child might return home with a deceptive degree or even worse, as a college dropout.