Content Priorities Revisited: International Student Messaging #2 - COVID-19 Stories Skip to main content

Without question, this pandemic has stretched international educators in ways few would have ever imagined. Yet through the adversity of the past two years, there have been some amazing success stories where colleges stepped up in remarkable ways to provide for the needs of their international student communities.

When it comes to what your prospective student (and parent) audiences might want to know, stories of current international students’ experiences are now more important than ever. How have you treated your enrolled students during the most trying times many U.S. colleges have ever experienced? If your campus has made student safety its priority, how has that been demonstrated? Did your institution step up in real and substantial ways to help international students who were stranded early on in the pandemic when everything went online? How are you telling those stories to your future overseas students?

Demonstrating Care for International Students

Let’s face it: when March 2020 rolled around, most of us in international education quickly shifted into a manic overdrive that threw everything from admitted student events, spring recruitment activities, and entire class schedules online in ways few could have ever imagined. As campuses closed, residence halls at many colleges emptied quicker than at any other time than the end of a traditional academic year. Yet for the greater majority of international students, going home was not a realistic option: estimates indicate 90% remained in the United States.

At the time, capturing those ways your institution demonstrated its care for some of the more vulnerable students in your community didn’t register as a priority. However, a 2021 Duke University Franklin Humanities Institute project sought to examine and document “Hardship and Resilience: Experiences of International Students During Covid-19.” Though internally focused on assessing the results of what the university did and how international students responded, much of this content can and should be leveraged for future promotional efforts if repackaged properly.

When you have a strong international student ambassador program to connect with prospective students, there is a built-in conduit for those personal success stories to be shared in an authentic, direct way. At UNC-Greensboro, a recently-arrived graduate student from Nigeria shares her experiences coming to the university during the pandemic and has joined the International Ambassador program to help future students understand what to expect. The University of California, Irvine has an entire site dedicated to “Stories of Resilience During the Pandemic” that includes an international student perspective. Up the coast at San Jose State, the College of Professional and Global Education interviewed two international students about their experiences during the pandemic.

One pathway provider, Shorelight, gathered international students from three of its campus partners to discuss how they navigated the various challenges that Covid-19 presented. Some students began their studies remotely from their home countries, while at Florida International University, international students could live on campus with courses starting online in the fall of 2020. What makes these stories valuable is that in each case, the students share how they adapted and overcame the difficulties they experienced with the help of their colleges.

Conveying Institutional Commitment

Keeping both prospective and currently enrolled international students informed as to the status of campus operations, housing/classes changes, and arrival options has become essential. The kind of vital information resources for new and returning overseas students provided on sites like the University of Pennsylvania’s ISSS Office represent the wide range of issues that demand your attention. Now almost two years in, it’s critical to ensure these online resources are regularly updated. Check out the Emory University ISSS office Covid-19 site that addresses the recent switch to a spring 2022 remote start.  Likewise, Purdue’s "International Students and Adjusting during Covid-19" site speaks to four strategies to address mental health issues and solutions available, assuage visa renewal concerns, and explain what the new normal looks like.

Most international educators are all too familiar with the various cultural differences that impact international students’ ability to integrate into campus life in a “normal” year, and the pandemic has only exacerbated those differences. To counter that, at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, the team at the college’s pathway program provided a useful resource for campus faculty and staff as to why many international students might be reluctant to ask for help because of different cultural expectations and norms.

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic for international students that chose to return home early on was the impact of remote learning from around the world. While most colleges, not surprisingly, were caught flat-footed in March 2020 when everything changed, those institutions with strong online programs already developed made the transition better than most. Syracuse University stands out for me in showcasing four international students’ stories of online learning during the pandemic. One of these students, an architecture student from Chengdu, wrote a song, Embrace You, to share her feelings about the early days of the pandemic. Her emotional video captures the kind of authenticity money cannot buy.

Moving forward

As we’ve discussed before in this forum, having a global perspective is an invaluable step toward better strategic international enrollment management. When talking about the pandemic’s impact on recruitment, now that there is some bit of distance from the sheer chaos of those first weeks nearly two years ago, overcoming doubts and fears of your future overseas students is more important than ever. How and where you tell those stories, leading with your students’ personal experiences, will make a significant difference down the funnel.

Marty Bennett26 January 2022