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Coming to a new country where you don't speak the language or know the customs can be tough — now imagine that you are also expected to earn a degree. Welcome to the world of many international graduate students.

“International student recruitment has emerged as an integral strategy for many institutions to overcome financial challenges,” said Rahul Choudaha, co-founder and CEO of DrEducation (a U.S.-based research and consulting firm). “However, few institutions have been proactive and successful in adapting and expanding support services for international students. An unbalanced focus on recruitment will affect student experiences, which in turn will hurt future recruitment potential.”

At the 2016 NAGAP Annual Conference in Nashville, Choudaha and colleagues presented on the strategies being employed to support this population of students. The presenters included Thomas P. Rock, vice provost for enrollment services at Teachers College, Columbia University; Jewell G. Winn, executive director for international programs and deputy chief diversity officer, Tennessee State University; and Daniel Chatham, director of graduate programs, University of California, Riverside.

Read on to learn the details of three strategies you may want to try to support students on your campus.

Academic Immersion Seminar

Teachers College at Columbia University created its six-week program, which was inaugurated during the summer of 2016, to help new students acclimate before classes officially start.

“With a growing international student population at Teachers College, we wanted to create a program to help these students maximize their experiences and to set them up for success,” Rock said. “This is not an English language proficiency or immersion program. Rather, this is an acculturation and assimilation program so that our international students will be successful at Teachers College in their very first academic course.”

The optional course is open to students who will be enrolled full-time and is pass/fail. During the program, students have a chance to do the following:

  • Engage in courses that will teach them about the college and academic standards.
  • Learn about how to navigate the library, engage with faculty and other students, give oral presentations, and conduct academic research.
  • Be paired with an experienced student-mentor, who will be there to help the student transition into the college during the fall semester.

“During this launch, we opted for self-selection. But for the next cohort, we also want faculty members to recommend students to the program during the admission review process,” Rock said. “If we are successful with those changes, we are optimistic that we will have many more students taking advantage of this unique opportunity to immerse oneself in the environment and academics prior to the start of the full semester.”

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First Friends

In five years, Tennessee State University has seen its international student population go from 79 to 853 students.

“As our office grew astronomically in a few short years, we knew that we needed to implement a program to make these students feel welcome,” Winn explained.

So the First Friends program was created, which international students can join during their first semester at the university. The program pairs each international student with up to three of the following friends:

  • Regional peer — A student from the same region of the world as the international student who provides information and guidance to ease the transition to the U.S. university experience.
  • Academic peer — A current student enrolled in the same degree program as the international student who has a GPA above 2.75 and provides an academic perspective to help manage successful progression.
  • Community peer — A local citizen from the Nashville area who provides both cultural and cross-cultural support for the international students.

One success story from the program that sticks out in Winn's mind involved a student from India who arrived in Nashville at 1 a.m. with no housing and no one to call.

“The next day she came to our office with her suitcases, and we told her about the First Friends program,” she said. “We found her a regional peer within an hour, and her life has not been the same since. For example, she and her regional peer are now roommates. The student told us that she will be forever indebted to us for having such an impactful program that she could be a part of.”

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Revamped MBA model

“There is an increasing realization in academic literature that traditional MBA curricula are teaching the wrong students the wrong things at the wrong time in their careers,” Chatham said.

That is what prompted a review of professional readiness and outcomes of the MBA program at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Riverside, where international enrollment has grown substantially over the last three years.

“Through a faculty survey assessing the extent to which the school teaches international awareness and other 21st-century skills, we saw some disagreement in how much this was purposely developed within our student experience,” he said. “We further recognized there would be benefits to teaching more than the traditional onboarding information that international students receive and decided to approach internationalization from both a domestic and international perspective, through existing curricular channels and new extra- or co-curricular methods.”

The school's curriculum review process is ongoing, but its support services are currently getting a face-lift. For example, the following strategies are being put into action:

  • International services such as academic, social, and mental health are now being highlighted during orientation.
  • The Career Development Center has instituted additional training and practice sessions specifically for international students to refine job-search skills they may be exposed to for the first time.
  • Cultural skills workshops for both domestic and international students that include topics such as communication skills, personal space, time sensitivities, and other components are offered.
  • Plans are being drawn up for more intrusive advising, based on academic indicators from admissions, continued monitoring of grades, feedback from faculty, and greater involvement of academic advisors with the student body.

“Since implementing most of these efforts, we see greater cohesion within the student body, improved experiences in team settings, and greater retention of international students,” Chatham said. “To be sure, we still have much to do to fully develop the academic advising program. The academic curriculum review now has new frameworks that will help ensure international awareness is a skill developed comprehensively within the student experience, and for all students, regardless of national origin.”