As see in The PIE…
(In addition to Larry Kuiper and Rick Rattray, Mark Grace, the former Senior Director of Academic Affairs at NAFSA has contributed to this post.)
Under the circumstances of past few weeks, it’s almost hard to imagine a calm time when international students will once again be returning to campuses in the US, but odds are that time will come. So when the dust settles on COVID-19 priorities, it may be a great time to review your university’s practices related to international student services.
In our previous installments in this series we’ve asserted that if you’ve been at all considering a pathway partnership, you likely are doing so to address some level of perceived underperformance in your international approach and are considering outside support to bridge particular gaps. Our assertion throughout this process is that for many institutions a pathway provider may not be a viable approach, yet there are excellent practices you can adopt that mirror those of the most successful institutions with such partnerships.
Elements of Success – Int’l Student-Friendly Services
To enhance the International Student experience on your campus, it can useful to mirror some of your campus practices for outgoing study abroad students. Study abroad offices not only spend much time preparing students prior to their arrival at destination, but they also devote many resources to ensuring that outbound students have abundant resources for adaptation and success when they arrive at their destinations. Casting the inbound international student as someone “studying abroad” on your campus can be a guide to fostering high levels of success for these students, and also indirectly enhancing recruitment efforts.
First impressions are important for all relationships, but this is particularly true for with international students arriving on your campus for the first time. Starting well means tailoring concierge services for international students according to their country of origin, level of study, and fluency in English.
Many such services are relatively low-cost but have a potentially strong impact on your institution’s ability to retain new students and attract future students. Having a university sponsored airport pick-up plan for international students is impactful, because it offers important help to students at a time when they are feeling most vulnerable: having just left their home country (often for the first time), traveled a great distance (sometimes as much as 24 hours in planes), and arrived in a place that is unfamiliar both culturally and linguistically. Showing that the university cares enough about them to make them feel safe during this vulnerable time will be an important message. Along with airport pickup it is important to have arrangements with student housing. International students often arrive at very odd hours, and international offices need the cooperation of university housing units to make sure that arrival is as seamless as possible, by ensuring – no matter the time of day or night – the availability of rooms fully equipped with linens and other basic necessities, as well as a small meal if possible.
International student orientations can be a useful tool for helping students adapt to their new environment. The more these orientations can be tailored to individual student needs and/or interests, the better. It is common practice to survey students after an orientation to gauge the level of orientation success. This information can be used to improve on the next year’s orientation but cannot undo missed opportunities after the fact. Contacting students well prior to orientation with a survey-style questionnaire can help to determine ahead of time if new or different orientation sessions need to be included. And engaging international student ambassadors in orientation planning sessions with a formal “devil’s advocate” role can enable creative thinking and uncover “blind spots” in the overall experience. If the orientation is understandable and better fits student expectations, while also outlining mandatory institutional and governmental compliance concerns, then it will immediately make students feel more connected. Combining campus orientations with start-of-the-semester activities – some designed specifically for international students, and some for the entire campus – is also a good way to help students feel more welcome and connected immediately.
Getting started well is key, but it effectively helps get your international students to the very basic bottom tier of Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” Long-term success requires support that moves international students further up the hierarchy, and it will be important to follow up on the immediate connection at arrival with continued opportunities for cultural immersion and community connectedness. If the proactive outreach of the first few weeks decreases precipitously, it can have the same let-down effect as a poorly serviced student arrival, just delayed. And to quote our colleague, Mark Chase, a past Director at NAFSA, “engagement and connectedness remain important factors in determining student success well beyond the initial stages.”
Not long ago, proactive outreach was virtually unknown on large university campuses, and many made impassioned cases that college students were adults and should be allowed to “sink or swim” on their own. In more recent years, the power of proactive monitoring and targeted outreach has taken hold, backed by extensive data, studies, and practical success.
The Unsung Merits of Student Ambassadors
With every institution with whom we’ve partnered in the past, international student ambassadors were a known, but underutilized, resource for international students. They represent a tremendously cost-effective resource for your institution to use frequently, as they are the first interactions international students have on your campus. They can be trained to spot warning signs of depression or distancing. International students want American friends, and in repeated studies, many don’t have the number of American friends that they want. We’ve found that retention rate for international students is more closely correlated with having more than 2 American friends than it was with entering GPA.
Your International student ambassadors should represent a cross-section of the student population and be used to help international students make those American friends that are one of the reasons they came to US. Also as part of that cross-section, there should be a number of international students more experienced with your campus. These students who have already obtained a certain level of success, can be seen as role models by new international students, and also have important perspectives on the unique challenges international students face on your campus. It is also a good idea to have this subset of your international student ambassadors mirror by country as closely as possible the international student population already on your campus.
Providing Focus to OPT/CPT
In addition to merely supporting students’ OPT/CPT, institutions need to ensure they’re bridging the gaps unique to International students in job searches and performance. Often in our experience the resources of the career center go un-accessed by International students because of cultural gaps and lack of orientation to international students’ needs; this can lead to poor student preparation and poor employer experiences. In the end, investment in this area pays huge dividends to all constituents.
The business Case
When staring at future declines in enrollment, the merits of improved student retention can be overlooked. A study conducted by NAFSA found a number of common causes for international student attrition as shown in the figure below. The high-touch, engaged programming we’ve described can address several of these issues, making a testable case for ROI for the investment. Simple math for many institutions with is that for every 1% gain in retention, an institution compensates for an enrollment decrease of ~3%/yr.
We’re entering a new normal in international student programming, and with that we’ll see new opportunities and challenges to recruit and retain international students in ways that benefits campus communities, international & domestic students, global markets, and society as a whole. And while the earth is shifting tremendously under our feet right now, certain foundational aspects of international student success will remain the same. With observation and emulation of best practices both within and outside the traditional postsecondary education sector, we believe institutions can find tremendous opportunities using their own resources.