When one size does not fit all: tailoring student experience at INTO’s student services conference

Student experience matters.  When international students feel welcome and supported across all dimensions of their life at university, they contribute positively to their new communities and graduate at higher rates.

INTO’s 22 university partnerships deliver exceptional student experiences to students from around the world.  In fact, 92% of international students across INTO’s 12 university partners in the United States indicated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their experience in and out of the classroom in the INTO University Partnerships 2019 Annual Student Survey. 

In mid-July, alongside INTO’s academic directors’ conference, the student services teams that drive these incredible results convened at Saint Louis University for their own student services conference.  There, they shared best practices for student care and some of the dynamic co-curricular initiatives they have launched on their respective campuses to promote student success in tandem with academic faculty.

To build a home: integration into the university and wider community

Across INTO’s network of university partnerships in the U.S., student services teams implement a proactive approach to international students’ orientation—a critical first step in integrating students into their new university communities.  Jessica Biddle, Director of Student Experience for more than 300 international students at INTO George Mason University, observed as much during the conference:

“Welcome and orientation is something the INTO centers do really well,” emphasizes Biddle.  “We offer the airport pick-up, we have support services for students’ first night here, we have comprehensive orientation and even orientation workshops ongoing throughout the semester.  Our high-touch approach to student interaction is one of the things we are proud of.”

The results of INTO’s 2019 Annual Student Survey reflect the impact of this comprehensive effort to support international students during their transition to life at university in the U.S.  95% of students reported that their INTO centers made them feel welcome from their arrival on campus onward, and 98% said they were very satisfied or satisfied with the student support services they received.

Following orientation, student services teams lead co-curricular programs that welcome international students into the fold of their universities and incentivize them to engage in and contribute to their new communities.  This ensures they do not remain isolated within the INTO center.  “It has never been easier than in this day and age of technology for students to stay in their comfort zone,” remarks Nick Jewell, Student Services Coordinator at INTO Suffolk University.  “While this support can feel good for a while, it does eventually cause students to feel homesick.  Providing a great student experience means providing students as much opportunity as possible to find a second home.”

In addition to common approaches to international student integration, such as conversation partner programs that allow international students to practice English language skills with domestic peers, student services staff discussed ways to layer community awareness and engagement programs with language training curricula.

Director of Student Experience at INTO Suffolk University Lauren Dodd presented one such initiative that she spearheads, which is centered on social justice.  In partnership with Suffolk’s Center for Student Diversity, Residence Life Team, and Counseling, Health and Wellness Center, Dodd has formulated a semester’s worth of programming comprised of conversations called “Ram Talks” that challenge international students to develop awareness of stereotypes and biases and contextualize their own identities within the swath of those that compose the Suffolk community.  The outcome is a program that exposes international students to diverse perspectives on social justice issues and equips them with the terms needed to share their own views with domestic students.  In this way, it empowers both parties to enter a mutually enriching cultural exchange and contribute to a tighter-knit university community.

“People ask, ‘How is social justice related to student success?’ Dodd notes.  “To me, it’s important.  If you’re operating in a society that isn’t equal, there will be barriers to your success.  This is our attempt to make as much of a difference as we can—within the INTO community and the Suffolk community as a whole.”

Similarly, Laura Arthur, Director of International Student and Scholar Services at INTO Drew University, and Mohamad Nikoui-Tehrani, ESL Instructor at INTO Drew, partnered with the University’s Office for Civic Engagement to help establish a co-curricular program whereby level-four academic English students volunteer at the Mt. Kemble Home, a community of women 65 years of age or older who have found themselves homeless.  Students spend time conversing with residents of the Home for several hours at a time, six times over the course of the semester, after each of which they are asked to submit written reflections on their experiences.  The program incorporates experiential learning into students’ academic English coursework to engage students in the wider community of Madison, New Jersey, thus preparing them for success in a way that gives back to the community.

Co-curricular programming like Dodd’s and Arthur’s have proven to be effective not only in engaging international students in their English language coursework, but in integrating them into their wider university communities, with 92% of students indicating that such programming made them feel part of a student community committed to learning.

The road ahead: encoding career preparedness into the curriculum

Alongside personal growth and academic success, the student services and academic teams understand that employability drives international students’ decisions to study abroad.  More than introducing students to career resources on campus—an important first step—attendees at the student services conference explored ways to ensure that CV composition, LinkedIn account optimization, and job research were all encoded into students’ learning experience.

INTO University of Alabama – Birmingham’s Director of Student Experience Kyle Bailey has led the charge for developing and implementing career-related curricula at his center, creating a Career Readiness Map that identifies opportunities to align 21st century skill-building with students’ academic English coursework.

“The map lays out a series of checkpoints at which we will expect students to have acquired skills that help them launch their careers after graduating, from basic resume writing during first-level English instruction to gaining experience through jobs or internships in the community as students prepare to start their job search,” said Bailey.  “The goal is to come together with academic faculty to help give students competencies that they will need in an increasingly globalized job market.”

While 90% of students have already reported that they believe their education will help them get a good job, INTO centers are constantly forging new partnerships to support the post-graduate career ambitions of their students.   Take, for example, INTO Saint Louis University’s off-campus partnership with the St. Louis Mosaic Project, which helps international students find internships and employment in the city following graduation.  Annie Rosenkranz, Director of Student Experience at INTO SLU, describes the partnership as “a collaborative initiative between government, corporate and university leaders to connect international students and companies in our city to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.” 

Adaptation: bolstering students’ long-term success in and out of the classroom

All told, the student services teams at INTO’s North American university partners, along with their academic counterparts and campus stakeholders, provide international students an experience characterized by engaging coursework interwoven with co-curricular programs and support that bolster students’ success in and beyond the classroom.  It is a collaborative dynamic of which our student services teams have become masters—one that not only benefits international students but that enriches the universities at which they study by way of increased retention rates and positive contributions to the community.

INTO Marshall University exemplifies the link between well supported and integrated students and their long-term performance and benefits to the University.  There, strong levels of student satisfaction have led to 94% student retention rates and an average cumulative GPA of 3.62 upon progressed students’ graduation.  As Jim Clagg, Director of Student Experience at Marshall University, admits, this success comes as the result of careful attention to detail and devotion to the steady improvement of each students’ experience.

“We constantly reassess what we are doing and work to create new best practices.  Business as usual does not cut it.  We need to innovate, to bring in new ideas, to grow, to offer things no one else does, and, most importantly, do all this with a student-first mindset.”

Ongoing vigilance.  It is the name of the game at INTO’s university partnerships in the U.S., and it is how our student services teams are redefining extraordinary student experience.


JP Deering

Author: JP Deering

Partner Development and Corporate Communications Coordinator JP joined INTO’s partner development team two years ago. Before joining INTO, JP taught English and composition to international students at the University of Kentucky. Now, he manages INTO’s corporate blog and social media, writes about international student mobility trends, policy, and the goings-on at INTO’s university partners in the US, and handles outreach to potential partner universities and corporate engagement at major conferences.

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