Leveraging International Alumni
In this final installment of our international content marketing series, we seek out the rarest of well-honed tools in strategic overseas recruitment plans: strong international alumni networks. Normally the preserve of prestigious institutions that have actively cultivated their former international students for years as part of advancement activities and admissions interviews, precious few colleges leverage their overseas alumni well in supporting overall recruitment efforts. As a recent PIE News article suggests, global alums can bring prestige and increased name recognition to universities.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for many colleges in this regard is the simple fact that once students graduate and go abroad/home, alumni offices either do not, or cannot, make the effort to re-connect with this important demographic. From past experiences at five very different institutions, only two had any significant records of former students living abroad. Only one had a dedicated international alumni/advancement staff member. Interestingly, that person had been a former international admissions/services director who moved into that alumni position after retirement. His passion for his former international students kept the connection alive between the alumni and the international admissions offices.
Where to begin?
Importantly, before setting out to develop your international alumni, realize that to do it well should be considered a long-term, multi-year project. If your campus’ alumni office gives you a blank stare when asked for information on your overseas alumni and their contact information, start with your current international student workers or recent grads who may have worked in your office. It’s likely that if not you, someone on your staff is Facebook friends with them. These (current and former) students are hopefully already pre-disposed to helping the cause having worked with you (or the international student services office).
Beyond this initial group, reach out to the presidents of any international student groups and other student leaders on campus and connect to recent past leaders who have graduated to pave the way to future volunteers. Having the right alums who understand your goals must be the starting point, but true success will be defined with a campus wide approach that includes alumni, international admissions, student services, and other key offices (e.g. career services/professional development, residence life). Depending on what kinds of projects or events you plan, special attention needs to be paid to ongoing alumni volunteer training to assure some base levels of institutional messaging and effective recruitment efforts. So, what’s an easy first step?
Whether you’re new to your institution or only starting an international alumni strategy, one of the simplest ways to strike while the iron is hot, is to interview two to three recent international graduates on their experiences as former students and what their immediate plans are (jobs, graduate school, returning home for a new project). At my most recent institution, we made this a priority in our first year. With the videos shot in front of our main campus building on a beautiful sunny day, the enthusiasm for their alma mater shone through in their expressions and words. After an initial social media push, this video was embedded in a message in our communication flow to prospective students.
If your institution is fortunate enough to have a prominent international alum, and can invite them back to speak at commencement, take advantage of this opportunity. While inviting graduation speakers is not the domain of international admissions offices, developing strong relationships with the offices responsible for that task could prove useful in the years to come. Knox College in Illinois recently invited Vir Das, a 2002 graduate from India, regarded as that country’s premier comedian and a Bollywood actor, to give the commencement address. When Knox’s president made the announcement in January this year, during the university’s international week, local press did a very favorable piece on this news.
International alumni success stories
Celebrating successes always plays well for prospective students. Many years ago EducationUSA, through the U.S. Department of State, published a great document entitled Foreign Students Yesterday, World Leaders Today. From a public diplomacy perspective, this list is gold, proof positive of the end product of U.S. post-secondary education for overseas students. While your institution may not have a prominent world leader on that list, there are practical, simple ways to share your graduates’ successes online.
Northeastern University uses international alumni on a panel for current students seeking help with employment and the job search. While over at the University of Minnesota, the ISS office has a great section of their site devoted to international alumni job success stories with graduate advice, video segments, and job search tips. Junior colleges can also make the most of their international alumni. At Santa Rosa Junior College, a Ghanaian alum using his agricultural science degree to directly benefit farmers in his home country is prominently profiled on the school’s international blog site.
Effective communication is important in every field, every institution, and every relationship. When institutions hope to engage successfully with international alumni, always consider what value you are providing for them and how that is communicated. At the University of Michigan-Flint, as part of its international alumni engagement program, the International Center started a newsletter to keep their overseas graduates informed as to what’s happening on campus and ways they can help grow the international student presence there.
This past travel season cycle, Kathrine Colpaert, the Global Outreach Coordinator at UM-Flint, included two international alumni events in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. While not specifically recruitment events, Colpaert used these meetings “to foster engagement … (and) to leverage the commitment of alumni to boost international student recruitment by sharing their experiences.” UM-Flint’s long-term goal with its international alumni is to involve them in future career fairs, and for those alums working in their home countries, to serve as potential mentors to new graduates returning.
While hosting events overseas makes sense where an institution has a critical mass of alumni in a given city/country, what’s possible where the numbers aren’t as large? Including an alum as part of college fairs you attend in country, or assisting with admissions interviews, can provide another helpful tool in your international alumni strategy. Though not all fairs overseas allow alumni to represent institutions, very few fair organizers would prevent alums from joining college staff at their tables during fairs. At the College of Wooster (Ohio), an institution enjoying the benefits of a diversified, long-term international student recruitment plan, the international admissions office regularly has alumni either represent their alma mater or join a traveling staff member at college fairs around the world and with interviewing international applicants.
In the end, whether you are starting your international alumni program or taking it to the next level, to best leverage your global alumni begin with effective communication. Internally (to campus and alumni), explain why you are taking these steps; and externally, outline to prospective international students what is possible with a degree from your institution. As many surveys, including Hotcourses 2018 International Student Survey, have concluded, a focus on employability and graduate outcomes ranks high amongst prospective international students. Institutions that emphasize the positive results of their international alumni will be well-placed to recruit the next generation of future leaders.