Ten cities. Thirteen days. From London to Shanghai to meet with newly admitted students. It’s my version of The Amazing Race, but without the $1 million at the finish line.
The first question I’m asked when discussing my itinerary is, “Are you nuts?!” The answer, from my perspective anyway, is, “No, I love doing it and I’ve found two weeks to be the perfect trip length.”
The second question is either, “Wow, how are people feeling about our country?” or “Do international students still want to come to university in the US?” Like any good admission officer, my answer is, “It depends.”
It depends on the country.
China is a vital market for many universities, and the political climate didn’t appear to be too much of a concern in Beijing and Shanghai. There, families were much more concerned about the “usual” topics—safety, academics, and post-graduation opportunities. I was surprised by the number of families more concerned about the legalization of marijuana in California than the political situation! Having said that, I had large-group and one-on-one conversations about the international environment in every other city on the trip—London, Dubai, Mumbai, Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Seoul. Families are legitimately concerned about whether their child will even get a visa, how welcomed international students will be upon arrival, and whether they will be targets for bullying and/or racial discrimination on campus or in the surrounding area. Not too surprisingly, this was a HUGE topic in India, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore, all countries with a large Indian population. And all countries that add to our international diversity on campus.
Reactions and concerns also depend on the university location.
Families are savvy and have a far greater understanding of our political landscape than we do of theirs. Some countries are experiencing their own increased nationalism, so they are watching similar conversations play out in their own media. Families understand the regional variations within the United States. I’m fortunate to live and work in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world, so that makes my conversations easier. Despite that advantage, I still found myself highlighting diversity of thought, backgrounds, and socioeconomics in college towns across the US.
And response also depends on your university’s “roots” in the area.
We all know that parents, current students, and alumni are our best ambassadors; this is even more vital now. In each city, the conversations took on an even greater authenticity after our alumni and parents spoke. Families formed a real connection, and when a current parent or student reinforced our message, it carried weight. Parents need reassurance. After all, they’re sending their child halfway around the world to live in our care for the next four years.
So, after two weeks on the road meeting with counselors, students, alumni, and random people at the hotel/airport/taxi stands, how am I feeling about future international student trends?
I must preface my answer by saying I’m a pragmatic optimist. Realistically, I believe most US universities now understand the benefit of having international students on our campuses—both for their diversity of thought and for the potential economic advantages they may provide. We can’t view international students as a given, especially when plenty of other countries are increasing their international enrollments, and it’s naïve to assume the same international increases are going to persist indefinitely.
“Education has the power to transform” are intentionally the first words of the new draft of NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice. So, optimistically, I believe universities are going to fight to maintain the sociocultural advantages international students bring to our campuses. My trip reinforced the belief that US higher education is still highly sought-after, at least for now. Our ability to work across disciplines, to think innovatively, and to engage in difficult conversations can, and should be, awe-inspiring.
NACAC member Ffiona Rees is senior associate director of evaluation and international admission at the University of California—Los Angeles. She is also past president of the International Association for College Admission Counseling (formerly Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling).