International Non-Degree Students: An Audience to ConsiderGeraldine de Berly | Vice Provost of Continuing and Professional Education, University of Massachusetts Amherst
At many universities, there are discussions happening debating the elimination of the distinctions between international and domestic students. After all, all newly arriving students on campus need orientation to understand the various resources available on campus (academic, mental, financial, physical, spiritual), the course selection and registration process, and the health protocols. For all younger students, institutions work with residence life and student affairs to assist students in the adjustment to living away from home. Institutions inculcate their values (e.g., social justice, appreciation of diversity, tolerance for differences, respect for ideas, intellectual and academic integrity, creation and dissemination of knowledge) through the curricula, extra-curricular programming and through their hiring practices.
So why treat international students differently given all the similarities in needs? Are international students a special population? One could argue that universities regularly provide services for groups that have been identified as special populations based upon ethnic identity, sexual orientation and/or disabilities. Student organizations sponsored by the institutions are formed based on special interests or themes such as advocacy, governance, media, culture, religion, service, arts, entertainment, entrepreneurship, science, technology, etc.
However, in addition to the application process, which all students must go through (transcripts, recommendations, standardized test scores), international students require visas, financial documents and passports. Universities bringing international students to campuses—whether they are degree seeking or not—should assume the same responsibility for their welfare as they do for domestic students. Additionally, to meet immigration requirements, institutions must also ensure adherence to attendance regulations, academic progress and record current addresses. For institutions with large numbers of international students, these require considerable effort to monitor. Institutions, therefore, provide their international students with orientation materials—delivered face-to-face, online, through webinars, videos or even print—so that international students know their rights and responsibilities.
At a large comprehensive institution, it is common to see the student affairs office provide a wide array of support services to include academic support (e.g. tutoring), health and wellness (counseling, medical, alcohol and drug referral, recreation, crisis assistance, health promotion (e.g., sexual misconduct and relationship violence prevention, substance abuse, mental and emotional health, spiritual support), LGBT advocacy, multicultural affairs promoting academics and retention of underrepresented racial/ethnic students, disability services, career services, student activities, and clubs including sororities and fraternities.
The “location” of international education varies widely by campus. Depending upon the institution, international students and scholar services can be housed in student affairs, academic affairs or continuing education, or as an entirely separate entity. Where international services is housed can affect how incoming non-degree international students are managed. Whether they are long or short-term students, they need assistance to steer through the institutional systems including registration, state inoculation requirements, health insurance, housing and meals. However, if no office is assigned responsibility for the non-degree students, they can easily find themselves adrift from unit to unit with little recourse or assistance. This is short-sighted as the non-degree student experience can also form a basis for future recruitment and marketing.
International non-degree seeking students who come to campus are held to the same immigration regulations as long their primary purpose is to study in the USA. Indeed many institutions offering summer sessions have directed their marketing and recruitment efforts towards the international market. Since institutions have capacity in summer for housing and classrooms, they are able to offer specialized academic and professional programs for targeted markets. It is incumbent upon institutions to provide the necessary support services to those students as their experiences positive or negative can easily become social media content. Institutions are competing for students on a global scale. The demographic shifts that US and Canadian institutions as well as institutions in Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and in Western European countries are experiencing have caused these universities to more aggressively recruit international students for degree and non-degree programs. Of note is the proliferation of programs being delivered in English in non-native English speaking countries. Receiving a top-tiered education in English is no longer the domain of English speaking countries. Consequently, those institutions must provide the necessary services to these students if they wish to succeed.
Institutions need to ensure that all students—but particularly international students—are well served when they arrive on campuses. While degree-seeking students are generally embraced by their academic department, non-degree students are often seen as peripheral. This is particularly true when they arrive as “one-off students” rather than a cohort for a special program (for example as part of an exchange). They may take courses in several areas and thereby never establish an affiliation with one department.
Administration should identify an office or a person to manage such students and provide them with the necessary institutional navigation assistance so that the students feel welcomed, appreciated and valued. The person or office assigned to this task will need to have excellent relations across campus with the academic departments (in order to find courses and seats), with housing and meals staff (to accommodate any special dietary or privacy needs), with campus transport as needed, with counseling services (should a crisis warrant), with disability services (if required), with student affairs (for support services) and with the international office if separate (to ensure documents are in order and cultural orientation is provided).
Those students who have an excellent campus experience may well return to the host institution for further studies including degree work. Additionally, one cannot emphasize sufficiently the impact that word of mouth (these days on social media) can have. Students readily communicate their opinions both positive and negative through these channels that are powerful marketing tools. When students have had excellent experiences and are sending messages to their networks, institutions can only benefit from these unsolicited testimonials providing free publicity and touching individuals it normally might not be able to reach. The power of a personal recommendation, albeit anecdotal, should not be discounted.
Consequently, it behooves higher education administrators to pay attention to the non-degree students by ensuring that both its administrative and academic personnel are prepared to address their issues and concerns in a coherent and well-structured fashion.
Author Perspective: International and Specialty Higher Ed