SEVIS stands for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. It is an online database that tracks the status and information of foreign students and visitors in the US. SEVIS is administered by SEVP (Student and Exchange Visistor Program) underneath ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) which is one of the branches of the Department of Homeland Security.
The visas handled on SEVIS are F, M, and J visas, all nonimmigrant visa categories. F visas are issued to students coming to the US for a "full course of study." These students are going to include people coming to language schools and people going to universities to get a four year degree. The M visa is a non-academic vocational visa which is usually issued for a much shorter period and is much less flexible than an F visa. For example, it cannot be extended. J visa is the exchange student visa but it covers pretty much everything else. Lots and lots of things fit under J.
SEVIS is a new system, coming into existence after 9/11. The system helps automate the formerly paper-based system for issuing visa-related paperwork. As someone who has worked with F student records in both the pre and post SEVIS eras, I can definitely say that this system speeds up the process considerably since you can process the routine paperwork onsite. It also allows for student information to be updated and tracked more closely since SEVIS records can be accessed by officials at the point of entry at airports. It is much easier to find students who have fallen through the cracks.
The information which is stored on SEVIS about an F student includes name, both domestic and foreign address, program information, the student's financial information, dependent information, and current record status.
Sometimes there is a problem with the student's record and when that happens and it's not something that you can fix yourself, it's time to call the godlike SEVIS Help Desk. The Help Desk can answer almost any question and they can also implement a SEVIS data fix. With a wave of their hand, a data fix can solve almost any problem with a record, but unfortunately low-priority data fixes can take up to six months to go through. So, it's just more incentive to pay a unhealthy amount of attention to detail when working with the system.
If you work with SEVIS and have a login name, you probably are a DSO (Designated School Official). These are the people who work with SEVIS at schools and if you are one, you probably already know everything I'm talking about. There is a national organization for DSO and other people that work with the bureaucratic side of helping students study in the US: NAFSA (National Association of Foreign Student Advisors). If you find yourself in a DSO position and aren't going to regular NAFSA meetings, look into it because there is a lot of information to be learned through them.
And with that, I think we've all had enough of all these acronyms. But even though it's acronym-riffic and full of lots of government-speak, SEVIS is a great system that actually does what it's supposed to: make the information about students in the US more accessible and more accurate.