Student Mobility Subcommittee - Inbound Students Working Group Report

Student mobility, which includes both incoming international students to the University of Kansas and the outward flow of domestic and international students to other countries to engage in education abroad activities, is often a focus of internationalization efforts. Equitable access to international education, comprehensive services and programming to facilitate student adjustment and maximize learning, and support for student transition to and engagement with the new environment as well as entry into professional life are integral to successful student mobility endeavors.  The Student Mobility Subcommittee evaluated the inbound flow of international students to KU and the outward flow of undergraduate and graduate KU students on university-affiliated international activities.  The committee explored the principal factors influencing student decision-making, barriers to student engagement, structures to facilitate and expand student opportunities and support, and recommendations for new or expanded programming and quality improvements.  The committee split into two working groups (inbound/outbound).  The report below summarizes the charges and key findings of the Inbound Student Working Group. 

Charges & Key Questions 

The Student Mobility Subcommittee – Inbound Working Group sought to develop insight into the following key questions: 

  • How do students learn about KU and what factors influence their decision to attend the institution?  How can these be leveraged to build the international student community at KU?  

  • How effective is new student orientation in preparing students for arrival into the U.S. and Kansas, transition to KU, and integration into academic life and social communities?    

  • How do international students understand their experiences at KU and do they feel a sense of belonging within the KU community?  

  • How can KU improve the overall climate for international students on campus? 

Members and Invited Guests 

The following individuals served on the Student Mobility Subcommittee – Inbound Working Group: 

  • Paige Freeman, Associate Director, Center for Orientation & Transition Programs 

  • Hollie Hall, Vice President of Grad Student Body and Chair, Int'l Student Advisory Committee 

  • Pavika Saripalli, Physician, Watkins Health Services 

  • Aramis Watson, Associate Director for Residence Life, Student Housing 

  • Angela Perryman, Director, Study Abroad & Global Engagement (beginning August 1) 

Contributors include: 

  • Sung Il Kim, international graduate student, Educational Leadership & Policy Studies 

  • Humberto Gomez Salinas, international undergraduate student  

  • Hadeir Shahin, Senior Recruiter, International Admissions 

Findings/Observations to Date 

Recruitment to KU 

  • In discussing why students selected the United States as their destination of study, 53% of continuing students cited academic reasons (quality of academic program, facilities, research and specific advisor as well as recognition of a U.S. degree), with funding/cost and career prospects/opportunities the second and third most cited factors.  Also of importance was the diversity of American culture and universities. 

  • Among newly admitted students, 61% cited academic quality and the flexibility of the academic system as top factors for studying in the U.S., with the diversity of the United States, and professional opportunities as contributing factors.  

  • Newly admitted students were most likely to have learned about KU through an international agent (43%), with the KU website and friends/peers as the second most cited sources of information at 17% each. 

  • When asked why students chose KU specifically, responses aligned with the above.  Approximately 35% of both continuing and new students cited academic opportunities, 28% cited scholarships/funding provided by KU, and 12% cited cost of attendance.  Also selected by many students were the location of the university, safety concerns and connections to KU through a friend/family member.  

  • New students to KU who responded to the survey had generally positive comments on the process of application and admission, though students cited a desire for more regular and timely communications as an area of improvement. 

New Student Orientation 

Both through the survey instruments and the committee work, new international student orientation was a prevalent topic.  Survey respondents were asked to consider the orientation experience and the value of each of the distinct sessions and activities as well as the program as a whole in supporting their transition to KU and integration into the KU community.   

  • 81% of new international students surveyed took part in the online orientation course in advance of arrival to KU, with 59% of students also taking part in in-person activities during their first week on campus.  Students generally responded favorably to both the online orientation and in-person activities, stating that online work prepared them and allowed them to ask questions, while in-person activities enabled students to gain familiarity with KU and make connections with each other.  53% of new students felt prepared to begin their KU studies at the end or the orientation program, with the remaining students feeling “somewhat prepared”. 

  • Continuing international students, the majority of whom participated in in-person orientation programs held prior to the onset of COVID-19, cited making connections and gaining familiarity with the KU campus as the two most valuable aspects of international student orientation.   

  • Approximately 17% of responses from continuing international students regarding the value of orientation were negative (for example, “it was not helpful at all”) however, these seemed to reference online orientation in many cases.  As continuing student respondents would have completed online orientation in 2020 - the first time it was conducted, this may account for some of the divergence in views about online orientation between continuing and new students (who expressed generally positive views of the online experience).   

  • When asked how orientation might be improved, students generally cited more and more engaging activities focused on cultural difference and making connections (especially with domestic students).  The second most cited area for improvement was scheduling, with approximately 20% of those responding to the question recommending a shorter delivery schedule. 

  •  67% of continuing international students indicated they would have preferred to receive more of the orientation content online in advance of arrival.  Students felt this would have aided in their preparation and allowed them to better manage all of the information they were expected to learn and relieve some of the pressure/anxiety associated with arrival.  ISS could consider maintaining a blended approach to orientation delivery that provides some content in an online format in advance of arrival (with the ability for students to reference this as needed during their initial term at KU) as well as a shortened, in-person orientation that focuses more heavily on cultural and social transition to KU. 

While orientation received generally favorable feedback, there were several substantive concerns expressed by focus group members and survey respondents over equity between the domestic student program and the international student program in terms of resourcing, staffing, content and quality.  Specifically, the following concerns were raised: 

  1. Resources – the focus group questioned the institutional resources provided in support of international student orientation.  For example, is any funding centrally provided, or are all resources derived from the Int’l Student Orientation fee (which also supports the ISS office)?  What institutional support is provided by IT, MarComm or other units to enhance the content and quality of the program?  Are students “welcomed” by institutional leadership (thus recognizing their important place within the KU student body) or viewed only as “international students” and thus the responsibility of KUIA?  Do units outside of ISS participate in international student orientation to the same extent as domestic student orientation? 

  1. Staffing – one focus group member noted that the planning of international student orientation is typically the work of a GA position within ISS (rather than one or more full-time staff members) and that turnover in this position makes long-term planning, (re)development and accountability difficult.  The committee also questioned the pay equity among student employees for international vs. domestic orientation and the associated training and position responsibilities of each. 

  1. Content/Quality – while survey respondents generally viewed the content (both online and in-person) favorably, focus group members identified some areas of concern.  For example, does the ISS online content mirror the Canvas course domestic students complete?  If not, should elements of this be provided to international students?  Do international students receive similar services during orientation (such as snacks/meals/swag) and if not, shouldn’t they?  Are international students being provided the same opportunities for social engagement (of particular concern this year was the lack of in-person social events when other campus units such as OPTIONs, Greek Life, etc. were holding these)?  Lastly, individuals expressed concern that the campus community is not well versed in the needs of international students and that this can result in little information or misinformation being provided by units outside of ISS. 

  1. Social Justice – as part of the conversation related to equity, it was recommended that orientation incorporate more content and context for the conversations taking place within the United States and on the KU campus around diversity, equity, and inclusion to help international students better understand the intersection of their identities with these conversations.   

Overall, the data reviewed in relation to new international student orientation suggests that having unique orientations for domestic and international students is not problematic, but an institutional focus on ensuring equitStudents  able resources in programming and services is needed.  International student orientation offers an important opportunity for KU to demonstrate to students their value to our campus and community, but this opportunity is being missed.   

Campus Climate for International

The survey of continuing international students asked three questions aimed at better understanding the campus climate and student perceptions of their time at KU.  The first two questions asked students in what ways have they felt valued/prioritized by KU and in what ways this has not happened.  Untangling student responses to these questions was challenging as students often presented competing narratives or perspectives, however a few common themes emerged. 

  • Students frequently commented on the friendliness of staff, receiving help when needed, and receiving clear communications or proactive communications as moments in which they feel valued.  In addition, students cited being included in a similar set of opportunities as domestic students as an important facet of feeling prioritized by KU.  For example, one student stated “Emails, questions, critiques or concerns are always being responded to in a timely manner.  That makes me feel valued and included even as an international student.”   Another student indicated they feel valued when “being given equal opportunities as the domestic students, such as classes.”   

  • Conversely, students most commonly cited financial concerns, lack of access to opportunities such as employment, inattentive or discriminatory treatment from an individual or unit, and poor communications from the institution when discussing ways in which they feel undervalued.  Several students explicitly cited rising fees as a source of concern.  Said one student “Financial support is extremely limited for international students, both by KU and by external sources.  There is an overall feeling of us having to be grateful, otherwise we can leave, which creates a deep issue.” 

  • The third question posed to students asked if they would recommend KU to a friend or family member.  84% responded “yes”.  This would indicate a strong overall foundation on which to build as KU seeks to create a more inclusive, supportive and equitable environment for international students at KU, as well as an important pipeline as new students often learn of KU through connections to alumni. 

Challenges Encountered / Future Work Needed 

The Student Mobility Subcommittee – Inbound Working Group faced substantive challenges early on in establishing the parameters of the self-study, identifying key questions to explore, and implementing effective data collection efforts.  These challenges arose from limited engagement by the working group chair, which resulted in cancelled meetings, limited productivity through the summer term, and ultimately a change in committee leadership effective August 1.   Following the leadership change, the subcommittee reconvened and worked hard to advance the data collection and reporting work, however, the scope of the project was, by necessity, more limited given the late start and the need to finalize sub-committee reports within the month.  In light of this, the data and recommendations presented herein should be understood as preliminary only.  In several instances, the data collected through the survey instruments presented competing narratives that warrant further investigation.  Substantive attention (through additional qualitative data collection) needs to be devoted to broadening student participation in the data collection efforts - only approximately 10% of international students attending KU participated in one of the surveys administered for this self-study - and understanding the experiences of international students at KU, their perspectives on campus climate, and how KU can best address student needs in a manner that is both equitable and unique to this population.   

Preliminary Recommendations and Key Action Steps 

As the working group analyzed the survey and focus group data, it became clear that many of the findings or examples highlighted within these discussions point to a broader set of concerns around equity, inclusion, and how the institution understands the international student population within the context of the broader student body.  From this lens, the committee crafted a set of recommendations designed to begin to address the structures which give rise to these concerns.   

Focus on Equity 

In order for international students to receive the same quality of a KU experience, it is necessary for International Support Services to receive the institutional supports (plural) for recruitment, admissions, orientation, and student and alumni engagement that are equitable to those provided in support of domestic populations (not just proportionate, but that provides an equitable service level).    To this end, the committee has made a series of recommendations in relation to institutional investments (both financial, allocation of centralized services, etc.) that would provide stronger supports to international students and the staff and units that serve them. 

  • Fund the operations of the ISS unit.  ISS provides a wealth of support for, and advising around, immigration-related issues and the intersection of federal policies with academic and personal realities. While other advising and student support units have centralized funding, ISS lacks this support, pushing the cost of these necessary services into international student fees.  Investments or enhancements to service provision (whether through the addition of ISS personnel, new technologies, student programming, etc.) can only be achieved through an increase in the per student fees charged or through growth in the student population. This results in a conflict between over-burdening students with hefty fees and funding critical services.  It also reduces the capacities of ISS to engage in campus outreach and advocacy around critical issues (for example, ensuring campus-wide programs such as the common book, Jayhawks Give a Flock, etc. are approached through a culturally-informed lens).  Investment in ISS would ensure that international students are not always being asked to bear the costs of providing, maintaining or enhancing services that the institution provides to other communities and/or to fund initiatives that benefit the full campus.  

  • Provide an annual budget for international recruitment activities. In contrast to the Office of Admissions (domestic, undergraduate applicants) which is financed principally through 099 funds, International Admissions relies principally on student fees to support both personnel and its limited, $4,500 travel and supplies budget.  International Admissions manages all international recruitment activities across academic levels (undergraduate, graduate, non-degree) as well as international undergraduate admissions (freshman, transfer, non-degree).  Strategic investment in this area would support growth in international applicants and the expansion of recruitment activities to a more diverse set of sending countries.  

  • Provide central support for print and online marketing materials. Marketing Communications has historically provided a high level of support to the Office of (domestic) Admissions and to the Center for (domestic) Orientation and Transition Programs. However, central support for International Admissions and for international orientation programs has been at a significantly reduced level or made available as an add-on to the domestic materials. While in recent months Marketing Communications has taken an active role in the revision of the International Admissions website and sought to adapt email campaigns designed for domestic Admissions for use by International Admissions, more is needed to advance international recruitment goals and ensure an equitable level of attention to this population of students.  

  • Provide central support to campus units so that all share responsibility for welcoming and supporting the arrival of international students to campus. Many necessary supports – such as fully-staffed housing facilities, residential dining, transportation services, etc. – become available when domestic students arrive on campus. However, international students must arrive earlier to complete the orientation program and necessary check-ins in preparation for the start of term.  International students are highly dependent upon these services, yet they are frequently not available at the time of students’ required arrival or available at significantly reduced levels.   

  • Engage campus-wide services in supporting international students throughout their studies at KU.  International students often have unique needs – from information on very practical matters like taxes and avoiding fraud to programming to support acclimation to Lawrence. With support for the ISS unit, staff could engage in additional outreach and advocacy with campus-wide units to ensure the needs of international students are recognized and that students are well-supported. 

  • Develop a functional model for collecting contact details and maintaining relationships with international KU alumni. The Alumni Association does not have a well-articulated plan for connecting with international student alumni.  However, one of the most common reasons cited by students as to why they chose KU is a personal connection to another Jayhawk.  Cultivating relationships with our alumni and maintaining connection to KU is critical to future recruitment activities and scholarship development.   

Prioritize International Student Inclusion in the Campus Community 

Too often, international students feel “othered” by the institution, a feeling that was likely exacerbated within a pandemic context in which international students faced a unique set of burdens brought on by travel suspension, the unequal distribution of financial resources, loss of employment opportunities, and a significant increase in the quantity of institutional communications, many of which through content or tone failed to convey empathy and understanding.  KU should initiate an institution-wide effort to articulate a vision and cultivate a shared understanding of who we are as an international community and what this means for students, faculty, staff and administrators.   

  • For students, this message should be articulated in marketing materials, housing resources, new student orientation, programming, etc. and regularly reinforced, such that domestic students understand international students and international engagement as an integrated part of our community and their experience at KU.   

  • In a similar fashion, expanded training opportunities are needed for faculty and staff across KU to develop intercultural competencies, grow in knowledge and understanding of the international student population at KU and the context in which they live and study within the United States, and how faculty, staff and the units in which they work can best support and serve this student population.  Often, international students seeking services are referred back to ISS even when they could be better supported through another service area.  In a similar manner to DEIB training and resources (or even better, integrated into DEIB training and resources) KU faculty and staff need opportunities to deepen their knowledge, enhance their understanding and empathy, and develop their advocacy/ally roles for our international student population.   

Develop Open, Transparent Processes and Communications 

International students want to have a voice in the institutional decisions that affect their tenure at KU, yet often feel decisions are made with limited input and understanding of the impact.  To improve student opportunity to engage with leadership, the committee recommends: 

  • The development of a transparent process for proposing, reviewing and approving increases to international student fees (in the absence of institutional support for the ISS unit).  Focus group members encouraged a process similar to that in use by student senate, whereby a proposal is received, discussed and voted upon by the International Student Advisory Council (ISAC) or, at minimum, ISAC can prepare impact statements to be shared with leaders proposing the increase.   

  • The establishment of more regular communication between university leadership and the International Student Advisory Committee.  This might include standing monthly meeting between ISAC and the Director of ISS and/or Associate Vice Provost of International Affairs, as well as a twice annual meeting between ISAC and the Provost.  Scheduled meetings, along with more frequent listening sessions with international students, will provide opportunity for all parties to engage in open discussion on the issues affecting students and the resources/supports needed or already available.