How One Institution Revamped International Student Arrival and Orientation

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San Jose State University (SJSU) has experienced a spike in international enrollment in the past couple of years—”instead of building slowly, a tsunami wave of hundreds of additional students each semester,” as Karen O’Neill, San Jose State’s recent director of international programs and services, remarks.

How the university has responded to this wave has made them a model for other institutions. We reached out to Karen O’Neill to discuss their success and critical tactics other institutions may want to try.

Learning from SJSU’s Success

O’Neill remembers that SJSU faced two significant challenges when international enrollment climbed rapidly: lack of coordination across departments and lack of a process for managing international student arrival and orientation.

To address the issue, SJSU called together a task force and sent them to AI’s conference on international orientation in 2013. Some task force members hadn’t met prior to attending. The task force included key professionals from international programs and services, international recruitment, academic advising, and marketing and communications. At every break and during every evening during the AI event, the team convened to review and plan.

Using what they learned at the conference upon returning to campus, the task force moved quickly to set a number of initiatives in place:


SJSU set up multiple orientations, including a graduate student orientation and an orientation off-site in Hawaii for both domestic and international students. In the case of the off-site orientation, they sent critical staff, including the international recruiter who had already met the families and a testing professional to administer the placement test at the orientation.

SJSU also secured additional overseas testing sites so that students could test prior to arrival at campus.


It was critical to develop pre-arrival communications specific to international students, establish consistency in the communications students receive from different offices, and establish a central working group to audit and improve communications.

Among the past year’s accomplishments, SJSU:

  • Added a “Welcome to California” website with critical resources for students new to the U.S.
  • Developed messages for provisional admits
  • Created targeted publications for international freshmen and international transfers


The task force worked with student housing to reserve blocks of rooms and to open early for international students.


SJSU also took steps to make arrival a more seamless process for international students, including:

  • Developing a spreadsheet documenting arrival times for international students’ flights, so that SJSU can have volunteers at the airport to greet them
  • Piloting a pre-arrival information website that connects incoming students with SuperShuttle, so that students can reserve a ride and apply for an SJSU discount to the fare

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Since 2013, SJSU’s task force continues to innovate and provide cross-training across campus on international communication. They also have been making presentations at industry conferences to share their successes. And having brought a cross-sectional team together, San Jose State is discovering other opportunities for collaboration to improve both international and domestic student success.

Reflecting on the roots of their success, O’Neill stresses the importance of bringing together that initial team to look, across departments, at improving support for arriving international students. The 2013 AI conference provided a unique opportunity to bring these critical individuals together, outside the office, to learn from the experts and plan next steps.