By Kandy Turner, Director of International Student Services and Programs and Study Abroad and Dr. Denise Gifford, Associate Provost for Global Engagement and Dean of Students for Widener University in Pennsylvania.
As the number of U.S. high school students stagnates, universities are looking to international students to fill the seats. However, competition is high, and international students are savvy customers who weigh the options in the U.S. and abroad. More countries are entering the global higher education market and enticing students away from the U.S., and other countries, like those in the Middle East, are cutting back on scholarships abroad and opening more institutions at home. The latest Open Doors report shows that first-time international enrollees are down 3% from 2016 (Open Doors, 2018), and all signs point to this being a trend that will continue. A perceived lack of U.S. professional opportunities post-graduation for International student graduates will likely accelerate the downturn, particularly with tightened immigration regulations looming. Therefore, a focus on retention of every International student is critical.
Institutions have long measured retention rates vis-à -vis Tinto’s Theory of Departure (1975) but only recently have they begun looking at retention rates for international students. Literature on the needs of international students are plentiful, but research on how institutions are meeting those needs are scant. Services for international students historically meant basic immigration advising, orientation, and perhaps some help adjusting to the culture and life in the U.S., and, if they were lucky, the occasional outing. Fortunately, universities are beginning to expand their services to provide more support for academic writing and adjustment to U.S. classroom culture, peer mentoring and other programs to connect new international students with current international or domestic students, help understanding medical insurance, a wide array of social activities, and even support for spouses and families. However, even this is not enough. It is crucial to develop allies among colleagues and students on campus who understand and embrace international students and can help create a broadly welcoming campus climate. The challenge is that current staff and faculty may have limited international experience and limited involvement with international students, and therefore may not be quick to buy-in to the need to provide additional or altered services to this population. For a variety of reasons, many outstanding professors may have had little global exposure, and this lack of experience by faculty may cause them to, unintentionally, not understand the challenges inherent in speaking and studying in a second or third language amidst adapting and residing in a totally new culture. University staff also may have limited International experience and can be less comfortable with International students outside of the necessary but limited professional interaction. Creating a mix of opportunities for campus community members to interact with students from outside our borders is the foundation of creating International campus allies.
International Student Retention is a Campus-Wide Responsibility
At Widener, creating allies for our International students starts with a message that retention is everyone’s job and retention is the goal of every meeting with every student, something the university’s president emphasizes regularly. In student affairs, retention efforts have focused on connecting international students to the university throughout of class activities, time with faculty and staff outside the classroom, and connections with U.S. peers. The Office of International Student Services (ISS) staffed with a Director, an Assistant Director, and part-time secretary hosts over 30 programs a semester. Participation is not limited to international students; in fact, U.S. students are encouraged to attend, mingle and develop friendships with the international students during these programs. In past years, domestic students at Widener missed out on the opportunity to mix with International students in out-of-class activities whereas now every program is planned for a mix of domestic and International students so that each become more culturally adept by interacting with the other.
Student International Allies: E-Mentor Program and Orientation Group Interface
The creation of campus allies is intentional and starts before the students even arrive with an e-mentor program. Current students, international and domestic, are paired with incoming students, a student peer mentor, with whom they communicate regularly over the summer. Those conversations often result in strong friendships that continue into the students’ lives on campus. At the on-campus orientation, the international students join two other pre-orientation programs which draw primarily domestic students. They attend a picnic together and meet the same groups again during Welcome Week for a lunch cruise along the Delaware River. The students from these pre-Orientation programs; Project Lead and 1821 Experience are prepped by their staff leaders, the Office of Civic Engagement and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, to engage with the international students. Students in each group are new to the university and merging these diverse groups early seems a natural fit, and everyone benefits. The local students, many of whom have never left the metro area, become more aware of the world, and the international students have a peer to help them navigate the transition. By spending time with the international students, the local students become allies in the effort to internationalize the campus. They tend to spread the word, bring their friends to events, and introduce more U.S. students to the international students. International students are also encouraged to attend events sponsored by Student Life and other departments, and the Office of International Students sends out a weekly e-newsletter with a list of events happening around campus and in the community. Other departments benefit from the free advertising, and the international students are more likely to attend because the ISS office encouraged them to do so.
Campus Staff and Faculty: Allies Created by Anywhere PA
One of the strongest ally building programs ISS offers is a signature, high impact practice program called “Anywhere PA.” Keenly aware that most international students never set foot inside an American home, ISS staff decided to ask some of their colleagues if they would be willing to host a small group of international students in their home and then show them around their community. Staff and faculty on campus who had already shown support for the international community were the first to agree. The results were fantastic. The students relished the glimpse into U.S. daily life—particularly the pets and children of the Widener employee—and enjoyed exploring different sections of Philadelphia and the suburbs. Students participate in whatever the family typically finds enjoyable during evening and weekend hours. Activities have included watching a Phillies game with family members while cheering along with the group and eating traditional game day snack fare. Decorating picture frames with glue guns and décor items from the region was the activity at another home where crafts are a common activity and when finished students posed for a group picture with the host and inserted it in their handmade frame for a permanent memento of the day. All in all, the faculty and staff appreciate hosting the students in their homes and getting to know them. It allows them to be on a personal name basis with a group of International students, but it also makes them better allies. The program has continued to expand. More and more faculty and staff have served as hosts with equally positive results. Now, ISS staff plugs the “Anywhere PA” program at every available opportunity, and there is a waitlist of faculty and staff eager to participate in future years.
Increased Campus Allies Fuel Enhanced International Focus
Broader conversations are beginning across campus, and more stakeholders are coming to the table. This year Widener internally formed an International Taskforce with faculty and administrators across campus to work on projects related to international students and education aboard efforts on campus. Membership is pulled broadly around campus and includes student affairs, enrollment management, admissions, faculty, and graduate programs. The goals of the task force are twofold: to work on projects related to internationalization and to spread the word about international initiatives already happening on campus. Education abroad experiences for students are expanding as U.S. students increasingly expect to have a global or cultural experience as part of their undergraduate education. Widener recently joined the National Student Exchange which offers opportunities for exchange within the U.S. (including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands) and Canada. For a student who is attending university within 50 miles of their Pennsylvania home, a semester experience at a university in Montana or Arizona can be an extraordinarily different cultural experience, albeit still within the US. The ISS Director, who also serves as the study abroad coordinator, is developing an enhanced offering of semester-long study abroad programs, and the Office of Global Engagement, headed by the Dean of Students, is offering more support for faculty to do faculty-led short-term programs, including to a Widener-owned property in Costa Rica. These efforts are crucial to recruitment and retention efforts.
Students retain at institutions where they feel supported and that they matter, and as tuition prices continue to rise, students are expecting more services in exchange for the price tag. At Widener, the retention of every International student is the goal, and this means ensuring the personal touch, supporting each students, listening to them, improving and modifying services and programs to meet their educational and developmental goals, and building allies across campus to ensure we have a welcoming international climate during this challenging time.
Kandy Turner is Director of International Student Services and Programs and Study Abroad at Widener University in Pennsylvania . Kandy has 12 years of experience in International Education. She serves as PDSO/RO, coordinator of the National Student Exchange, and adviser for international students and scholars as well as study abroad students. Kandy is pursuing her doctoral degree in Higher Education Leadership, and her dissertation focuses on international student identity development.
Dr. Denise Gifford joined Associate Provost for Global Engagement and Dean of Students for Widener University in Pennsylvania in 2010 upon her return from International Student Affairs work in the Middle East. Previously she served as the first woman Dean of Students at Zayed University dedicated to the higher education of Emirati women located in Dubai & Abu Dhabi. Her Ed.D is in Political Higher Education Policy & Evaluation, University of Kentucky and is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.
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