Global Engagement Solutions for Higher Education

SIO Essentials: A Strong Digital Infrastructure for International Education with Paul Hofmann


[00:00:07] Steve MacDonald: Welcome to the Global Engagement Insights podcast. I'm Steve McDonald, your host, and today, we've got an incredible guest here, Paul Hoffman. Now, Paul, you're the SIO at the University of Louisville, and you've been a leader in international education for a long time.

[00:00:23] Steve: So you've got a lot of insights to share with us, and today we're going to be covering everything from not only the importance of international education to the overall health of the university, the institution itself, addressing things like the global engagements cliff, we're going to get into areas and talk about digital infrastructure.

[00:00:42] Steve: And how do we create infrastructure and systems in place, the strategy behind that, why is that important as an SIO, and why do we need to do that to create success? But I'd love to have you give a few minutes here on your background so we can better understand where you've come from.

[00:01:02] Paul Hofmann: Thank you, Steve. And thank you for having me. It's wonderful to share a little bit about myself and some of my thoughts about international education. I became involved in international education as many people in my generation probably did. I was an international student.

[00:01:19] Paul: I studied in China for years and returned to the United States. I wasn't sure what the international education field entailed and the opportunities were—so I started working at universities. Became a director of the International Center at Bowling Green State University and later returned to California, where I was SIO at Fresno State. Then later at Sacramento state. And now, I'm at the University of Louisville. This is my 4th position where I've been the Senior International Officer and had a unique opportunity to work in different states and institution types—everything from a doctoral institution, like Bowling Green State University, to regional public institutions in California.

[00:02:06] Paul: Now I'm at a research institution at the University of Louisville. That's a bit about my background. I hope it lends some credence to what we will talk about today.

[00:02:15] Steve: Absolutely. You’re a four

[00:02:28] Steve: And I will ask you to answer a question about the importance of international education to the institution. And I'm asking you to provide a rating on this question. How important is international education to the overall growth and vitality of the university?

[00:02:46] Steve: How important is international education to that? 1. It's not important at all. 10. It's vital to higher education's overall success and vitality. How would you answer that?

[00:02:57] Paul: For me, it's a 10. It's vitally important to higher education for numerous reasons.

[00:03:05] Paul: I'll start in the broadest sense, and that is, as a country, we don't have an international education policy per se. But when we think about international education, it is our best diplomatic tool. And from that perspective, it's vitally important for institutions themselves to be able to prepare students to be global leaders.

[00:03:27] Paul: To work in a global workplace, to have a better understanding of the world that they live in and maybe even a better understanding of themselves. Certainly, it's also important from an enrollment management standpoint. For years, we've been talking about the enrollment cliff, which has been hitting different states at different times.

[00:03:50] Paul: But one clear thing is the enrollment cliff is now here. And when we think about international student enrollment, that's also a 10,

[00:04:00] in terms of importance to offset. Some of the losses we see in domestic enrollment are because we simply don't have as many. High school graduates will fill all of the seats that we have. Higher education in the United States, when we think about its massification after World War II and its growth into the 70s and 80s, We built far more infrastructure than we have students domestically to fill those seats. We're faced with the challenge of meeting this enrollment client now. International student enrollment is a big part of it.

[00:04:35] Paul: And then, the other benefit comes from international students. Is the diversity that they bring to campus. And it's not only the racial, ethnic and religious diversity, the most apparent, but it's the diversity of thought. And the diversity of thought then circles back and goes to this idea of our best diplomatic tool.

[00:04:57] Paul: The diversity of thought should be our greatest strength in this country. And thus, it's vital not only to universities but to the United States as a whole.

[00:05:06] Steve: You bring up the point on diversity. It's also a high priority for students. After location, how much does it cost?

[00:05:14] Steve: Do they have what I want for my major? Diversity is number 4 When we talk about the importance of international education, and the way you brought up diversity there, it's also really high on the list for if we're addressing enrollment cliff and trying to get more international students and students overall. Because diversity is a benefit, not just for inbound and outbound students; it's a benefit and what all students want. What's your opinion in terms of how international education actually impacts the experience for the entire student population, say, the University of Louisville?

[00:05:50] Paul: Contributes to our rich diversity in the classroom. That diversity of thought for many domestic students may have an international

[00:06:00] experience that goes no further than having a friend or working in a group with a student from another country and having that opportunity to collaborate and share ideas. Diversity is also an individual benefit that people look for as well.

[00:06:18] Paul: Many students today understand the importance of working in a diverse environment and how that will contribute to their careers. But then again, I get back to the societal benefit that we all get collectively from working and studying and learning in a diverse environment.

[00:06:38] Paul: Diversity right now is as important as ever to bridge the gaps that we have that often divide us. Having a diverse campus in a diverse learning environment. That's the first step in doing that.

[00:06:52] Steve: It's interesting because you have taken our conversation so far. 10/10 on the importance to the overall institution. 10/10 on the importance of addressing the enrollment cliff on diversity. But a lot happens in terms of what you must do as the SIO builds support constantly. In being the biggest advocate. There are also a lot of preconceived notions after COVID did a lot of really bad things to international programs.

[00:07:22] Steve: There are many perceptions internally. Is it back? Is it here to stay? Is it just a program? Is it a sideline? Is it something that really impacts the whole university? There's an advocacy, there's an education component. How do you think about coming in and now running for the 4th time in an international education program? How do you think about changing perceptions and building support internally?

[00:07:47] Paul: I'll start by answering where you started with the COVID pace. With COVID, we saw a pulling back of sorts regarding resources. We were traveling less, and our study abroad programs were dormant. International student mobility came down to a trickle of sorts by comparison. Naturally, this pulling back of resources occurred at many institutions. And now, as we're getting into this new normal, if I can use that term, how do we rebuild that? And there is an educational piece to this. It involves advocacy among students, faculty & staff, and the administration. And external stakeholders as well.

[00:08:34] Paul: And these are all important. And each of those audiences. Is very unique, and each has a unique set of needs. Different items that their stakeholders. But the most important thing is to advocate for the importance of international education continually. I once heard a president of a university.

[00:08:56] Paul: That was giving a commencement address, and he said

[00:09:00] a university that does not have international intentions is really not a university at all. And in that context, I take that to heart because my primary job is not only to advocate. But also to try to get the resources in place. So we can bring in more international students and serve them.

[00:09:21] Paul: So we can send more domestic students abroad. Our faculty & staff have opportunities to travel abroad and broaden their horizons, whether it be through research. Or through a short

[00:10:02] Paul: And trying to get everybody on a similar page while they may be playing different instruments and contributing to this internationalization process. That's a big part of the role. I learn through experience that it's important not to get bogged down and think that you need to do it all yourself.

[00:10:20] Paul: On the contrary, you need to advocate. You need to build supporters. You need to find a way to bring your supporters in and make them feel valued. And part of the process. That's how I see the role of advocacy and building support. And it's more important than ever as we try to escape this pandemic. And we start to see a return to normal international activity.

[00:10:45] Steve: It's interesting because one of the things you were talking about there is you can't do it all. And putting those pieces together. The puzzle that you were talking about there, you could spend more than your full

[00:11:16] Paul: Most of my job is working with deans, working with senior administrators strategizing and planning for the future, and putting relevant programs together. Where we're at this time, but at the same time, implementation is a key piece.

[00:11:33] Paul: And there needs to be that delicate balance. I'd like to spend more time on the strategy and a piece of it in the strategic planning, but it just can't be strategic planning alone. You need to mentor. You need to foster an environment and build a team to implement new programs and tools we're using. And that's been a big part of what I've been doing at the University of Louisville for 18 months. We've been spending a lot of time putting new tools in place to make our jobs easier. And allow us to work more efficiently. That's not the job of 1 person. That's been the job of an entire team working together, thinking about things, and bringing this to fruition.

[00:12:21] Paul: There is that balance between strategic planning and implementation.

[00:12:25] Steve: And I want to talk a little bit more about that, but I have one question to ask first because at the beginning of your answer there, you talked about a big part of your job: strategizing and what's the future.

[00:12:35] Steve: Hopefully, there's no more COVID-19 and things that will hit this way. But where will international education be in 5 years or ten years in relation to its importance to the institution? Because you've already said, it's a 10. You've already said it's addressing the enrollment decline.

[00:12:50] Steve: You've already said it's really important for bringing in diversity. But is it going to change in the future? Is it going to get more important? Or have we already reached the apex of where that will be? How do you view the future?

[00:13:01] Paul: Its importance is already at a critical level, and it will remain at that critical level.

[00:13:06] Paul: I wonder if it can exceed the 10-point scale. But I say that because we look at student mobility projections worldwide. And what that looks like in terms of real growth that will continue. Even if there is another pandemic of sorts that will continue, the question is, in what form? International education will become even more multifaceted in the future. The traditional student goes to the US embassy, gets a visa, and comes. And sits in an MBA program for 18 months.

[00:13:40] Paul: There will still be some growth and demand. But there's going to be a lot of hybrid programs. Or short

[00:13:59] Paul: And

[00:14:00] I wish I had a crystal ball, but international education will be critical to the university regardless of what it looks like. There are multiple forms of enrollment. There is the enrollment of a student who is sitting at a desk, taking a class.

[00:14:14] Paul: There is online enrollment, both synchronous and asynchronous, and short

[00:14:26] Steve: The accelerant of independent work, offsite work location, hybrid work locations, that whole trend will still impact and help define the future of international education. So that enrollment can still be somebody living in another country but taking classes here as much as them coming and traveling to the United States themselves.

[00:14:47] Steve: Would that mean expanding international education options? That would then expand the way that students internationally can engage and interact with, say, the University of Louisville.


[00:15:00] Paul: Oh, absolutely. We will see a tremendous expansion in the years to come. For every international student that comes to the United States, there are probably 15 to 20 potential students who, for one reason, cannot come: family, jobs, or their caregivers.

[00:15:19] Paul: We learned from the pandemic that we can do so much more with technology than before. And some institutions were further along many institutions. The pandemic forced our hand to nudge us further. What we did was discover what we can do well virtually. And we also discovered a few things we don't do too well virtually.

[00:15:42] Paul: We won't throw the baby out with the bath water. We completely retrenched from in-person degree programs, but this expansion will be based on what we've discovered. And that also has implications for the delivery of services as well.

[00:15:57] Steve: This all lends to one of the things that you told me, which was that one of your main areas of focus coming in was putting together the digital infrastructure.

[00:16:07] Steve: To handle what you need today and the expansion that you're talking about in the future, just from a strategy standpoint, not down in the weeds, but how do you think about and how would you recommend to other SIOs about how they should be thinking about their digital infrastructure and preparing themselves for today and tomorrow.

[00:16:25] Paul: The digital infrastructure is part of the larger infrastructure question that looks at staffing and overall resources.

[00:16:33] Paul: But the tools they're available today. And the needs that emerged out of COVID. Dictated that, early on, I needed to focus on building an infrastructure that could support us in moving away from paper-driven processes that required people to be on campus to handle paper and push it along to something that allows us to have a digital workflow.

[00:17:00] Paul: Where people can approve things, and students can go online and have a whole menu of self-service items available to them that weren't there before that can be processed digitally and, in many cases, in real

[00:17:28] Paul: And we were putting ourselves in a position where double- and triple-data entry efforts were needed to complete tasks. By putting a digital infrastructure in place that can pull information from different corners of campus, we've eliminated the need to rely on multiple levels of data entry.

[00:17:49] Paul: And that also then lends itself to accuracy. Because you're pulling accurate data that already exists, that's being cleaned instead of just keying it all in. We are halfway through this project. We decided to go with Terra Dotta. We are unique at the University of Louisville in that we implemented all seven modules: the study abroad, the alert traveler, the travel registry, international students, and scholar services. We went from the point where we had very little to now being a leader in our digital infrastructure. Within three months, we'll have all of the modules completely implemented, and then we will shift our focus to rolling it out to the campus community because your digital infrastructure is only as good as your ability to roll that out in a manner where the campus community is using it. Some of that happens organically, but a piece of this must be very intentional. And we're now entering that phase.

[00:18:54] Steve: What I keep thinking about as you talk about this digital infrastructure, the Deloittes of the world, the Price Waterhouse Coopers, they talk about digital transformation, and they talk about the business of today and the business of tomorrow, and the difference is that digital transformation and bringing together the available data to be able to see what's happening to make better decisions going forward, it sounds like that's what you're trying to do here.

[00:19:20] Steve: What are the top two or three biggest ways this digital infrastructure will positively impact your ability to deliver on the international education promise?

[00:19:32] Paul: You touched on it, data-driven decisions. To mine data efficiently and then spend more time understanding what that data is. When you don't have a digital infrastructure, you're spending all of your time mining the data and trying to figure out if this is really the data that you want. And then, you end up needing more time to interpret and understand what the data is telling. You can spend more of that time by having a reporting function built into your infrastructure. Identifying what this data is telling us. There's a piece of this as well. One of the real benefits is working more efficiently but serving students at a point where they want to be met. That's very important. I'm a digital immigrant. I did not grow up with this technology. I'm learning as I go, but we're now serving a group of students born with technology. This is the generation of students. When they were two and a half years old, they had an iPad in their hands.

[00:20:38] Paul: We have to factor that somehow and meet the students where they want to be met. That would be something that I'd like to get out of it. And then not only make data-driven decisions but share information.

[00:20:51] Paul: It's critical to advocacy to help tell the story of international education. It goes beyond just a spreadsheet of names to use data to support the storytelling piece.

[00:21:06] Steve: It's great. There's a study I read years ago that we learn at an 80 percent greater rate our retention to information if it's told to us in the story versus here's some stats and different things, but the ability to tell the story to get that advocacy, but then to take that story and say, what does it mean?

[00:21:24] Steve: Before, if you're in the world of data entry, double entries, fat thumbs, and incorrect data. What that means is you never get to the decision-making part, and the resources of your team that should be much better spent proactively are spent in mundane tasks.

[00:21:43] Steve: You don't keep people as long as they're satisfied, and if you need the right team that's energized, they're there because they believe in the promise of international education. So, they want to be proactive. They want to make an impact. How important is that from this digital infrastructure that you're talking about that impact on the team themselves?

[00:22:03] Paul: Oh, it's huge. It allows people to spend more time on the calling piece of this. The reason that they got into international education as opposed to the mundane tasks that you alluded to that end up pulling you down a little bit. After a few years of that, you have been thinking about whether there is a future in international education for me.

[00:22:23] Paul: So this infrastructure, support staff as well. And it supports staff beyond just doing their jobs. A little easier or allowing them to work more efficiently. It gives them that time. Think about the international education piece and the broader concepts of that. Ideally, that will lead them to greater career satisfaction and greater career growth by focusing on and serving the needs of students, whether they be inbound international students or outbound study abroad students.

[00:22:59] Paul: Or

[00:23:00] working with faculty to help collaborate with them to put a faculty-led program together. That is truly meaningful without being bogged down in the details, and that's one of the big pieces of a digital infrastructure. I alluded to our implementation of Terra Dotta if you can free up that time.

[00:23:19] Paul: And early on, I thought that maybe Terra Dotta would be worth two or three FTE in terms of actual staff resources. We're not yet fully implemented, but that may be four or five; for our office, it may even be more. And as staff can grow and delve into the tools and capabilities of the software.

[00:23:43] Paul: It may even be more in the future. So, it's critical to staff satisfaction and, ultimately, staff retention.

[00:23:50] Steve: So I will ask you an interesting question here. You've just gone through this and are still in the throes of the implementation, but you're feeling the benefits here.

[00:23:58] Steve: Tell me viscerally, if I told you I'm going to take that digital infrastructure away, how does that make you feel?

[00:24:05] Paul: Oh, I couldn't imagine. And I'll speak for my staff as well at this point. We just couldn't imagine, it goes beyond just saying, oh, we took two steps back. We're just in the final stages of implementation, and the feeling is, How did we live without this?

[00:24:21] Paul: How were we operating without this before? And if you were to take that away right now. Wow. Yeah, no words, quite honestly. It's not even back to square one. it's just. Wow.

[00:24:34] Steve: From everything we've talked about here, we've covered a lot of territory. If there was one thing that you wanted other leaders in international education to take away from our conversation here today, what would that be?

[00:24:47] Paul: There's a lot we've talked about; as you said, the one overarching takeaway that I would like to emphasize is that international education is critical to higher education. Not only in each institution but in the United States, I'd like to see the United States get to the point where we have a National International Education Policy or, short of a policy, some conversations about the importance of international education that take us beyond where we're at now.

[00:25:19] Paul: And I believe we can do that. But I think it's important for all SIOs throughout the United States and those of kindred spirit to continue to advocate, to continue to let all of our senior leaders, both at universities and in the United States, know that this is important to the country, to economic development, to diversity, to building off the strengths that we already have. And that would be the takeaway: international education is critical to the higher education enterprise.

[00:25:50] Steve: Do you believe that there is a component to this that goes beyond politics?

[00:25:55] Steve: Because we're in a global economy. We're moving more and more towards global culture and the exchange of ideas and information. How a country relates to another country? And the exchange of ideas and faculty and coming and staying in the country and staying in their country. What's the level of importance of that in terms of the relationships between countries? And what is the importance of maintaining the United States in its role within the world?

[00:26:25] Paul: Oh, it's absolutely critical. I go back to something I said earlier in our conversation. Higher education is at the top of the list of our diplomatic tools.

[00:26:35] Paul: When we talk about relationships and understanding of people. International education helps foster that, the one thing that I've learned in my career. In international education, I've had the opportunity to visit many different countries and meet many interesting people. I've realized that, regardless of where you're from, what you believe.

[00:26:57] Paul: We're more alike than we are

[00:27:00] different as people, and that's important for us to understand. A parent in China probably doesn't have many different opinions about their children's lives than American parents. Everyone wants their children to have a better life.

[00:27:15] Paul: Everyone wants prosperity. Everybody wants peace. And this is different from the politics of the matter. And the realities of the global stage as they are today. We have to differentiate between people in governments at times. That piece of building relationships is when students and faculty have a chance to experience another culture abroad.

[00:27:41] Paul: I think that's vital to building that world community that we want

[00:27:45] Steve: I wish we had. It is time to spend about another hour because this has been absolutely fascinating. And I know people will want to tie into you and ask you questions. You've been an SIO four different times.

[00:27:57] Steve: If somebody wanted to reach out and ask you a question, is it appropriate to give them a link to your LinkedIn profile so that they could reach out to you that way?

[00:28:05] Paul: Absolutely, they could LinkedIn profile, or you could even share my email address. That is fine. I am more than happy to share my ideas, but more importantly, engage in conversations where I can learn from my field colleagues. Yeah, please feel free to share my information.

[00:28:22] Steve: Well, Paul, thank you very much for coming on and sharing what you have done here. It's important that, as peers in the industry, we all learn from each other. So thank you very much.

[00:28:33] Paul: Oh, thank you for having me. I enjoyed the opportunity to have this conversation.