The Cautionary Tale of Tri-Valley’s ‘Sham University’

On January 20, Happy Schools blog reported receiving this email:

I recently joined Trivalley University 1 week back and took a CPT I20. I was on OPT extension before this. I heard the news that there was a raid on Tri Valley University. What should I do now?

This student was one of about 1,500 foreign nationals, almost exclusively from India, who had entered the US as students of Tri-Valley University (TVU) in Pleasanton, California, and who were left without a school (and without a visa) after immigration officials raided the school’s property and shut it down.

Tri-Valley University, and its founder, Susan Su, are accused of running a “sham university” that helped foreign nationals illegally enter the U.S. on student immigration status, and of making millions of dollars in tuition fees.

The students who “attended” the school are being investigated and some have been issued radio tags so that immigration officials can track their movements.  The issue has been raised in discussions between the Indian and U.S. governments, with both sides pledging to cooperate to resolve the status of affected students.

But how much did TVU students know?  Were they the victims of a scam or did they purposely commit visa fraud?

The Telugu Association of North America, an organization for Indians in America, has set up a petition for TVU students to sign, in which they claim:

  1. “We genuinely believed that the University and its method of working had been blessed by the U.S. federal government, including DHS and ICE.
  2. We are new to the country and culture and just getting acclimatized with the system here was an uphill climb for most of us.
  3. Many of us have invested a substantial portion of our parents’ lifetime savings and taken a huge leap of faith by traveling half way across the world to study in the U.S. based on the SEVP program endorsing the University.”

India’s Business Standard reported on the distress of the students’ families back home and many Indian news outlets reported that the students had been “duped.”

But there is also evidence that some students may have been complicit.  More than 95% of students were from India, and specifically from the region of  Andra Pravesh, and students were given financial incentives to enroll their friends at the school.

In addition, according to the complaint filed against the school, more than half of the students reported living in one apartment in Sunnyvale, California, allegedly to conceal that most of the students did not actually live in California at all.  The students were attending 100% of their classes online, which is not allowed under an F-1 visa.

Blogger UberDesi writes:

Do I sound unsympathetic? That’s because I am. I have plenty of friends and relatives who all struggled to get here on F1 visas. They did it the right way . They scrimped and saved and took the GRE/GMAT and applied to Universities and got transcripts and recommendation letters and stood in line to meet unsympathetic Visa officers and sweated and waited till they got their F1s. Then they arrived here and struggled with unfamiliar surroundings and reduced circumstances but worked themselves legally through college and then sweated it out again waiting for H1 sponsors. Hell, there were those who lived through the recession and were forced to leave for the des sooner than they expected to because their Visas ran out. But they did it and did it the RIGHT WAY. … So  I have no sympathy for either Susan Su or the students – both  thought they could get away with it.

The Link offers many more examples of red flags in the way TVU did business, and writes, “The growing sense among officials and even the Indian community is that many students knew what they were getting into but still risked it.”

Whether or not the students knew what they were getting into is not for us to say.  But what is clear is that if students didn’t know something was amiss, they probably should have.  It’s yet another example of what we’ve said before – ALWAYS DO YOUR RESEARCH, especially when there’s money involved.

In this case, the warning signs were definitely there for any student willing to Google.  The school’s website has been called a “hack job” due to its poor design and poor English.  Even TVU’s own explanation of the current situation is  riddled with grammatical errors.

Unfortunately, the university has suffered with a “Sham” accusation and investigation by the ICE on the legitimacy of its F1 students’ attendance, starting on Jan 19th, 2011. The “Sham” investigation causes “earthquake” damages to the university. Many TVU students who attend TVU’s class and work at different states in the US are receiving ankle bands not to monitor their class attendance but their every single movement, claimed by the US government it is “Hot” and “Trendy”

Plus, an online search reveals that many message boards warned students against the university.  “If you use a “degree” from them for any immigration purpose, it would be fraud.  You can also NOT use OPT or CPT from them. Any such use would be fraud,” reads one response to a thread about TVU.

Anything like that should certainly be enough to make a prospective student dig deeper to find out the real story on the university before they fork over huge sums of money.  App2US offers a checklist of more signs that something’s not quite right.

Meantime, U.S. immigration has set up a hotline for former Tri-Valley students to find out their options, which the Indian embassy says will include:

(i) Report to ICE to be processed for voluntary departure from the United States.  This option allows them to leave under their own power on a day of their choosing, to remain in the United States without fear of being arrested while waiting to depart, and keeps their immigration history clean.
(ii) Depart the United States on their own;
(iii) File for re-instatement with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Have you or someone you know been affected by this or other visa scams?  Share your story in the comments or by emailing jstahl@voanews.com.