WHEN Ishtiaque Zaman decided he wanted to study in the United States, it took two years and the approval of his country's president for his request to go through. But in the eyes of this 26-year-old Bangladeshi, the wait was well worth it.
Sitting on sun-warmed steps amid students of perhaps a dozen nationalities at the University of Southern California (USC) campus here, the master's candidate in international relations speaks candidly of his first few months in the US, and of his goals for assisting his country once he returns home.
''I felt that in getting my admission I was treated with the rough end of the stick,'' he says, with a bit of British inflection apparent in his accent. But he adds proudly: ''Now, I'm doing the best in my class.''
Mr. Zaman, in the US since January, says, ''I'm very happy here.'' But there is no doubt in his mind that before he reaches 30, he'll be back in his country working for the government, where he was employed as a civil servant before leaving. He expects to work in the foreign service or perhaps in improving the educational system.
Ishtiaque Zaman is one of some 350,000 foreign students studying at more than 2,500 colleges and universities throughout the US. They began coming here in waves after World War II - first primarily from Europe, then more recently in greater numbers from the world's developing nations.
They come for a variety of reasons: Often their countries do not offer comparable levels of study in their chosen field; many hope the prestige of a US diploma will be a ticket to a high-paying or prominent post back home; others want to learn English, or experience what they consider to be the world's dominant culture; for some, it's a way to gain permanent residence here.
Whatever the reasons, their numbers continue to grow.
During the mid-1970s the year-to-year increases were so high that some observers predicted there would be 1 million foreigners studying at US institutions by 1990. That prognostication seems greatly overblown now, since the international economic downturn and a strong dollar have teamed up to put an American education out of the reach of many foreigners and their strapped governments. (As for Iran and Libya, sharp drops in the number of US-bound students result from political friction.)
The ranks of foreign students grew by only 3.3 percent last year from 1982, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York. This seems a mere trickle after the double-digit percentage increases of the mid-'70 s. Despite their large numbers, however, foreign students have rarely been a focus of national attention or policy - unless the motivation was negative.
''To a very large extent the foreign student has gone unnoticed, except when there are problems,'' says Robert Kaplan, professor of applied linguistics at USC and outgoing president of the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs. ''Most schools have encouraged the presence of foreign students, because it's assumed they give the campus an international flavor, because it's seen as a nice thing to do, or, frankly, because they fill vacant seats. But in most cases policy has been nonexistent or has developed like Topsy.''
Most Americans remember - many with anger - the scenes of Iranian students parading in support of Ayatollah Khomeini and their compatriots who had overrun the US Embassy in Tehran. Later, Libyan students were banned from certain technical courses after Libyan and American planes clashed over the Mediterranean. More recently, the Defense Department has sought to keep foreign graduate students from taking part in research in what it considers sensitive fields.
But, for the majority of foreign students, the effective policy has been one of benign neglect. On college campuses from Florida to California, foreign-student advisers say they do not have the staff needed to serve foreign students as they believe they should. Often, at the larger colleges, there is just one such adviser for a foreign population that surpasses the total enrollment of many small colleges. Few schools have paid enough attention to the issue to determine an optimal number of foreign students to accept.
For the student, college life can be bewildering in a country whose literature speaks grandly of open doors and international interests, but where everyday life may tell quite another story. Staff is most often untrained to meet the foreigner's special needs, while faculty and students often express indifference at his presence, annoyance at his lack of English proficiency, or even animosity over his high marks or teaching assistantship.
As one Bahamian student said, while waiting recently to try to transfer credits from a school in North Carolina to his new school in Florida, ''It's so frustrating not knowing how the system works here. I thought bureaucracy was bad back in my country, but this is amazing.''
The lack of clear-cut policies was so blatant in the eyes of two university professors - Crauford Goodwin of Duke and Michael Nacht of Harvard - who studied the issue of foreign students for IIE, that they entitled their report ''Absence of Decision.''
A number of campus officials interviewed for this series say they think their schools are beginning to give foreign students more of the attention they need. At Florida International University in Miami, for example, foreign students are now required to take a one-term orientation session to help them understand American culture and institutions.
But others say that even an ''absence of decision'' might be preferable to some of the proposed policies that could adversely affect foreign students. Some state legislatures are considering charging foreign students the full price of their public-school education (most now charge out-of-state tuition). The Immigration and Naturalization Service is beginning to keep closer tabs on foreign students. And Congress is scheduled to begin debate next month on an immigration bill, the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, that would require foreign students to leave the United States after they completed their program. The law would also forbid foreign students who completed one degree from continuing to study for a higher diploma without first returning home for at least two years.
Such a law would prevent Ishtiaque Zaman from continuing at USC for his doctorate, as he now hopes to do, and would, no doubt, make America a much less attractive place to study, in the eyes of many foreigners.
Tomorrow: why American Schools need foreign students Countries with the most students in the US Iran 26,760 Taiwan 20,770 Nigeria 20,710 Venezuela 15,490 Malaysia 14,070 Canada 14,020 India 13,610 Japan 12,890 Republic of Korea 11,360 Saudi Arabia 9,250