The power of connecting with international students

At this time in the year, many education institutions are in transition times: they are preparing for a major admissions cycle in autumn, and/or they are gearing up for a big intake of summer students, and/or they are saying goodbye to a crop of students who will graduate and become alumni. What’s the common element to all these periods?

Emotion. Students in all these cycles will be emotional in one form or another, whether it’s nervousness, shyness, feeling overwhelmed, excitement, or confusion (or all at once!).

During busy times like these, it can be all too easy to overlook the emotional state of students and get caught up in administration. While good administration and programme delivery is crucial – done well, it ensures institutions run properly and that students get the experience they’ve been promised – it shouldn’t overshadow the importance of connecting with students at pivotal times in their relationship with your institution.

This ICEF Monitor post suggests some questions to ask to make sure such interaction occurs. We’ll break it out into three potential student periods: Arrival, Study mode, and Departure.

Arrival: excitement and nerves

Many institutions put a lot of effort into organising fun-filled Orientation Weeks designed to highlight the social and recreational opportunities attached to the school as much as its academic reality. Fun is of course important to such weeks, but it’s just as important to acknowledge that many international students will be shy and nervous during this week.

Some ideas for helping students become more comfortable include:

  • Allow for both “mass” events – where all new students participate – and smaller, more intimate ones where students can get to know each other;
  • Provide at least one one-on-one session with an international student advisor, so students can feel comfortable asking questions they might not ask in a group;
  • Ensure there is domestic student representation in Orientation Week, and that these students (some of whom should be older students or those more familiar with the school) are chosen because of their enthusiasm in interacting with international students;
  • If possible (e.g., at a multi-year institution), have an event where upper-level international students speak to the incoming group about how they felt on first arrival and what helped them adjust;
  • Spend enough time covering academic considerations – professors’ expectations, academic support opportunities, the “culture of learning” at the school (e.g., a strong emphasis on teamwork, no plagiarism, etc.);
  • Make sure all elements of students’ lives get covered – where to go if they get sick, how to pay for things/tip, how to find out about job opportunities, what activities, clubs, or organisations they can participate in, etc.;
  • Communicate safety and emergency procedures – during a session on crisis management held at the recent NAFSA conference in St Louis, Mrs Ellen Badger, former Director of International Students & Scholar Services at Binghamton University, advised the audience: “Give students an email address and phone number in case of emergency. Display this information during orientation and literally pause for one full minute, instructing the students to enter the information into their phones at that time.”
  • If possible, have an expert discuss visa/immigration issues in one session so students can leave the session feeling they know enough to keep their study permits valid and how to work toward immigration if that is desired;
  • Make room for the student’s home culture: design one event where they can showcase something beautiful (or yummy!) from their culture;
  • Most of all, make it abundantly clear that Orientation Week is not the end of how the school will support them – list all the resources (several times and ways) they can access throughout their study period for help with any questions or problems.

For additional advice, the European Association for International Education (EAIE) has a nice post about designing Orientation Weeks.

Study mode: checking in

As international students become more accustomed to their school and the local environment, the jitters of arrival will give way to routine – but also to different sources of stress that need to be addressed. Here are some questions the institution should ask and find ways of resolving:

  • How well is the student adapting to the academic/language programme?
  • Is he/she making enough friends? Or is the student isolated because of trouble adjusting to the culture? There is an excellent publication by the Government of Australia that showcases good institutional practice in assisting international students to integrate with their host community – it’s worth checking out for any international institution.
  • How is the student doing with finances? Is this a source of stress? If so, is there anything that can be done to help?
  • Is the student studying too hard, and not finding enough ways of releasing? Maybe there are ways of introducing Games Nights, Culture Evenings, Yogathons (or other fun ways of exercising), or International Music Nights to help them relax a little. Some schools provide free cookies and coffee as a gesture of support during exam periods – a nice idea.
  • Has the student come in for a one-on-one meeting with an international student advisor of late? If not, try to get him or her in to make sure everything is okay.

Departure: maintaining ties

Your international students are leaving your school, and possibly the country. It’s time to thank them and assure them that the school supports them even after they have graduated.

First things first: ensure the school website has a dedicated section just for alumni. Swansea University in Wales, UK provides a first-rate example of what such a section can accomplish. It can:

  • Celebrate successful alumni;
  • Allow alumni to keep up to date with news and events;
  • Enable them to network with other alumni for professional opportunities.

Ideally, it would also provide links to professional development resources and articles, and contain a blog where alumni can contribute posts about what they are doing. Facebook pages dedicated to alumni are also a good idea: see Zurich International School.

Next, some alumni don’t have to be alumni! What means are at your disposal to encourage students to proceed on to higher level (e.g., graduate) or additional (e.g., language, technology, marketing) courses? Some institutions are even providing cash incentives to go toward the next level of study for alumni.

Whatever the case, this is a time for celebration. Gather soon-to-be alumni together for tasteful, well-resourced parties and events that make them feel special going out into the wider world as individuals, but also as potential brand advocates for your school. Think of video and picture-taking opportunities that can be shared and built upon. Provide other elegant mementos of the school.

This is also a time to check in with soon-to-be-leaving students to see how they are feeling.

A heart-to-heart with a trusted advisor could be important now, as could a special series of sessions on job-finding skills (e.g., creating resumes, developing professional networks, how to be a successful intern, etc.).

Alumni will be eager to put their newfound knowledge and skills from your school to work in the real world, but they may also be nervous about finding their way for a while. Career counselling and directing them to useful professional networks will be much appreciated – and remembered.

Finally, empower those alumni who have expressed high satisfaction with their experience at your institution: allow them to actively recruit on the school’s behalf. Such activity is not just valuable to the school, but can be a comforting and rewarding occupation for alumni who are just at the beginning of their careers.

Students will remember connections more than anything

In international education as in every service sector, success is most reliant upon fulfilling the customer’s basic human wants and needs. Creating and building upon a successful international programme respects the student in all his or her facets – academic and personal – and considers the student before admission, when admitted, and in the rest of their lives post-graduation.



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