In this guest article, Steven D. Boyd, Dean of Enrollment Management & Student Life at Unification Theological Seminary – and member of our US Advisory Board – shares factors to be considered for successful international student recruitment and looking to the future, how institutions will need to be even more strategic, intentional, and data driven.

Successful International Recruitment: Some Factors to Consider

By Steven D. Boyd

Shortly after 9/11, I accepted a position as an international admissions counselor and began a new career in the field of international student recruitment and admissions. It has been undeniably gratifying, and I have never looked back. At the time, my wife, our three children, and I were on our way back to the US from Latin America where we had lived for two decades. Years earlier, I had been drawn to Latin America as a participant in a study abroad program to Mexico through the University of Kansas and learned first-hand the multiple benefits of studying outside your home country.

At the time, I had no idea I was venturing into such a rewarding field. As I came to appreciate the positive impact my new profession could exert on others, my perception of my job became more than just a form of employment. It grew into a genuine call to help others. Many of my closest friends in the field of international student recruitment, as well as the colleagues I most respect, share a common sentiment: admissions professionals provide an invaluable service not just to the institutions we love, but, more importantly, to our students as we open the door to advanced studies and set them on the path to career success.

Success in recruitment is regularly measured in terms of the quality and size of the next incoming class. However, in our work we not only effectively serve our respective institutions by attracting capable students, but we also enjoy the added benefit of engaging young people from widely varied backgrounds who grow and change through living and studying in the US. As we interact with our students, we too acquire greater understanding of the world around us and expand our appreciation of other peoples and cultures.

Build your team

As an admissions counselor responsible for recruitment in Latin America for my institution, I was fortunate enough to start at the bottom of the professional ladder.  I learned from the ground up, managing applications behind my desk and directly recruiting out on the road. When I was promoted to supervisor, this foundational training proved vital in helping me to value and appreciate the difficulties of my staff. When they were faced with the daily challenges and pressures of student recruitment, I saw my team members take comfort knowing their boss had walked in their shoes and understood.

Successful international student recruitment requires a quality team. The best team members willingly travel and actively engage with people different from them. They are adventurous, self-motivated, and can work both independently and as part of a group. They function well under pressure and can creatively improvise both in and out of the office. Hiring the proper team member requires checking several boxes, and assembling a good team takes time. Not everyone will be a good fit and staff members may come and go. In my book, good team members should not be selected primarily based on prior experience. Experience can be acquired, and training can be provided. However, is the person you hire able to mix well with the others on the staff? Do they bring an added skill or talent to the table?

As a manager, I’ve found it helpful to identify the strengths of each staff member and assign duties accordingly. Celebrate everyone’s success and reward creative initiative. We all have weaknesses which, to a certain degree, can be addressed through practice and professional development. The goal is to empower each person and to applaud their achievement. If all goes as planned, the more varied the backgrounds and personalities of your team members, the greater impact your team will have on your target audience. Learn from them. They often have talents you do not possess. Grant them the freedom to make use of their particular skill sets. Implement worthwhile suggestions from the team. If your staff sense they are heard and feel free to actively contribute, their daily investment grows. Be willing to dialogue when problems arise. Good communication in difficult moments pays off in dividends down the road.

Serve your students…and your staff

Your team should be student-centered, and trained to effectively respond to prospective students’ desires, needs, and wants. The more successfully you serve your prospective students, the more you can attract those who are truly the best fit. Many prospective students will choose your university over another on their short list when they feel personally cared for and attended to. A successful team is student-facing and will always go the extra mile, offering a special touch through personal interaction.

Efficient office processes and productive workflow are essential. To be competitive, reduce response times to the minimum. Today’s student expects an almost instantaneous reply. Clarify responsibilities and improve procedures in the office so that everyone knows their jobs and gets work off their desk. Find out where your bottlenecks are and address the problems involved.

Students are not the only ones who require attention. In the high pressure, high demand world of recruitment and admissions, a good supervisor anticipates, to the extent possible, staff members’ needs – large and small. Your counselors will feel motivated when they are confident you understand and appreciate them. Opportunities for training and professional development likewise empower your team. Career advancement is always a primary focus. When you can facilitate the promotion of a deserving team member, everyone benefits. And, if the moment arrives when your best person chooses to move on to a new opportunity elsewhere, lend your assistance and remain their best friend as they make the change.

Partnering in a highly competitive industry

International student recruitment will inevitably continue to be highly competitive. We are always looking for the secret to grow our numbers and to increase the quality of our students each term. An improved CRM, enhanced data collection and analysis, a third-party service provider injecting expertise you do not possess, additional staff, or an increased budget will always advance your efforts.

In such a competitive, data-driven market, most universities cannot excel in international recruitment without outside assistance. We regularly need to call upon new partners and augment our support services. Seek out the expertise of those who know, who understand the market, and who are in contact on the ground with your prospective audience. Whether your partners are high school guidance counselors, university administrators, or third-party agencies or services, keep in mind that a successful partnership is a two-way relationship. You can’t expect your partner to deliver for you simply because you have a verbal understanding or a written contractual agreement. Just as you expect your partners to produce for you, you must be there for them. What are your partner’s needs? How can you meet them?  Do you remember your partners, communicate with them throughout the year, or do you reach out only when you have an urgent ask?

For me, recruitment is a lot about the institution I represent, but it is even more about the relationships I develop in representation of my institution. The world of international student recruitment may at first glance appear to a large, extended professional community, but in time you discover it is relatively small. If you don’t know someone personally, you likely are acquainted with someone who does. In this environment, I’ve learned the value of being a person of your word. Give of yourself to others, even those who may be considered your competitors. You can never have enough friends. And you likely cannot afford very many enemies.

Partnerships built inside your institution are equally essential. In my experience, regular conversation with the Dean of Admissions, the Vice President of Enrollment Management, faculty members, the Provost, and even the President helps increase their awareness of international recruitment and admissions and stimulates their guidance and support. Effective communication engenders trust, and trust is essential when the time comes to seek funding to hire additional staff, engage a new service provider, or acquire additional software to sharpen your competitive edge.

Even better, invite your boss on the road with you. International recruitment is a world unto itself and is a challenge to comprehend if you are not directly involved.  You have surely heard colleagues lament that their dean does not understand their situation, places unreasonable constraints on their work, or limits their funding. “They don’t know what it’s like.” International student recruitment is extremely challenging. Those not in international admissions may see counselors’ travel abroad to colorful locations as exciting, even glamorous. Without direct experience your superiors have no way of knowing how physically and mentally demanding the work can be and cannot appreciate the extreme competitive forces at play in the international market. Over the years, I was fortunate to travel with the President, the VP of Enrollment Management, various deans, as well as faculty members to India, China, and the Middle East. As a result, our relationships dramatically changed for the better. We created experiences we will forever cherish. Most importantly, each one gained new understanding and respect for the international team’s effort and increased their support of international recruitment.

Hopefully, the above offers insight to something I learned from experience: successful international recruitment is not the result only of one primary activity or project you do well. It is the consequence of the proper implementation of varied initiatives, large and small, that in combination produced the success we strive for.

The future?

When I entered the field of international admissions, US institutions were on the road beating the bushes for new students, but their numbers were relatively small. If you were out there, you were sure to be noticed. By the mid to late 2000s, with demographic shifts and a downturn in the economy, larger well-known institutions that previously had little incentive to travel suddenly were driven to recruit abroad in search of needed tuition dollars. Smaller, lesser-known institutions had to fight much harder to position themselves in the mind of the prospective international student. Today, ongoing interest in international recruitment continues to attract an increasing number of US universities to the international arena, and there is every reason to believe that such interest will continue to grow.

Universities must remain on the lookout for advanced technological innovations to aid them in understanding their market better and to maximize their interaction with prospective students. In addition, on the ground representation is now a strategy of choice by many US universities. Such representation either by a university employee or a third-party service provider will bring the institution increasingly closer to the market and facilitate real time response to students’ needs. Improved market intelligence will allow institutions to make more informed decisions regarding recruitment and to take steps to establish closer, more effective partnerships with local institutions.

Looking to the future, successful recruitment will be even more strategic, intentional, and data driven. In my opinion, student recruitment will become even more segmented and customized. Those who employ the best technological solutions while preserving a personal connection with their students will attract the students they seek. Students in today’s market demand an almost instant response, but they also seek personal, human communication. Staff members must be trained in the use of advanced technologies as a tool to engage students in a personal individualized manner.

Self-check

In the end, for me, the real satisfaction I gain from my work has to do with possessing a sense of purpose and knowing I am positively impacting those I encounter. In the current high-pressure arena of international recruitment, whether you are new to the field or a seasoned veteran, I suggest pausing from time to time to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? What am I seeking to achieve?” For me, it’s not just the numbers and the career advancement. Service is at the heart of my “why.”

In my opinion, what gives real meaning to our work is the benefit we provide to others. The joy lies in seeing the smiling, delighted faces of newly arrived international students comprising a vital, talented, and diverse incoming class at Orientation; and receiving the occasional message from a student you recruited to thank you for the huge difference you made in their lives by opening a door to higher education in the U.S. That is the reward that makes the long office hours, the countless emails, the thousands of miles logged in travel season, the sleepless nights and jetlagged days, and the incessant pressure to meet our goals so very worthwhile – for you, your team, and your institution.

About Steven Boyd

Steven Boyd is the Dean of Enrollment Management & Student Life and a Lecturer in Management at Unification Theological Seminary in New York City. He is also an Affiliate with Gateway International Group, providing insight in International Student Recruitment and Admissions. Steven began a career in higher education at the University of Bridgeport in 2001 where he was Director of Graduate Admissions, Assistant Director of the English Language Institute, and Director of International Admissions. He later served at the University of New Haven as Executive Director of Graduate and International Admissions.

Mr. Boyd’s expertise lies in data-driven strategic international recruitment and market development employing student-centered recruitment initiatives. He is Past President of the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) and was a member of the AIRC Board of Directors from 2017-2020. He has been actively involved in NAFSA, AIEA, International ACAC, EAIE, IIE, NACUBO, EnglishUSA, IC3, EducationUSA Forum, and ICEF, as a presenter on strategic recruitment and market development in the MENA region, Latin America, and Asia.

Steven Boyd headshot