Global Engagement Solutions for Higher Education

Tackle the Enrollment Cliff with 60% IE Participation with Alison Nagy


[00:00:07] Steve MacDonald: Welcome everyone to the global engagement insights podcast. I'm Steve McDonald, your host, and today we've got a really special guest. We've got Alison Nodge here from American University, where Allison, you are the Associate Director. You oversee all the study abroad and the inbound programs for international education. You've been doing this for about 18 years. This is incredible because you've been a huge participant in growing from four different programs abroad to over 100 different programs, over 60% participation from students in the international education program. It's the number one reason why people are coming to the university. You're proving the point that international education should be a top priority for higher education. Just give a bit more about your background, and then we'll start asking some questions about what you're doing.

[00:01:01] Alison Nagy: Sure. I definitely earned one of the awards for most jobs held in the study abroad office at American University. I started as our French desk administrative assistant. I've worked my way up through being an advisor for incoming international students. Then Assistant Director, Associate Director, and now I manage our overall operations and incoming student program. In addition to that, I had brief stints where I taught English abroad. So I have some experience in teaching English. I am also in the International Students and Scholars Services Office. So, I have more hands-on experience with F and J visas.

[00:01:38] Steve MacDonald: Fantastic. I want to ask right away when you came there. There were 4 or 5 different programs. It was rather small. And now you're offering over 100 programs with an incredible 60-plus percent student participation. Please tell us a little bit about that.

[00:01:55] Alison Nagy: I started on the cusp when things started to change. There was a big transition in our office in 2004. We got a new director then, and she was instrumental in setting up the framework to help us build what we are today. When I started in 2005, we had a handful of programs. But when we talk about the year 2000, we had about 15 programs, and it was called the World Capitals Program. Primarily in capital cities, primarily more cohort-based programs, but Dr. Sarah Dumont, who came into our office in 2004, she really laid the framework for focusing more on sending students to be embedded in programs abroad versus going as a cohort to a specific location. We still have some cohort programs, but most of our programs are now directly enrolled. Even back in world capitals, we were known for studying abroad, but the direct enrollment approach allows students to go and pick from course offerings. Different universities have expanded the capacity of what students can study. It's made study abroad more attainable for more majors on campus. And that has been our primary focus in making sure that there's an option for every student who wants to go abroad.

[00:03:19] Steve MacDonald: I know there are some things that you went over that were important in getting such adoption here and giving, self-directing from the students in picking their locations, but you've created these programs very carefully, and the credits that they're earning directly go to the majors that they are attaining. And you said that their overall tuition doesn't change, right? It's a part of the tuition, so it doesn't necessarily cost them money to study abroad, avoiding the risks and financial roadblocks in order to get this done. What are some of the other things you think are why you've had such success?

[00:03:58] Alison Nagy: When we boil it down to boil it down to create key points, when we're talking to students about studying abroad at American University, the big things that we want to make sure everyone understands is that we have cultivated a program list. Like you said, we're very careful about who we partner with, and we want to make sure that they contribute academic value for our students so they can go abroad. Who continue their major course of study and earn credit to keep them on track to graduate on time. This is not a semester off. This is a study abroad semester. The second big thing is that we want to ensure that studying abroad is attainable for everyone. In addition to ensuring that there are academic options for every major, we want to ensure that any student can afford to go abroad. When building out our programs, we want to ensure that if you can afford to be at American University for a semester, you can afford to study abroad. All courses students take abroad go on their official AU academic record. They are Registered as AU students for the semester that they're studying abroad. They're eligible for their entire financial aid package, except for work-study when they study abroad. In terms of all the programs that we've cultivated, 50% of our programs are equal to or less than the cost of attendance for a semester at AU. We do have programs that cost more money. And if you want to go to London, you'll have to pay more money. But if you are open to where you want to go and you want to continue your academic studies, there is an academic option for you to study abroad. The third thing is reiterating: we never want to lose sight of this because academics is the key to our study abroad experience. This is very critical to how we think about study abroad. We make sure that there are avenues and pathways for every major to be able to study. Those are the key things when we're talking with potential students at fairs when we're having students come in to ask if a study abroad is possible for me initially. Those are the three things we always want to hear.

[00:06:08] Steve MacDonald: I know you emphasize communication and ensuring that there's a complete understanding of the programs, what it takes, and how easy it is to attain. So, you have a one-on-one meeting with the students to ensure they are very clear. It's not just you're going to sign up, and there's going to be some forms and you're going to get sent some information, but you really take an active participation in that. Please tell us about that meeting. And then tell us about how that direct communication extends throughout their experience. And when they are traveling abroad and studying.

[00:06:45] Alison Nagy: Sure, yes, we definitely have implemented a model where to open a study abroad application, students have to meet with the advisor for that program. And that's so we can ensure that we have reviewed critical information about that program; how do you look for courses? How do you determine what courses you can take and how they will meet academic requirements? for you to study abroad. We go over budget sheets in every advising session to be very transparent about what this program will cost. what is going to go on the AU bill? How is your financial aid going to apply? And then what are the other costs that you have to think about? Then, I will give them a brief overview of the location. So they have this idea in their head of what this location might be. Is it a realistic expectation? And we also have some questions about What do you want to study? Is this program going to offer you those opportunities? What kind of goals do you have for yourself in terms of integrating into the local culture? Is that realistic? If a student comes to us and says, I want a homestay option where I'm living, but that's not an option at their program, is this going to be the program for them, or how important is that homestay opportunity? We definitely talk through all those critical points in each advising session.

[00:08:05] Steve MacDonald: And at the end of that advising session, are there hesitations left, or is the goal to say, look, it's here for you. It's attainable. You can do this, and it can meet all of your goals, and you're going to be safe. We're going to be in communication with you. Is the goal not only to communicate? Yes, you can do this. We're here by your side, but we'll also hold your hand through this process.

[00:08:31] Alison Nagy: We really want to empower students through this process. We want to show them where the information is. We want to show them the wealth of information that there is. And we want them to make informed choices. Sometimes, it is very straightforward: students come in, they have a program in mind, and you talk to them about that program. It sounds like the fit that they want. And they're ready to open an application for that program. Sometimes we have students coming in, and they're like, I'm trying to figure out, I don't know where to start. I want to know what my options are. If I'm talking to a student like that, I don't want to open an application for them because I want them to do some more research and feel more confident in their decision that they're picking the best program that's right for them. And we're just one piece of that advising. We can talk to them about the programs. We can talk to them about what courses are offered there and what services there are, but they still need to involve their academic advisors to make sure that they know what they're hoping to take abroad is actually going to keep them on track to graduate.

[00:09:38] Steve MacDonald: My takeaway is that you're just playing the role of their advocate. And what's interesting about that is there are 2 forms of advocacy that you have to be a constant advocate within the university in garnering strategic budgets and resources and things like that. But what's taking away from this is that you've got a very defined goal and strategic initiative to be that advocate. And, I know that even extends to when they are spending abroad and you have emergency communication programs and systems set up. Please tell us a little bit about that. Once they open the application, they make a decision. And now they're studying abroad. How does that advocacy translate to where they are in location?

[00:10:21] Alison Nagy: We definitely reinforce open lines of communication. If there was a problem, usually when they're on site. We want them to contact the on-site contact. We're constantly reinforcing that we are a piece of this study abroad process, but there will be a piece of where you're on site. Regarding response times, in terms of who can best help you. At that point, once they're abroad, we're often just a liaison, and it's more impactful if the student is reaching out and communicating with on-site contacts. In case of an emergency, we have a system where all students register in this system before going abroad. It tracks them based on their itinerary, and we get notifications if critical issues or situational crises occur within a certain radius of the student's location. We also work very closely with our Office of Risk Management to prepare our pre-departure materials regarding what crisis Resources are available to students, and they should have that information before going abroad. So that they can utilize it if they're on-site and that that office of risk management will be in constant communication with us because they're monitoring what's happening in countries where we have students abroad. We work very closely with them. On ensuring that if there's a critical situation, all parties are involved in communicating the needs? What is the assessment of the situation? And what actions need to be taken on the part of our office.

[00:11:54] Steve MacDonald: I will take a step back now because we've covered much about working with and advocating for the students and getting them involved. Because that's 60-plus percent participation doesn't just happen. It's very intentional. But if folks are listening in right now, then I will throw out a number. There is 5% to 6% participation in international education within their student body. What would you want to tell them about their ability to move that level of participation up, get new enrollments, make it more of a priority, and change the dynamic and the experience of the students and their time with you? What would your advice be for them?

[00:12:34] Alison Nagy: You really have to get departmental buy-in. We have tried very hard to work with academic units and create guidance for every single major on campus regarding working with those academic advisors and what the academic advisors want to see from the students regarding requirements before they're approved to study abroad. What kinds of credit should they seek to take within their major abroad? And, an initial list of programs that if students really don't know where to start in terms of thinking about study abroad programs that past students have participated in or that departments highly encourage that doesn't necessarily limit students to only those options, but it's a resource because more and more we're seeing students come and not know where to start. You need so much information to help pare it down and process it for it to be consumable.

[00:13:31] Steve MacDonald: You've done all of your work internally and with the other institutions; you've laid the groundwork to bring it together and say, here, let's make this simple. The amount of overwhelm and they don't know where to start. Something would be a fantastic part of the college experience that I want to have. What other factors help remove that overwhelm or just help them get introduced to it? Are you doing ongoing programs? Are you communicating within the student body that's existing? What are the other things you're doing just to make it a part of the DNA of American University?

[00:14:09] Alison Nagy: We are very careful about tracking students' courses abroad and how they count for credit here at American University. We've built our own in-house database that shows in the past five years. These are the courses that students have taken abroad. It's very easy. Without having to go and navigate every single partner's individual course listings, a general idea, what kinds of courses students have taken in the past, and when courses come back for credit here at AU, they are given an AU course number, and it doesn't change based on the student. Every course at every institution is given one equivalency; there can be notes on how that equivalency is applied in different areas. But, if it was applied as an equivalency for one student this way, that's how it would be applied to students in the future. That's the first stepping stone that we use with students to say if you don't know where to start or academic units, you want to see what kinds of courses within your department students have taken abroad where they've taken it abroad. They can look at this course equivalency database and get a clear picture of what students have taken in the past 5 years. We must also work with academic units to clarify that these aren't the only academic options. We can look into more options if an academic unit wants us to. We can help students navigate those particular universities and course listings. But we really want to show how courses will be applied here at AU to keep students on track to graduate.

[00:15:41] Steve MacDonald: You mentioned something really important: data. Bringing the data tells a story, allows you to make decisions, and allows you to represent programs and their success. Tell me more about the data that you're using. And is that important? Just let us ask that from the very beginning here. Collecting, understanding, and taking silos of data, and bringing things together so that you can make the offerings with confidence, know what's been happening, and make decisions. How important is that?

[00:16:11] Alison Nagy: Data is important. Data is very important. It helps us track what programs students are interested in. It helps us quantify if somebody comes and says, Why don't you have a program here? We can talk about it well. Historically, we had programs here. We may not have students interested in going there. Or, we can talk about it. We decided to add this partner for this specialty, but students are taking it at the university. But I will say that. You've got to take everything with a grain of salt. Because we're trying to ensure that everyone has options, not every major is equal. If we only have a major with 20 students, if we find a program that is a really good fit for that major. We won't see the same numbers as we are with a major with 100 students. And there's also a partner. We only get a student that goes to every. One or two students every semester or year, but we want to keep it because it's in a strategic location. We want to maintain that relationship and have options for students in that region or that location. We want to balance the data with ensuring that we have the breadth of offerings that best fit our students' needs.

[00:17:28] Steve MacDonald: Makes perfect sense. And as I'm listening to all this, I know that others will be listening, and they will say it sounds like a lot of work. I am a small department here. We don't have a lot of resources. What's your recommendation for somebody that's hearing this? That's saying, obviously, this is where we want to go. This is where we want to be. How do we start? What must we do, even though we're a small team?

[00:17:51] Alison Nagy: It is a lot of work. We are very fortunate to have a full

[00:19:28] Steve MacDonald: We're just prioritizing and taking it step by step. I'm sure you didn't start out with 10 full

[00:19:45] Alison Nagy: I would say that to ensure students have more options. Many universities focus more on cohort or faculty-led programs, but adding a couple of direct enrollment options at larger comprehensive universities is a good idea. Where students will have more breadth of courses, then you're not just saying we're only adding this partner for this one particular program. They may have a great math program, which will be a good option for your math students. But what other needs can that partner fulfill? They don't have just to fill one need. And if you do directly enroll at larger institutions, that opens up the options for a university that isn't going to be expanding its university offerings so quickly.

[00:20:35] Steve MacDonald: I like that. You've gone to the work, established the relationship, and expanded within partners. It's not going to proportionally expand the amount of time and resources you'll have to put together because you're just making more out of an existing relationship and offering more to your students.

[00:20:50] Alison Nagy: It's breadth and depth; you don't necessarily have to have 100 options, but do you have 10 really strong options that offer lots of opportunities for your students?

[00:21:01] Steve MacDonald: If there was a single takeaway, you said, okay, you're only going to be able to listen to the next minute and a half of what I'm going to say. Okay, I'll put you on the spot. What would you want everyone to know, the top priority?

[00:21:16] Alison Nagy: Top priority. It ensures that when a student comes to you and wants to study abroad, you do not have to turn them away. Think about how you can maximize the programs that you already have. There can be a pathway for the most amount of students at your university because there can be nothing more disheartening for a student to come in and be like, I can't study abroad in my major. I really want to go abroad, but I can't. And then the rumor mill is going to go, there's a certain major you can't study abroad. And it's hard to recover from that. It definitely is again. If you have limited resources and limited program options, ensure that you have programs that can fit more than just one student.

[00:22:08] Steve MacDonald: So it's fit, I can afford it, and it will fit in. I'm going to get credit for it. You remove all the roadblocks, and then that rumor middle works for you instead of against you. Oh, I love that. You have 100 programs in 40 different countries, but what would be a well-rounded program if you were starting out? What would be a goal and target, and how would we think about that?

[00:22:38] Alison Nagy: More and more universities are offering courses in English, even if they're not in English-speaking countries. So, that's definitely been something that we've focused on. But having a large comprehensive university that speaks English, even outside of Europe, I definitely think that sometimes there's a lot of focus on Europe because that's what students want, or

[00:23:00] that's what we perceive as students wanting. But there are many great options in Asia, Oceania, or Africa where the students can take coursework in English and still pick from the breadth of courses at a full university. Definitely make sure that your entire focus isn't just on Europe.

[00:23:22] Steve MacDonald: Can you tell me a story about a student? That's gone through your program; you've met with them. They've gone through the application. You've helped them pick the right locations for their major. They've gone to study abroad, and they've come back. Tell us, from a student perspective, what that experience is like; I know it's a hard question. But what's a great story that brings this full circle?

[00:23:46] Alison Nagy: It's always heartening when you have students come back, and then they come to you, and they're like, Well, I had this amazing experience, and now I'm thinking like grad school abroad.

[00:23:56] Alison Nagy: What options exist for me to graduate school abroad? I'm not an advisor who can advise on grad school abroad, but in terms of taking the experience of learning in a different educational style, how that contributes to their own personal learning style, and how that changes how they think about learning once they've returned to AU, and it just opens their mind to my next step doesn't have to be limited to just this. What I thought it was before I studied abroad. We have had students who have studied abroad in Ireland or Australia, and then they return and say, I should do my full graduate degree abroad. And it's really rewarding to see their personal growth and how they took from their academic learning experience abroad in a different country.

[00:24:46] Steve MacDonald: And I can only imagine if you've got 60% plus participation in this, and that's maybe one semester out of four years, but they're back on campus, and I guarantee they're talking about their experience, they're sharing that with others. And if there's been an incredibly positive experience, it's affordable, it gives them the credits, and they can do it. Is that one of the biggest generators of participation in your program? It feeds on itself that the more success you create, the more success comes on top of that.

[00:25:20] Alison Nagy: Absolutely. I think that every time we do a student preview day or a fair, and we're at a table, students say, oh, I've heard that studying abroad at AU is great. I want to study abroad. That's why I want to come to AU. So, students come in wanting to meet with us during their first semester of their freshman year, saying, I want to study abroad. How do I make it happen? And at that point, we have to say. Right now, your job is to enjoy AU and familiarize yourself with campus. Do not worry, you will get to study about it. But yeah, I think that it helps. That, so many students are coming back. They're talking to each other. They're

[00:26:00] sharing their experiences. Students come in telling us they want to pick a location because they heard other students in their major say this was a great program for their major. They had such an amazing time there. They want to go there too. That's definitely beneficial. But there's always room for growth. I don't want to say we don't have 100% participation in studying abroad, and I don't want to take that for granted. There are always more students that can be reached. There are always more students who aren't going to self-identify and come to us in terms of study abroad. And so we will always have more work to do to encourage those students to study abroad.

[00:26:35] Steve MacDonald: And what I love about that last statement is that even at these 60 plus percent participation rates, you're looking as there's still more opportunity, and as universities that are looking at enrollment declines, and you're sitting at unbelievable levels. But there's still more. So, there's an untapped opportunity. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but would you

[00:27:00] agree that's one of the reasons why international education should be a top priority for all higher education universities because there is almost limitless opportunity for them to be growing and to bring it in and make it a part of the DNA of that university?

[00:27:18] Alison Nagy: Absolutely. You don't want to assume you're always meeting everyone's needs. If you assume that, Oh, we've been doing this forever. It's okay. We don't have to do any more work. We're really doing a disservice to students. We're doing a disservice to the university by enhancing their experience at AU, their academic experience and what they're learning, and their growth over their four years. You don't want to become apathetic. You want always to stay engaged. You want to always think about how you can do better.

[00:27:49] Steve MacDonald: That's not how great we are at AU. That's a servant-leader mentality. The program will run if we do what's right for the students. If there are additional follow-up questions that people have, is it appropriate for us to provide a link to your LinkedIn profile? Or how would somebody best get a hold of you?

[00:28:07] Alison Nagy: They can email me. My email is my last name. Nagy, N as in Nancy, A G Y. And I'm always happy to talk to colleagues and learn about how studying abroad works at different universities. We have our way of doing it at AU. It's not always the right fit for everyone. But it's always beneficial to hear about how others do it and pick up tips and ideas. Even if they don't work at your university, it helps you understand and feel better.

[00:28:38] Steve MacDonald: Allison, thank you very much for coming on and sharing all of your insights with us. It's been fantastic.

[00:28:44] Alison Nagy: Thank you for having me.