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Recruiting Intelligence

Mind the Gaps: Managing Student Expectations with Reality


Let’s talk about the gaps between your international students’ expectations of studying in the U.S. and their actual experience. You know, the sort of expectations on which retention is built.

Sure, some of the ideas international students have of what it’s like to study in the U.S. are based on factors beyond your control. But a lot of their anticipation is based on promises – literal and otherwise – made by your institution. It’s now up to you to deliver.

We Are Here at NAFSA 2023: Our presentation with SIO Paulo Zagalo-Melo (Western Michigan University) and Reporter Karin Fischer (Chronicle of Higher Ed) is at 9:30am today (Wed. May 31). A reality check with the data that informs our student recruitment decisions. Hope you'll join us. Be in touch to meet with us during the conference. We'd love to share a cup of coffee and talk all things student: info@intead.com.


To help you deliver on student expectations, we’ve gathered a few key tips worth evaluating and potentially implementing when recruiting and supporting the international students interested in your campus. Hint: it’s all about meeting international students where they’re at. For more perspective on the importance of maintaining a student-first approach see our recent post.

In the meantime, read on for 5 quick ideas on how your institution can narrow the gap between expectations and the reality your international students experience. Recommendation number 5 is likely the most important if you’ve not already done it.

1. Build an International Affairs Community with Purpose

It all starts with your staff. Bridging gaps means hiring people in your student services office (the international office and other student services as well) who have an affinity for varied cultures and languages.

Take Jacob Chang, who became an important voice in representing international students after attending Ohio State University. Dr. Chan is now assistant professor of education at Lee University. His perspective on ice cream flavors available in his home town in China vs. the U.S. points to some basic cultural disconnects from his early days at Ohio State. Reminder: what’s “normal” in the U.S. may not be so in their home country.

He and his fellow committee members believed that on top of dedicated staff who are aware of the priorities, having on-campus counselors such as mental health advisors who can speak the language is a major benefit to mitigate the myriad of student concerns.

Dr. Chang notes that international students need to feel safe and heard to bring up concerns. A support group where these are addressed can bring about significant changes. Dr. Chang himself established an international student experience committee made up of faculty, staff, and student representatives. He urges higher education leaders to get involved in such organizations and help students acquire the proper tools to speak up.

2. Prepare Arrivals for U.S. Classroom Culture

Just as Dr. Chang pointed to cultural differences in ice cream icebreakers, note how cultural differences play out in the classroom.

International students are often hesitant to speak up in class or avail themselves of professors’ office hours. Institutions helping students understand what success at a U.S. institution looks like will (surprise) find more student success. Setting expectations and providing welcoming tools makes all the difference. Obvious when stated, right?

A recent story by @KarinFischer explains how The University of South Florida recognized the issue and took steps to support international students through a multilingual writing center. The Center focuses on helping students with grammatical and writing rules, including plagiarism and citation, a concept that can be looked at differently culturally. Instructors consider whether it is more important for the student to learn how to express the information vs. critiquing their ideas.

When the Intead team designed and launched an international student pre-arrival orientation microsite, for Case Western Reserve University we found that the most visited and valued content addressed “The American Classroom.” This content provided perspective on classroom dynamics and how America-styled student-to-student and faculty-to-student interactions support learning. Importantly, the pre-arrival microsite worked as intended as an enrollment conversion tool and resulted in a 20% higher deposit rate from admitted international students. A competitive advantage when admitted international students typically receive between 3 to 5 admissions letters.

3. Key in on Student Perspectives on Campus Arrival

Working in this field, you already understand that students who have just touched down in your country are in a swirl of mixed emotions from excited to frightened. They are beginning the next chapter of their life at the university they chose. A powerful first touch, the airport pickup, is almost always a moment seared into each international student’s memory.

For the India to U.S. perspective, if you’ve not clicked around on RedBusToUS, this may be a good time to check it out. So much student-focused advice on this blog from a set of Indian students who now work in the U.S. They have shared their experiences for more than a decade, including analysis of USCIS processes. (Also note their YouTube channel with 26,000 subscribers).

This example from Kumar, the site’s founder, points out key benefits of the airport pickup. Navigating new airports and ground transport with multiple heavy bags and all the rest – a great opportunity to demonstrate a welcoming demeanor and start off on the right foot.

4. Graduate Student Focus: Support and Involve Family

UCLA hosts get-togethers for international student spouses to get them involved in activities around the university. NYU has a similar initiative where they offer non-credit English classes for the spouses and partners of the students. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides day care centers and preschools for children of international students.

It all comes back to the student-first approach.

5. Secret Shop Your Student Services from an International Student Perspective

Evaluating your current state of student support is also critical.

Consider hiring a small cadre of your domestic and international students to evaluate student services from housing to career. Include nutrition services, registrar, the whole gamut. How are your frontline staff doing when faced with student questions, suggestions, problems, etc.? Are your students welcome? Respected? Served well?

Your secret shoppers will observe various scenarios and staff responsiveness to students of diverse backgrounds vs. others.

This internal evaluation of services contrasts with a secret shopper exercise the team at Intead conducted to evaluate international student recruiting operations at a range of institutions. Under the guise of a prospective international student, we secret shopped 80 institutions. Despite our persona’s clearly stated interest, one-third didn’t even respond to our, err her, inquiries. We reported on it here. Lot’s of insights if you have a few minutes to scan that one.

Understanding your students is what this is about. And knowing if you are meeting their needs. This way leads to improved services, stronger student success, and improved word of mouth marketing (the best kind of marketing by far).

Bridging the Gaps: Your Next Step 

With so many distractions in the day-to-day work of enrollment and admissions, is the student services side feeling neglected? Help connect the dreams, ambitions, and potential of international students. Fostering a safe, strong, and uplifting community pays off.

Your next step: evaluate your current state of student support. Start with a simple secret shop. Don’t overcomplicate it. Identify the gaps that are fixable near term and others that might require a larger investment of time and resources.

We’re here to help with project management, data collection and analysis, and reporting out. Let’s foster student success together. Be in touch.

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