Stepping Up Orientation for International Students

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With the number of international students studying in the US up nearly 3 percent last year (contributing $20 billion to the US economy) and with Canadian institutions also seeing gains, creating a seamless arrival-and-welcome process that ensures the success and retention of these students is rapidly becoming a key area of investment for many institutions. At the forefront, the University of Southern California has piloted a process that includes not only an international orientation once students arrive on campus, but also an overseas, summer orientation on-site in Hong Kong to help students from Hong Kong prepare for their arrival in the US.

We turned this week to Tom Studdert and Chrissy Roth, the director and associate director of orientation programs at USC, for a few key considerations for other institutions hoping to develop more effective orientation processes for their international students. Here is some of their advice.

Planning Considerations

“In one sense, an international orientation is no different than a program for domestic students — in that there are certain rights, responsibilities, and expectations that the students should have of us and that we have of them as members of our academic community. Build the orientation around that. You are working to key up a successful transition to the university, the city, and the US as a whole.”
Tom Studdert, University of Southern California

Further, Roth and Studdert emphasize the importance of identifying the key messages you need to convey and the key resources you need to connect students with at the time of the orientation. For example, if the orientation is a summer program, you may choose to de-prioritize information on the college experience and student life in the US, in favor of focusing on the registration process, the move-in, tuition billing, and other immediate concerns. “Think about international orientation as a several-step process, not a one-shot workshop,” Studdert advises.

This involves thinking through the key decision points along the route of a student’s transition from their home country to your institution. At each point, what resources and messages can you bring to them that will remove obstacles to their arrival and acculturation, and prepare them for success at your institution?

For example:

  • If your institution is investing in growing its international student population from a given region, does it make sense to invest in a pre-arrival orientation held in the students’ home country, “meeting them where they are” to help prepare them for the transition?
  • What resources can you offer online? What makes sense to convey to students via a video tutorial, for instance, and at what points in the process?

Roth also advises devoting some planning to the specific role your staff will fulfill during the orientation. In some cases, the way your staff interact with participants in the orientation is as important as the content they deliver (if not more so).

“When we go on site in Hong Kong, we’re there to be the face of the institution. We add the personal touch to the program, so that the students and their families know they’ll be taken care of at the university.”
Chrissy Roth, University of Southern California

“This is a whole-campus project,” Studdert adds, “not just a project run out of the orientation office. You will need input from admissions, academic advising, and others.”

Cultural Considerations

Roth suggests: “As you think about doing this, really do your research. You need to know what works in your target regions, and what doesn’t work. Note that once you go to a place, you set the expectation that you’ll be back. This is a big investment; make sure it’s done well.”

Cultural considerations that will affect your planning for international orientation may go much deeper than just awareness of dietary restrictions, language barriers, and the scheduling of religious holidays, fasting, and cultural festivals.

For example, to what extent do you need to involve the parents and families of your international students? For a pre-arrival orientation held in a feeder region in southeast Asia, you might consider not only inviting families to the orientation but also partnering with local agencies or alumni to hold special events, such as dinners, for the parents. “This will give you the opportunity to address their concerns and fears,” Roth notes, “and educate them about the institution and the college experience in the US.”

Another example: do you know who will students and their parents most likely want to communicate with at your institution? Studdert notes that both he and his institution’s vice president for student affairs offer themselves primary contacts for students from Hong Kong; while a domestic student would be more likely to contact Studdert with a question, the international students go “straight to the top” and send their questions to the vice president. In the case of the University of South California, this is planned for — and the vice president is prepared to respond to inquiries from families overseas. It’s important to understand the students’ and their families’ expectations around how they will communicate with the institution.

To learn where the gaps in your knowledge of the target culture are — and to fill them — Roth and Studdert recommend reaching out to:

  • Your current students from those areas
  • Your admissions staff who travel there
  • Your international alumni

These individuals can serve as your orientation advisers. Bring them into the planning process as early as possible to advise you about cultural considerations and to offer their input on the design of the program.