Q&A: Maria Popel, Director of Graduate Admissions at the University of Tampa

With a beautiful campus in a vibrant location, a year-round sunny climate, and a high volume of STEM programs with close employer connections, it’s no surprise that the University of Tampa is an attractive study location for international students. Over 130 nationalities make up a diverse student population.

But we all know that initial appeal is only one part of the equation when it comes to enrolling students. By far the bigger influencing factor is an individual’s experience on the journey to enrollment.

As our longest standing US partner, we support the University of Tampa with precisely this for its international graduate students, working with them to engage students from pre-applicant stage to enrollment. Embarking on our journey together in 2019, we recently extended our partnership for another three years.

Along the way, we’ve achieved considerable growth – not least an impressive year-on-year rise in enrolments for 2022; with a 105% increase for the Spring 2022 term compared to 2021, and a 75% increase for Fall 2022!

We spoke to Maria Popel, Director of Graduate Admissions at the University of Tampa, to reflect on some of the highlights of the past four years.

Maria, what were you looking for in a student engagement partner and why did you opt to work with UniQuest?

Around four years ago we started to see a significant rise in inquiries from prospective international students, and we simply didn’t have the manpower to process all of those inquiries while maintaining the high-level personalized communications we aspire to. That’s why we turned to UniQuest.

For us, the most important thing we were looking for in a partner was the ability to seamlessly act as an extension of our team so that we communicate with one voice. It’s critical that all prospective students feel like they are talking to the University of Tampa and not some random agency. The UniQuest team has really taken the time to embed itself and understand us as an institution and it shows in every interaction, whether that’s a phone call, email or live chat. I don’t even regard them as a ‘partner’ – they are our colleagues!

Can you tell us about the evolution of the partnership?

Initially, we were just focusing on inquiries from prospective students, but after six months we expanded this to cover applicants and offer-holders too, enabling us to take a more holistic approach to the admissions funnel. We can now send out different messages and communications at timely points in the whole admissions journey, and I think this has really helped to convince students fairly early on that Tampa is the right place for them. For example, we’d already reached 100% capacity for our Fall 2022 intake in May.

We recently signed our second agreement with UniQuest for another three years and I’m excited to see where it takes us.

What are some of the stand-out achievements since working together?

As I alluded to earlier, my biggest concern prior to working with UniQuest was around delivering personalized communications – so, for me, the fact that everything is tailored to perfection is a big win. To date, UniQuest has had over 300,000 communications with our students, and roughly one third of them have been one-to-one interactions across phone, WhatsApp, live chat and email.

The remainder have been automated email marketing messages, informed by UniQuest’s insights showing what type of information students want to receive at what point in the journey. This means that we’re always one step ahead and our emails never feel spammy or irrelevant.

Aside from that, the webinars that UniQuest has helped us to deliver have been one of my favorite aspects of the partnership. UniQuest promotes, builds and hosts the webinars – which are a mix of general inquiry-based topics and more specific ones for admitted students – and does all of the post-webinar follow-up too. It’s enabled prospective students and offer-holders to feel like they’re already part of UT even when they’re at home sitting on their couch.

We’ve had an amazing attendance rate for the webinars, usually in the region of 40-50% of invited attendees, which is pretty rare. Engagement is always really high too – we get lots of great questions in the webinar Q&As and the feedback afterwards is always very positive.

I couldn’t answer this question without also mentioning the rise in our international enrollments since working with UniQuest. The team has done such a good job in communicating with students and promoting Tampa in the right way that we’ve seen our enrollment numbers double for some intakes.

What do you value most about working with UniQuest?

I’d definitely say the extent to which UniQuest has increased our bandwidth. Before partnering with UniQuest, I was a one-person office and the only person taking care of graduate international applications at Tampa. Trying to single-handedly engage with students at every stage in the funnel is of course very demanding, so having UniQuest act as my extended team has helped me a lot and smoothed out any backlogs.

It means that UT can maintain best practice response times and it’s freed me up to focus on other priorities.

What’s next?

For the next three years, we’ll be building on the momentum we’ve created through the partnership with UniQuest. Now that our quantity is great, we can focus more on recruiting high-quality students and making sure they find the right programs for them. Getting the match right is key, and with UniQuest, it’s very achievable.