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May 9, 2024 SHARE

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To explore best practices and emerging trends in international recruiting, this Innovating Enrollment Success episode welcomes two experts in the field.

Show Notes

Cedar Crest College Director of International Student Services Jonathan Summers joins Paskill Account Manager Lien Do, a former colleague of his at Wilkes University, where together they recruited and supported international students.

This episode addresses:

  • Current trends in international student recruiting
  • COVID’s impact on international travel and student expectations
  • International marketing outreach strategies
  • New technologies and platforms to engage international students


Read the Transcript

Cathy Donovan [00:00:00]
Hello, and welcome to the Innovating Enrollment Success Podcast, where we talk about ways to create better outcomes for higher ed marketers and ultimately better outcomes for students. I’m Cathy Donovan, agency marketing director at Paskill, a higher education enrollment marketing firm where we believe all students deserve exceptional college experiences.

We know the college experience is shifting based on the goals of each student, but what does that college experience look like for international students today? The Open Doors Report spotlights a 12% increase in international students and the fastest growth in over 40 years. What are U.S. institutions doing well or not so well with this growing audience with likely very different needs than U.S. students?

Here to help us explore the topic are two experts in the field. Jonathan Summers is director of international student services at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  As director, Jonathan oversees international recruitment, immigration services and advising and planning.

Previously, he spent a decade at Wilkes University serving in international student services.  Also joining us is Lien Do, an account manager at Paskill, where she works with a range of higher ed partners. Lien is a former assistant director of admissions at Wilkes University, where she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees, and served as the acting international recruitment counselor.


Lien Do:
Yeah, thank you for having us, Cathy.

Jonathan Summers:
Yes, thank you.

Cathy Donovan:
So glad to have you both here. I’d like to begin by just asking you both, what’s drawn you to higher ed? Jonathan, will you get us started?

Jonathan Summers:
Absolutely. Yes, well, again, thank you for having me today. I would say that my journey with higher ed started when I was a student.  I was an international student myself. I was very fortunate to be in an institution where I was welcomed with open arms. I was offered so much support, not from day one on college, but even prior to that, during the admissions process and the recruitment process, all the way through my educational journey and beyond. Just working with some of those extremely influential people kind of drew me to those types of roles.

And I find now in the role that I have that I really draw on that experience during my time as an international student, and I’m able to use that to show empathy to our current students here at Cedar Crest College and really understand a lot more about how they’re feeling as international students. You know, whether it is from being homesick to struggling with some kind of a cultural thing. So really, you know, I was kind of attracted to higher ed right from the early time as a student, and I’m so happy that It’s what I do for a profession now, every day is something new and exciting. And I’m incredibly fortunate to do what I do.

Cathy Donovan:
Fantastic. How about you, Lien?

Lien Do:
Yeah, so unlike Jonathan, how he knew he wanted to be in higher ed, I did not know that I was going to be in higher ed. As a first-generation student, you know, I always, wanted to do something that was helping other students. So, when I was at my first college visit and the speaker was talking about coming to that specific college, he said something that will always stick with me.

And that was, people always want to give back, but they never want to give. Like they never think about giving forward and that always stuck with me because I was always passionate about helping people. I just didn’t know how I can make a career out of that. Growing up, English was not my first language at all. I had to break down barriers and my family, their education level, they’d never got to finish high school. So, I was like, how can I, you know, mix these two together? What can I do? And the opportunity to work at Wilkes as an assistant director of admissions came up and I was like, wow, this, this is it.

This is my passion. I love higher ed. I love being able to provide students with that guidance, and mentor, that, you know, I wasn’t able to get as a first-generation student. So yeah, that’s how my story kind of started with, with higher ed.

Cathy Donovan:
Well, that’s amazing. So glad to hear it. So you both work together at Wilkes, you know, I’d love to hear some stories about great moments together and, what makes a good team and just a little bit about what the international recruiting experience at Wilkes was like.

Lien Do:
Yeah, absolutely. I was hired at Wilkes University to do domestic undergraduate recruitment. And during that time, we didn’t have an international recruiter. They left a couple of months prior to my arrival. So, I raised my hand and I was like, I want to do this. This is such a cool experience that I didn’t think I would get to do.

And also like, like I mentioned, being a first-generation student whose parents came over when I was one, I was like, this kind of fits what I’m looking for. So yeah, international recruitment, um, I would say is a lot different than domestic recruitment.

Jonathan’s department and my department worked hand-in-hand to get these students onto campus.

His office was such an important role. Um, and having our departments to collaborate, I think made students feel very welcomed on campus.

Jonathan Summers:
Yeah, I was very fortunate to work with Lien for many years, and to do what I did at Wilkes. I, as Lien mentioned, she was, you know, really in charge of some of the recruitment side of things.

And I, at the time, worked more with the student affairs side of things. I was overseeing, immigration, some advising. We worked very closely as a team to obviously, you know, work with the student as they applied and were admitted to the school.  And then our departments collaborated to issue immigration paperwork, you know, help the students kind of get familiar with the area.

That’s really important. Not only do they need to know about the school, but also the surrounding area where they may be living.

Um, some of the things that would be important, uh, to them before coming and just over a specific amount of time, just communicate with the students, you know, as they went through the visa process, as they looked to, you know, to travel to the U.S. Um, so it was, uh, you know, something that we would work together on throughout an entire year really. Um, so when the students actually do arrive, they’re very familiar with with Lien and myself and many other members of staff on campus.  We had a great time working together. Very happy to be, um, still working with, with Lien in a different capacity today.

Cathy Donovan:
Fantastic.  So we, we know the world is changing by the minute, you know, can we talk about some current trends in international student recruiting? You know, what’s, what’s working right now and you know, what, what needs a little bit more help to make, um, international students feel safe and welcome in the United States?

Jonathan Summers:
Yeah. So obviously, you know, there’s not really a one-size-fits-all answer to recruitment. I think a lot of it depends on the institution. You know I worked at Wilkes for many years. It’s a larger school, maybe, perhaps with more resources than most. Now I’m at a smaller school with some limited resources in terms of budgeting and things like that, but we make things work and we’re very successful. I would say that if you could give me an unlimited budget, I would travel, I would go to different countries. I would meet students, as much as possible. So the important thing is that personal connection between the student that’s looking at a school and the school itself.  No matter how great your website is or the different materials that you send up electronically or by print, it’s that connection that you make with perhaps the admissions recruiter or staff or faculty and students that they’re connected with. So, it’s really important, I think, to really focus on that.  Especially if you’re not able to travel as much.

So, some of the things that you know, we’ve really kind of focused on, we do work with a couple of different agencies that provide applications, which is great, but there’s still a lot of work that goes into that, you know, because the students are looking at several different schools.

So really that’s where the personal connection does come in. I think you just need to be there for the student and the family.  To answer questions, to offer support, you know, for many students, it’s a huge decision and for the families too. And as a parent myself, you know, one day my daughter will go to school and if she decides to study in another country, then, you know, I’m going to go through this with her and, it’s going to be a big decision just like going to college in general.

It’s a big step, but to do that in another country, I think that elevates the situation even more. So certainly, you know, personal connection is huge. Some other things we do we utilize our alumni. So, we have students that are able to represent us at different college fairs. And again, that’s great because the students themselves can give that student perspective.

They can really tell prospective students what it’s like to be on campus, to live on campus, to go to class, explain the culture of the campus and things like that. Been on lots of virtual fairs.  That’s kind of a hit or miss, you know, going to be that, that great or not one fair that I can really recommend.

We work very closely with Phi Theta Kappa on a society and they host a transfer fair that really has been great. Many schools offer the Phi Theta Kappa scholarships and the students are already here. They have their visas. So it really kind of does help with recruiting students that are already here in the U.S. We partner with different colleges, to make for smooth transfers and different incentives with scholarships and, uh, use of transfer of credits. Um, so there’s, there’s many different ways that we can recruit without spending a ton of money. And I think you just have to be creative.

But ultimately, you know, when you wrap all this up, it’s about having that personal connection and having that trust with the student, with the family, being honest and really help prepare the student for what is to come. You know, so that’s kind of like where I sit with that. And of course, you know, like I said, it’s not a one-size-fits-all.

There are schools that do have different resources and different approaches, maybe more staff, you know, so you, you really have to kind of work with what you have and be creative. But ultimately if you have something that. meets the needs of a prospective student, then it will work.

Cathy Donovan:
Lien, anything to add? I hear Jonathan talking about that personal connection. I think that definitely resonates with Paskill. I wasn’t sure if you wanted to add to that at all.

Lien Do:
Yeah, absolutely. So, I would 100% agree with that personal connection. You know I’ve had students that I’ve worked with that I’ve never met and the first time that I was meeting them was on campus, so having that connection… like I created a Whatsapp and I made sure that they had my phone number and if they had a question, I wouldn’t answer at like 2 a.m depending on the time difference, but I would make sure that I got back to them and I answered their questions. And if I didn’t have the answer to their question, I would reach out to Jonathan’s department or faculty members or other staff members to make sure that they get their questions answered.

Jonathan mentioned families. So, a lot of families are, you know, allowing their students to come to America. That’s thousands of miles away. And it’s so important to have that trust with parents. I remember I had a student from Greece and she came to visit campus with her mom. And before they even got on campus, I felt like I knew them for years, just because of all the interactions that we’ve had. And you know, everything from their application to, like, getting their flight to America and making sure they’re taking the correct bus to come to campus. I think being a part of their journey is so important and them knowing that you are going to make sure they are safe is also very important as well.

Cathy Donovan:
So, I know we’re past COVID, but I feel like it was kind of a big game changer for global travel. Just wondering if there’s still any learning or repercussions from COVID in international recruiting and students.

Lien Do:
Jonathan, I remember in 2019, you were getting ready to travel to Myanmar and like three other countries. And thankfully, like a month or two before everything shut down, like everything got canceled. So I think it was, I, like, I remember being a very difficult time for recruiters and international students because everything just paused, like visas were againprocess recruiters couldn’t travel and there was like nothing that you can do about it. So, um, I don’t know, Jonathan, have you, has it changed?

Jonathan Summers:
That was a tough time because I was following COVID right from the very, very beginning. And I was like, I don’t know if I want to be traveling to this part of the world right now, but it was so unknown in this country at that point. To the point where, you know, I spoke to some folks about it and no one knew exactly what it was.

Oh, you know that those were the “It’s no worse than the flu” days, you know, and of course, you know, it became what it was, you know, so of course everything shut down. Embassies were closed. Students were not traveling. There were, you know, very limited, flights and things like that. I would say now, you know, that we’re pretty much, are we back to normal?

I would say so. I would say that a lot more interest now in students wanting to study in the United States again. I think that you know, it’s been chomping at the bit for the last couple of years, you know, to come by and to study.  I would say in a way, many positives have come out of COVID and that probably sounds ridiculous, but when, you know, we were faced with, with COVID, we, we had to adapt, right?

I mean, we had to look at different ways to teach, we had to look at different ways to enroll students. And of course, when it came to international students, we had to think outside the box a little bit.  The way that we communicate with students changed, I would say that, you know, I don’t know that we may, we may talk about this a little bit later on, but the role of technology is huge.

You know, I think before COVID, I’ve not really used Zoom that much, to be honest, especially in recruitment. I’ve not used Teams, things like that. And up until then international students really were not attending open houses, but during COVID, we made all that available. And I was like, this is great because international students now can, you know, take that virtual tour of campus, like live, you know, they can attend sessions that are now being live streamed.

It was great. Um, and these are things that, you know, we’re keeping some of these things, you know, so I talked before about the personal touch and I, you know, right now, like on the, on the bottom of my email signature, it’s going to book time with me and that’s for a virtual appointment.  No more phones, emails, yes, still use it, but for the most part, no, I’m speaking to my students in person and not just once, but three, four or five times, you know, over a period of time. So you can really build a good connection that way. Um, so I think, you know, there are some really good things that have come out of it. And I think it’s hard to predict, you know, when you’re looking at data and you’re looking at, okay, past trends, well, the last few years, you know, you can’t really rely on that.

You know, so in terms of predictive modeling and looking at, well, how many students should we expect? I think that’s kind of a little cloudy, you know, so when I’m putting together the enrollment plan, I’m like, okay, well, let’s look at this, but let’s put something together in terms of an increase.

You know, everything is kind of with a pinch of salt, right? It’s like, well, maybe this could work or it could not, but I think we’re starting to see more normal trends now, especially from, last year to this year and hopefully moving forward. And that trend will be upward, more students enrolling and that’s exciting because it was, it’s been a challenge, not just internationally, but domestically. So I think we’re, we’re going in the right direction.

Cathy Donovan:
Well, you know, aside from COVID, you know, before and after international students face, you know, many challenges, including cultural differences, the visa process, work opportunities and just that emotional impact of making such a big choice to travel far from home. What are some strategies to not only attract international students, but give them meaningful higher education experiences.

I know we talked about that personal connection, but I think every campus and institution has to stand by that first connection to really fulfill a promise of a good experience. So, just curious to hear from both of you, who’s doing a good job of keeping those students really engaged and content at their institution so that they have great experiences?

Lien Do:
Yeah, Cathy to your point, I think international students are so brave. Um, literally overnight they leave their families, their friends, what they’ve known for 18 years and come to a whole new country and immerse themselves in this whole new culture. So I think it’s so important for universities to make sure that students have that sense of belonging. As an admissions counselor, I always found ways to try to make them feel like they were a part of campus before even getting to campus.

So that would include sending them any social media videos that we had of events on campus. It would include sending them future events that are happening on campus, making sure that they’re connected to their peer mentors, making sure they’re connected to their roommates, their RA, whomever it may be. Also understanding like what is important to them. Is sports important to them? Do they want to know about all the sporting events on campus? Is student life and like clubs important to them? And what kind of clubs do we have on campus? Making sure that you understand that and holistically like creating an environment for them to feel like they belong there is so important.

And I also would say finding ways to integrate American students with international students and having them learn about each other’s culture, whether that be like, educating them about Lunar New Year or Ramadan or whatever the, the holiday may be, I think educating and celebrating that together is so important for these students to have that sense of belonging.

Jonathan Summers:
I would totally echo that, I think it was at a conference and I don’t know if someone said,  “we really need to focus on international students integrating into American culture and learning American culture,” which of course is very important. But one thing that we need to focus on also is international students being able to celebrate their culture on campus because international students, you know, really want to utilize their time here to educate us all about, you know, whether it be a holiday or religious holiday of some kind of cultural component.

Um, so it’s really important that we utilize that because not every American student, you know, has had the opportunity to travel to maybe to meet people from other countries, especially if they’re coming right out of high school.

So, it’s an experience that can be shared throughout the campus community that definitely promotes belonging, but also it’s very educational for our other students on campus and our staff and faculty alike. Um, so that’s a really a big thing, I believe not just for our campus, but, you know, across the country. Um, and that’s something that should certainly be continued to be promoted and celebrated. And I think, you know, that’s really important.  So I definitely want to echo what Lien just said.

Cathy Donovan:
How about in recruiting, can you think of any stories where, you know, a strategy may have worked in one country, but did not in another? Are there any lessons learned from outreach of how different cultures and different students are and like you said earlier, it’s not one-size-fits-all.

Jonathan Summers:
Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t say specifically that there’s an example of, you know, by country, when one group set’s not really working. I find as I work with different students, you know, and they ask about, what’s your international student population like… If I said, well, you know, we have X amount of students from this country and X amount of students from that country, we have students that really welcome the fact that there are other students from that country, right? Oh, this is great. You know, it’s good. I won’t be the only one. Then we have other students that are like, I really want to be, you know, in a, totally new environment. I don’t want to have, you know, 50 or 60 students from my country there. Also, I want to be speaking English all the time. I want to just be out of my comfort zone completely. Of course, you just have to adapt to each individual student, and what their needs are, and I think that’s really the way forward.

Lien Do:
I think, um, for international students, something that all students that I’ve interacted with, they get so excited about is like, what is there to do around your campus? Tell me how far you are from the biggest city. Tell me what your campus is doing to take students outside of the little town or big town that you are in and, and tell me about what more can I learn about, you know, the culture and what more can I do outside of campus? I think that always resonated with students to know that they’re going to get like a really great experience at your school.

Jonathan Summers:
Yeah, absolutely. I, you know, obviously there’s certain things you just know, right. You know what program you want. You know, where the school is, you’ve gone through the website and, there’s only so much that a website can show. So, for us to be able to, in the recruitment cycle, as we’re working with students and families, you want to give them that magic, right?

That stuff that you can’t quite maybe get between the lines of reading on a, on a website. So, you know, what will your experience really be like? You know, what, when you graduate from Cedar Crest College, or whichever school that you go to, what tools will you have moving forward?  How have you developed professionally? How prepared are you? What experiences have you had?

For example, at Cedar Crest, every sophomore student is guaranteed a study abroad experience and it’s free. So, every year we have this big announcement of where we’ll be taking our sophomore class. This year we went to Dublin, Ireland and next year we’re going to Lisbon, Portugal.

So not only are they having an experience in the U.S. but they’re also going to have an experience outside of the U.S. as well with other international students and American students.  You know, and I always said, what my best education was just through traveling, the people that you meet, and, and learning about culture that way.

So not only, you know, international students learn about American culture and things like that, they will also get a chance to travel further. So, that magic is some of the things that really are helpful. You know, students have different concerns when they’re, when they’re coming to the U.S. some of them may be a financial, some of them, um, may relate to what kind of job am I going to get?

So these are the things that you want to have conversations about. Um, and, uh, I think that’s very important. Um, just like I said, just to meet those needs of each student and that family and that goes a long, long way.

Cathy Donovan:
So before you can form those personal connections, you do have to do marketing to get their attention. Just curious on your thoughts of what marketing strategies are effective for international students. Lien?

Lien Do:
Yeah, I would say that institutions should take a look at their email flows for international students. I think a lot of the time we kind of just bulk them into one, domestic and international, but those international students, what they want is very specific compared to what domestic students want.

An international student, they may never get to your campus until their first day of classes so, you know, having email flows that say like, here’s what’s going on on campus. Here is how you apply to become a student. Here’s the F1 visa process.  Giving them all of that personalized information I think is really important.

Having good website content also is very important because you have to cater to what they’re looking for specifically. So like I mentioned, that F1 visa process, what can a student expect out of that process? What does the international student life look like on your campus? And then, um, social media. So, we can’t do paid social in different countries. So how can we utilize our Instagram and our Facebook and our X, Twitter? Formerly known as Twitter. How can we use all these platforms and showcase our campus and show all of the cool things that are happening so that these students that are thousands of miles away can feel like they are on campus.

Jonathan Summers:
I always think about when I was a student. I was the kind of student that would, I was, you know, speaking class, I would put my hand up and chat, but of course, not everyone’s like that. Um, and there were different reasons for that. So, during the recruitment process, it might be that you’re working with the students. Pretty shy, pretty quiet. Um, maybe the parents do all the talking or maybe the parents are not involved at all.

So, I find that, I’m just building on what Lien said. I use WhatsApp quite a bit because I create, like international student chat groups. And I’ll use that to put updates in there and things, but I, I can see the students, they’re all talking with each other.

I think they feel a lot more comfortable. Oh, how did you do this? Um, and we, you know, we can have a mix of prospective students I think current students too. And I find there’s just talking all the time, it’s really, really interesting to see. And students are a lot more comfortable with asking those types of questions, um, sometimes rather than, you know, with, with someone that’s maybe three years older, like myself, I’m aging myself here, but, um, so I, I find that’s a really, you know, useful, uh, way to, you know, market the, The product, really the experience.

There’s the statistics about how often people read emails these days, sometimes they just skip over them. So. it’s like, you would think that if you send out this elaborate email that everyone’s going to read it and that’s not the case. So, you have to, you know, kind of, see what works.  I think the more things that you can use, video, short clips, things that will catch the attention. I think TikTok and things like that have been utilized, you know, to really grab the attention, something short and visual that really shows what the school is all about.

And I see more and more things now on social media that are put together by current students, and that’s what prospective students want to see. They want to see students like themselves having fun and doing different things on campus. Not just focusing on the classroom, but the different club activities and events that are going on. So that is another way of connecting with the students.

And of course, if you look at what are some of the things that you can really promote, you’re looking at the mission of the school, what the school is going to give to you as an international student. And the tagline that we use is we see you. And that is really important because we see you as a student on our campus, but also we see a potential. And we see that, you know, we’re going to meet your needs.

You know, whether it be academically, emotionally, socially, it’s all about the equity of the educational experience.  No matter what your background is, whether you’re a first gen student, whether you’re an international student, whatever your gender or race, you know, we have the tools here to make sure that you are going to feel welcome.

You’re going to feel that you belong, that you’re going to be successful in the classroom. It’s successful in all kinds of ways. And I think that those extra things that I just mentioned, um, are really what you need to market. Because, you know, when, when you’re looking at schools, you’re looking at 4 or 5, 6 schools, you’re looking at all the same stuff on each website, right?

You’re looking at class size, you’re looking at tuition, you’re going to look at things like that, but what else? What else is missing? You know, what else can you learn about school? And that I think you can learn from other students and from these different things that we’re utilizing social media.

And that really is I think the best way to market the school and to really kind of at the same time, answer the students questions and help them all kind of molds into one you, one big thing.

Cathy Donovan:
Well, I’m sold! One last question. We talked a little bit about technology earlier on, but I was curious, are we missing any other larger platforms other than the social media in terms of international student recruitment emerging trends. I know MarTech is a big topic in higher ed, how many different platforms and avenues to go on. Wasn’t sure what’s trending for international student recruiting.

Jonathan Summers:
Lien and I were just talking about this the other day. Actually, we were talking about how AI may play a role in international recruitment and I’m still getting to grips with it.  To be honest. I just did a round table discussion at a NAFSA conference about AI and how that’s presenting itself in international education and, uh, some people love it. Some people wish it never existed,  but it’s here to stay, right? So, I’m sure that, you know, we’re going to start seeing that in terms of communications, we have chatbots and things like that on websites now that kind of can.  Answer questions when we’re not  here, when we’re sleeping at night and things like that.

So, I think that’s going to play a role. Um, but where that’s going to go? I’m not sure yet, but, I think technology certainly is going to continue to play a big role. I mean, since COVID of course, you know, we utilize technology a lot more and as we try and be more creative, I’m sure that we’ll see some different changes, but, it’d be interesting to see where that goes.

You know, I think that there are many things that we can work with when it comes to domestic students, right. They can visit our campus. They can, they have a lot more access to things. So, utilizing technology to show off the campus or to communicate more with students would be great.

I think the one thing that I would like to see more of is maybe utilizing technology to do high school presentations to larger groups. You know, in different countries, and see how that might also creep into virtual fairs and things. I mean, I would like to think that that’s something that we can certainly expect to happen more so in the future. But yeah, it’s really an interesting thought to see, you know, where that might go.

Lien Do:
Yeah, I would agree with Jonathan. We were talking last week about these AI chatbots, and I think they’re such a great idea, especially because of the time differences that international students have. And it’ll give the students that, you know, immediate response, but I think it’s important to know that it can’t take away that personalized connection that Jonathan has been touching upon this time. Um, you know, like the chatbot will be able to answer, you know, what is the tuition price? What is the process, the application process, but they won’t be able to give you that safety and security that a lot of students are looking for.

So, um, like Jonathan said, like I would be interested to see how AI plays a role in international recruitment and even domestic recruitment, it’s going to be interesting to see the admissions process evolve in the next couple of years.

Cathy Donovan:
For sure. Very good. Well, thank you both for joining me today. This was such a great conversation So to learn more about Jonathan and Lien, please see our show notes and of course keep Paskill in mind as your higher education enrollment marketing partner. We would love to collaborate with you on ways to elevate your international student marketing and recruiting. Thank you so much.

Jonathan Summers:
Thank you so much for having us today.

Lien Do:
Yeah. Thank you. Kathy This is great. Great conversation.


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