How to champion the international student experience from admission to graduation
An international student’s experience at your institution can be very positive with mindful handling every step of the way, says Preeti Aghalayam
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Increasing diversity in student cohorts is very much on the agenda for many higher education institutions. International students are common on the campuses of most top-ranked universities and colleges, participating in both short-term exchanges and full-time degree programmes. While the challenges for institutions are many, students themselves often struggle with procedural aspects related to visa documentation, fee payments and inclusion into the campus community.
During initial forays into internationalisation, some elements of best practice are important to keep in mind for institutions. In this article, I will discuss specific measures international offices can take to engender a great student experience, allowing students to focus on academic excellence.
Touch base before they arrive on campus
Once an applicant has been admitted into a programme at your institution, typically, they receive a number of standard communications from administration about fee payment, dates and procedures for joining and so on. But a couple of personalised emails from international office staff with practical tips on navigating the arrival on campus can go a long way in making students feel comfortable. Moreover, an online “ask me anything” (AMA) session is extremely handy, as it not only gives incoming international students a local contact but also helps efficiently answer their queries.
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Make their first day pleasantly memorable
First impressions last. Arranging an informal event on day one and providing a well-written brochure on local mores, campus slang/language, nearby attractions and a detailed map of the campus are critical. Contact information including emergency and medical services, visa and other administrative procedures should also be prominently displayed. Of course, institution-branded merchandise is hugely popular, and T-shirts in the school colours, along with pens, key holders or other small items tend to make freshers happy and help engender a sense of belonging.
Conduct periodic pulse checks
After the first few weeks of euphoria, international students can start to feel a sort of mid-term blues or disconnect. It is important that the communication channels are kept open, perhaps via an open-office session one evening every month. It is best to identify students with academic issues right at the start and provide them support (via tutors, for example). Typically, the challenges stem from a lack of understanding of the expectations of instructors, particularly in exams. Regular pulse checks help diagnose and solve problems effectively.
Foster cultural immersion activities
A local flavour – be it food, music or theatre, is an imperative component of education. Apart from academics, students need exposure to the best that new cities or countries have to offer to them, and cultural immersion activities are important as we encourage students to become global citizens. A sampling of interesting foods, a participatory experience of dance/theatre or sports activities of various sorts can be leveraged to enrich student experience overall.
Create networking opportunities
While the degree that students earn at the end of their tenure has great value, the learning and education they receive at any higher education institution goes well beyond that. Peer-to-peer networks, particularly at residential campuses, are formed easily, whereas opportunities to spend time outside the classroom with senior students, alumni or even potential future employers are few and far between. Creating conferences, workshops or fairs to facilitate such interactions is an important way to enhance the quality of student experience.
Give them a chance to contribute
Students are almost always keen to give back to the institution and community. As alumni, they are the best ambassadors for your institution’s brand. But even during their tenure as students, they can participate as tutors and mentors to those who may need such assistance. Furthermore, international students are also good resources for institutions to learn more about the education systems in their home countries and how to fine-tune the university’s marketing strategy and admission processes. Try to ensure that students have opportunities to participate in the activities of the international office in small yet effective ways.
It is a welcome development that some students are able to access various academic programmes and exchange opportunities at universities abroad. Diverse cohorts enrich learning all round, and institutions can provide great opportunities that fit student interests, harness institutional expertise and create a global workforce of the highest quality.
In selecting where they choose to study, academically inclined and high-performing students typically look for high standards of education, competitive tuition fees and scholarships and a convenient location. However, even institutions that can provide all these have to work hard at ensuring productive student experiences, where challenges are embraced and excellent performance is a byword.
Particularly for those institutions taking the first steps into internationalisation, several important processes and practices should be in place. A caring and well-intentioned international office handling students all the way from admission to graduation serves an important need of the international student community.
Preeti Aghalayam is professor in chemical engineering at IIT Madras in India. She leads efforts in curated postgraduate academic programmes for international students at the university’s Office of Global Engagement.
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