Making an international mark
Photos by Evan Krape, courtesy of Xander Opiyo, Song Hoffman, Renee Koerner, The International Knowledge Center & Gen Next Education December 03, 2018
Globetrotting admissions team sparks students’ dreams
To some, a 16-nation tour squeezed into four short months would seem ambitious. For Song Hoffman, Erin Bastien and Renee Koerner — the University of Delaware’s international admissions team —it’s business as usual.
Mexico. Poland. Thailand. The newly established team will have visited those and 13 more countries at the close of their fall itinerary this year, stopping on nearly every continent in their quest to diversify and grow UD’s international student population. In some cases, they’re developing new recruitment markets. Other times, they’re strengthening existing ones.
It also means gaining a great sense of satisfaction — both for helping UD expand its global perspective and for helping these international students reach their dreams.
“I have been in this industry for 20 years, and the moment that excites me most is when I see students whom I have helped in the past grow and progress, getting a bachelor’s degree and moving on to do graduate studies or start working somewhere,” said Hoffman, who is from Beijing and also studied and worked in Australia. “I saw a nursing student who struggled in the beginning and four years later, had a job at a local hospital, and a baby, too! The pride on his face was the ultimate reward.”
There are currently over 900 international undergraduate students enrolled at UD, the majority of them Chinese. While China will remain a primary market, by expanding and diversifying the global student pipeline, these recruiters’ efforts will ultimately enhance learning for all, said Doug Zander, executive director for the Office of Admissions.
“International students bring their life experiences and perspectives into our campus, enriching the environment for everyone,” said Zander. “Having a global perspective is a critical aspect of becoming well educated.”
Traveling is the easy part, explained Hoffman, who provides the recruitment framework and guides the team. It’s the strategizing and planning that can be challenging. Hoffman explained that the staff must keep pace with international trends and policies. “Every country requires a different approach,” she said.
For countries like China, where there are delicate relationships and customs to consider, Hoffman sends UD senior level administrators to visit Chinese education leaders at various venues throughout the year. In other countries, like Greece or Turkey, where relationships may be just budding, she and her team develop a plan for building connections and following up with contacts.
For the students, the recruiters can help make a complex and confusing decision that much easier, even helping them understand the value they would bring to an American campus.
“They may think it’s a disadvantage to apply as an international student,” explained Bastien, who recruits in Latin America, Western Europe and Mexico. “I tell them that it’s actually desired to have diversity of thought. They don’t realize that is something they are going to be able to contribute to campus.”
Many students are fascinated to discover the flexibility of the U.S. curriculum and the opportunities for experiential learning, approaches that are rarely embraced in other countries. So when they hear about UD, the students are thrilled by the prospect of interacting with professors, being challenged to solve problems through research, and the ability to customize their study. They see a chance to expand career choices, get the best education possible and learn alongside the brightest people in the world.
“The ability as a 17-year-old to come to a university and explore, with guidance, is something that is only offered in the U.S.,” Bastien said.
“When I talk about the teaching style at UD and the opportunities and what their life would be like, their eyes light up,” said Koerner, who recruits in India and the Middle East. “They are so excited — it’s like you’re changing their life that day.”
Joy Orume, who is from Nigeria, came to UD this fall. An honors biochemistry major, she plans to go to medical school. Orume had never been to the United States, and while she was anxious about living so far from home, she knew she needed an exceptional education to reach her dream of becoming a doctor.
With her strong grades in high school, Orume likely could have studied anywhere in the world. But the college search process is serious business for international students, so like many others, Orume did her homework. She scrutinized rankings, which international students see as crucial measures of excellence. She discovered that UD had prestigious chemistry and chemical engineering programs, along with valuable scholarships and exciting learning opportunities, and determined it would be the ideal place to get the foundation she needed for medical school.
“There are opportunities here that I wouldn’t have in Nigeria,” said Orume. “Here, I could obtain two degrees in four years. I could do internships, research and study abroad.”
Orume spoke with a UD alumna from Ghana who encouraged her to attend. That sealed her decision. “It’s not easy to up and leave your country and I had a lot of doubts,” said Orume. “She told me there would always be people to help you out.”
So far, that assurance has proven true for Orume.
“Classes can sometimes get overwhelming and there is a lot of material, especially in my major,” she said. “Once you reach out to your professors they are willing to help you. Building relationships with professors is one of the best things academically. Studying isn’t a journey you should just go about alone. It’s important to talk to other people so you can broaden your perspectives and that’s what professors at UD are able to offer.”
The students sense that they must choose well, because they know the stakes are high.
“The competition for jobs in these countries is fierce, and the skills they gain in the U.S. will set them apart from their peers,” said Koerner. “If the family has an opportunity to send their child abroad, they’re going to do it.”
The recruitment team chooses countries strategically, explained Bastien, focusing on places with a large volume of high school students, such as India and China, and financially sound areas like Western Europe, Colombia and Brazil. Bastien said she follows the applicant trail and history of success in particular regions. She also looks at trends related to where students are coming into the U.S. and at which levels of study.
The team also leverages locations where UD connections already exist, and partners with other areas of campus. Relationships and collaboration are key, Bastien explained.
For example, Lerner College of Business and Economics has faculty networks in China and Korea. The Department of Music has had tours in Beijing, Xian, Wuxi and Shanghai. Athletics is recruiting athletes in Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil and the Netherlands.
Alumni also help create connections. Outreach in Africa began thanks to an alumnus who hosted a study abroad program at hotels in South Africa and Zimbabwe. A math teacher at the American School in Cairo, Egypt, is a former Blue Hen. Another UD alum attended a fair in Luxembourg to help spread the UD message.
Efforts get a major boost from UD’s English Language Institute (ELI), which has been a driving force for international recruitment. ELI targets markets where students are strong in academics but need improvement in English. ELI’s Nadia Redman and her marketing and recruitment team worked to promote UD in a dozen countries last year.
What’s more, with new offices in Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing, ELI has ‘boots on the ground’ to help consistently recruit students who are primed to do well at UD once they improve their English.
ELI Director Scott Stevens said, “ELI partners with UD Admissions and UD’s Office of Graduate and Professional Education, leveraging the resources of our respective units to cover as much of the world’s educational market as possible, sharing information for respective ESL, undergraduate, and graduate students wherever we go.”
In turn, Bastien noted that she promotes ELI as a pathway to UD. The ELI’s Academic Transitions program offers international students with excellent academic backgrounds conditional acceptance to an undergraduate program at UD. These students begin their experience by studying at ELI, where they improve their English skills while earning University credits and easing into their transition to an American university. Since 2013, ELI has qualified 771 conditionally admitted undergrad students to UD.
Hoffman, Bastien and Koerner hit target markets repetitively and through different channels including fairs, information sessions with students and counselors, and webinars.
During the trips, the recruiters are conscious of differences among cultures and speak to what these students value, Koerner explained. The goal is to make an emotional connection, and remember that in many nations, a visit from an American university is a big event. In India, it’s even customary for school officials to dress in traditional Indian garb and to light a welcome candle to signify respect and gratitude. Tea — and heaps of food — are served for the special occasion.
“The hospitality that I experience at schools in India is incredible,” said Koerner. “In the U.S., it’s standard business as usual. But coming into the public schools in India, they are so incredibly grateful for the opportunity for the students.”
The team is pioneering new territory, so they also experience culture shock from time to time, Koerner explained. Her first time going to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was eye-opening. She was in awe seeing the diverse mix of international people along with the native Emirati in their traditional headpieces and ankle-length robes.
On campus, the recruiters partner with colleges to provide an immersive visit experience for international students, high school counselors and advisers. It’s what creates memories and leaves a lasting impact, said Bastien. “Whenever possible, we bring people here and show them what we’ve got,” she said. “It’s more effective than looking in brochures.”
All of these recruitment efforts, along with word-of-mouth, are helping to build UD’s brand around the world, Bastien said. She noted UD is bucking the national trend of declining international enrollments at the undergraduate and non-degree-seeking levels. Bastien anticipates the University will begin to see the full outcome of the expanded global outreach in about three to five years.
Critical to the work is assuring potential students that they can likely find a bit of home and plenty of support on campus, whether it’s an authentic restaurant, a store or even a community where they can celebrate holidays.
It’s the kind of thing that goes a long way toward attracting students, but it must be fulfilled early in the admissions process, as the students are making their final decisions to come to the U.S., explained Ravi Ammigan, executive director of UD’s Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS). “These early experiences with the University could affect their decision,” he said.
OISS collaborates closely with admissions to ensure a smooth transition, providing the students with ongoing support for living, studying and working in the U.S., as well as programming to keep them engaged on campus. It is crucial to provide opportunities for students to connect with one another, to share stories and ideas, Ammigan explained. And to facilitate an environment in which American students and international students can teach each other.
UD junior Meredith Lindsey would agree. “Interacting with international students has enriched my life in many ways,” said Lindsey. “Conversations with international students have introduced me to a lot of new perspectives. These friends have taught me many things about their own cultures, and even aspects of American culture that we as Americans tend to not think about.”
As for Orume, organizations on campus like the Center for Black Culture and the Delaware African Students Association have been crucial to helping her feel a little less homesick. She’s made many American friends at UD and friends from all around the globe including Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Saudi Arabia, Ghana and even Greece. Orume, who last month saw snow for the first time in her life, said she has only scratched the surface of discovering her new home away from home. As she continues to explore, she hopes to be blazing a trail for her sister and brother back home in Nigeria.
“You [as an admission officer] are the key to changing their life forever,” said Hoffman. “That’s why we get up in the morning.”