More than one million international students journeyed to the United States to attend colleges or universities during the 2015-16 academic year. St. Thomas’ numbers have grown steadily alongside the national statistics, with 612 international students calling St. Thomas home during that academic year.
International Admissions and the Office of International Students & Scholars (OISS) help those students embark on – and then navigate – their journey to and through St. Thomas. While International Admissions choreographs how information about St. Thomas lands in front of students across the globe and OISS makes sure that international students feel welcome, both teams work in tandem to build lasting relationships.
“I’ve been working in the field for over 15 years and I [still] learn so much about different cultures," OISS Director Lori Friedman said. "I learn something new every day."
Bringing St. Thomas to the world
To those who have never considered international recruitment, it may seem an overwhelming task: How does one go about picking one country over another? How do St. Thomas promotional materials wind up in high schools halfway around the world?
Christina Hilpipre-Frischman, director of International Admissions, has plenty of resources, including the Institute for International Education, a nonprofit that keeps statistics – such as the ones at the beginning of the article – about the number of students coming to the U.S., as well as EducationUSA, a section of the U.S. Department of State that creates a network for U.S. universities and international students. Hilpipre-Frischman examines all that information to see where students interested in an undergraduate education are coming from. Right now, a lot of focus is on China and India.
“They have such huge populations in their countries,” Hilpipre-Frischman said. “The chances of a student getting into a top-ranked university in their country is so slim because of the number of students who are applying. There aren't enough spots. They can be an A-plus students and still not get into a top-ranked Indian university, but they can come to the U.S. and come to a top-ranked university easily.”
Accordingly, China and India had the second- and third-most students at St. Thomas in 2015-16, respectively.
Hilpipre-Frischman also considers what countries St. Thomas would have a strong pull in: Because of the university's Catholic identity, Latin American countries are strong contenders.
From there, Hilpipre-Frischman and Assistant Director of International Admissions Ethan Olson start their travels. They either partner with organizations that pick which schools U.S. universities visit, or, if they’re familiar enough with an area and have enough contacts, travel on their own. They each travel 12-15 weeks a year, usually hitting multiple countries on the same trip.
One factor that keeps International Admissions busy all year is that educational systems around the world use different calendars.
“In some countries in Latin America, they graduate in November,” Hilpipre-Frischman said. “In India, they start school at the end of April, so when I want to get in front of seniors, I would go in April. China is very close to our calendar, but they all take the national exam in June. So, after they get those results is when they’re deciding. 'Maybe I need to look overseas.'”
Once in front of students, Hilpipre-Frischman said they focus on many of the same topics domestic students are interested in.
“We do talk more about what it’s like to live in the Twin Cities, what’s the weather in our state, what kind of diversity we have, how safe is the campus,” Hilpipre-Frischman said. “[But they] still are interested in knowing about internships, campus life, and clubs and activities.”
One of the main differences that International Admissions contends with is getting in front of parents. Hilpipre-Frischman said that in many cultures, parents are the decision makers.
“You want to try and get in front of parents as much as possible,” Hilpipre-Frischman said. “It’s a lot more one on one. They really need personalized attention.”
Social media also has added opportunities, allowing International Admissions to reach students in areas they may not visit. Different countries use different social media websites, though, and time zones are a factor.
“With the time changes, now a student can text me at 11 or 12 o’clock at night, and if I want to have a good conversation with them, I have to get back to them at that time,” Hilpipre-Frischman said. “I can’t wait until I’m back in the office at 9 a.m. and they’re in bed.”
Schools can start to see more familiarity within a country they have visited several times and had students return to. Hilpipre-Frischman said the country St. Thomas has the most referrals from is Saudi Arabia (also the country St. Thomas has the most students from overall). So many students have returned home sharing their positive experiences that International Admissions doesn’t need to focus on traveling there because of positive word of mouth. Hilpipre-Frischman said it usually takes a few years for that sort of saturation to build, and that it's exciting when that starts to happen.
“When I was in Norway last January, I was at a fair, and I’d been going there since 2009 or 2010 … and I had a student come up. I had a purple St. Thomas pen, and he was filling out an info card, and was like, ‘Oh wait, I have this pen. A friend of mine gave it to me, because you were in their high school.’ It’s really funny when you hear that. Oh, finally I’m starting to make an impression – even if it’s just a little pen!” Hilpipre-Frischman said.
And bringing the world to St. Thomas
The admissions process and student profiles are similar in many regards for international and domestic students, although international students also have to meet an English requirement. They also don’t qualify for federal or state funding for tuition, but International Admissions has scholarships and information specifically for international students.
After being admitted, international students must procure a visa. Hilpipre-Frischman said this process can be nerve-wracking – some countries have low approval rates, and students can be denied for a number of reasons, from not being able to show funding for their studies to not being able to demonstrate that they intend to return to their home countries after completing their degree.
Once the entire admissions process is done and the students have arrived on campus, Friedman and her staff at OISS take over. OISS provides pickup from the airport and then launches into a weeklong orientation for both undergraduate and graduate students, which encompasses a slew of resources, including personalized meetings with OISS advisers; information about immigration and adjusting to U.S. culture; connections with on- and off-campus resources, such as campus tours, Target trips; and meeting with representatives from banks, cellphone companies and Social Security.
“We’re pretty much a one-stop shop for these students,” Friedman said. “They start with us, and if they don’t know where they should go, we help them figure it out.”
Although a lot of the heavy lifting is at the beginning of the year, OISS works to maintain relationships with international students throughout their stay and offers additional programs. Friendship Family partners an international student with a local friend (which can be in the form of either a student or family). OISS holds a few events for the Friendship Family program, and, in addition to that, a Friendship Family is expected to invite their international student to a monthly outing. The expected outcome is that the international student will be more involved and learn about American life, while the local individuals are exposed to a more global perspective. A similar program happens around Thanksgiving, where local families can host an international student for their meal.
“A lot of what we heard in the past is it’s not that easy for an international student to go into an American home,” Friedman said. “So, Friendship Family and Thanksgiving are really popular programs.”
Many events intermingle domestic and international students earlier on. That was something Friedman looked at when planning this year’s orientation – out-of-state and international students went to the one-and-only Minnesota State Fair. OISS also hosts Global Tommies, an overnight retreat where domestic and international students focus on intercultural understanding.
OISS also works with the Career Development Center (CDC) to help prepare international students for on- and off-campus jobs, as well as internships, and Students and the CDC recently purchased GoinGlobal.
Friedman recently started an International Student Retention Work Group with assistance from staff in Student Affairs and Academic Affairs, as well as faculty. Their purpose is to minimize barriers for international students.
“Usually, if you expand and change processes with the international students in mind, it will benefit everybody,” Friedman said. “That’s the great thing about it. … You’re making it better and more inclusive.”
While both Friedman and Hilipipre-Frischman said their jobs focus on supporting international students in various ways, they both said they gained a lot from those relationships. Hilpipre-Frischman cited a student from Ecuador she met when he was in high school, recruited to come to St. Thomas and just received an invitation to his wedding.
“He’ll be a lifelong friend,” Hilpipre-Frischman said. “That’s pretty common, I think, because we spend so much time with students before they get to St. Thomas, and we often meet their families, and it’s so much about building up that personal relationship.”
Friedman highlighted that these benefits and personal relationships don’t exist only for the staffs of International Admissions and OISS.
“International students come with so much culture, so much perspective,” Friedman said. “Globalizing this campus is really preparing students for graduation, and international students bring so much even in the classroom when you’re talking about media, women’s rights or geography – any of these things. If international perspectives could be infused in all of these classes, I think everybody would be enhanced.”