US International Higher Education

How the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign has shaped the way colleges tell their stories

How the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign has shaped the way colleges tell their stories

In the last eighteen months the world of international student recruitment in the United States has changed markedly. The fallout from the political rhetoric of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and the various 2017 travel bans has been significant. Survey after survey reveals how international students’ perception of studying in the United States is changing. Individual institutions are seeing interest, applications, and student numbers drop; and representatives are responding to new questions, like: “will I be safe as an international student in the U.S?”

So, how do we in international admissions respond? With many U.S. institutions having invested considerable time, effort, and resources attracting overseas students in the past decade, for many, this is a seminal moment for international education. As we continue our content marketing series, today, we look at the impact of the #YouAreWelcomeHere (#YAWH) campaign in the United States. With the focus on telling our best institutional stories, let’s look at the power of a movement and how it impacts our approach.

The welcoming message

Without question, Jessica Sandberg, Director of International Admissions at Temple University, has become the defacto voice for #YAWH. In the early days of the campaign, Hotcourses profiled #YouAreWelcomeHere in a piece for international students considering the United States. At that time, in the wake of the elections, getting the word out that U.S. colleges and universities were still as welcoming as before was a priority.

The good news is #YAWH has reinforced the idea that international students already on campus and prospective students are still welcome, even embraced. More importantly, the campaign is driving colleges to look internally and reassess their institutional messaging to prospective international audiences. As Temple University, through Jessica Sandberg’s efforts, sought to tell their institutional story, this process took on renewed emphasis. For more background on Ms. Sandberg’s involvement in the #YAWH campaign from her perspective, check out her Starfruit story on a new site,, designed to capture our industry’s best stories.

Growing the consensus

As #YAWH gathered momentum late in 2016 and early 2017, Ms. Sandberg knew the campaign would only survive if colleagues bought into the message and convinced their own administrations of the immediacy of joining the effort. She “spread the message across professional networks and member organizations with the goal of bringing as many institutions on board as possible.”

To date, institutions nationwide have taken a multi-faceted response. According to Ms. Sandberg, over 350 colleges and universities, more than 50 higher education companies and organizations, over a dozen secondary schools, and a growing number of public officials have participated in the campaign. What has been particularly impressive is how major higher education member organizations like NAFSA, NACAC, IIE, and EducationUSA have all signaled their open support for #YouAreWelcomeHere.

Impacts on institutional messaging

When Jessica set out to spread the good news, she maintained, “the intent is to project a beam of light into what has become a cloudy atmosphere of perceptions about the United States.” The response from institutions has been incredible. Current students, faculty, and staff at institutions nationwide have expressed enthusiasm to participate in the campaign and have talked about the goodwill generated as a result. Sandberg commented, “I hear about launch parties, #YouAreWelcomeHere film screenings, international student appreciation days, social media blitzes, and the like. I’ve heard many stories about schools underestimating the response. They ‘sell out’ their #YAWH shirts, they have too many volunteers show up to film their videos, etc. Students, staff, and faculty across the U.S. seem to be inspired by the campaign and I think that’s a reflection of the overwhelming support of global education across the country.”

At the heart of the campaign have been videos created by colleges and universities across the country that include shots of life on campus and students, faculty and staff sharing the message of “You Are Welcome Here” often in their native languages. According to Sandberg the feedback she has heard from other colleges reflects “how the message resonates with prospective students and especially their parents.” Why are these videos so effective? Sandberg remarked, “these images reflect our everyday reality but may stand in contrast to what they’ve seen conveyed in international news.”

From Temple’s perspective, Sandberg indicated that their prospective international students feel reassured with the #YAWH messaging. “They tell me that it put to rest any lingering doubts or worries about the overall climate in the United States. Parents are relieved to see the friendly faces of the students, staff, and faculty who will educate and care for their children in a faraway land.”

Taking a stand, growing together

While there have been colleges, particularly in light of the travel bans of 2017, that declined to embrace the #YouAreWelcomeHere message due to local political factors, many other university presidents saw the campaign as an opportunity to reinforce their international ambitions and programs. In the end, #YAWH helped, in Sandberg’s eyes, “to crystallize this moment…the right message for the right time.”

Across the pond in the United Kingdom, universities have been getting their heads around the potential impact of the Brexit vote on their international enrollments. A hashtag that had begun three years earlier, #WeAreInternational at the University of Sheffield, gathered momentum after the vote. By late 2016, this British campaign had gained strength with over 165 universities and organizations participating. Ruth Arnold from Sheffield reached out to Jessica Sandberg at Temple to help. As a sister campaign that had developed resources for university and organizations wishing to join in the #WeAreInternational effort a joint Skype call between Sheffield and Temple staff took place. Sandberg commented, “at their urging, we built the website, acquired social media accounts, and developed a marketing toolkit for institutions to get a jump-start for the campaign.”

Despite the competition for international students between the United States and the United Kingdom, the friendship between kindred spirits overcame natural hesitancy. This willingness to share represented, according to Sandberg, “an incredible gesture of collegiality.” In fact, the details of this collaboration between Temple and Sheffield will be on display at the NAFSA annual conference in Philadelphia this May.

Creatively telling their #YouAreWelcomeHere stories

The long-term success of the #YAWH campaign is still to be written. Nonetheless, with the range of institutions in the United States that have incorporated the #YouAreWelcomeHere message in their videos, marketing materials, and campus events, the future looks very bright. Ms. Sandberg highlighted a few of her favorites:

  • Grinnell College created a video with so much heart and it appears to involve every tiny corner of their campus. They even have their choir singing, “You are welcome here.
  • Towson University implemented a campus message board. They invited students across campus to write messages in support of international students, posted them on a giant colorful bulletin board, and then shared photos of it all over social media.
  • Penn State joined the campaign with images and video that have creatively woven the #YouAreWelcomeHere statement into their existing motto “We Are Penn State” by playing with “You Are” and “We Are” statements.
  • Temple University: #YAWH signs are visible across campus on LED screens. They hosted their first #YouAreWelcomeHere week on campus, a student-designed series of events that included guest speakers, alumni networking, and was capped with a big international gala at the end of the week. It was planned and carried out by international students and was well attended by both domestic and international students.
  • Eastern Michigan University created videos, events, community outreach, billboards, and even replaced all of their light pole banners with photos of international students and the #YAWH hashtag.

Eastern Michigan University #YAWH Campaign

These #YAWH stories underscore the inherent value of an institution’s international messaging: Telling an institution’s best stories is no longer optional. Even if your campus cannot do #YAWH, find your own way of telling your welcoming campus‘ story. If your institution has an outstanding story to share, let us know in the comments!

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