From afar, there are many reasons for students to consider Western New England University.
Located just outside of Springfield, Mass., it boasts smaller class sizes, a serene but active campus and attractive programs such as engineering, computer science, data analytics and finance.
It has become particularly welcoming for international students. Around 300 or so from 30 countries give this smaller private university a very diverse feel. Though the past 16 months presented some barriers to their arrival and studies, Western New England found ways to deliver to those from Pakistan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Brazil.
This fall, it has about 35 incoming undergrads in the program, down a bit from a typical semester, affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and politics. However, a silver lining has emerged.
“We’re kind of in this holding pattern to see what’s going to happen in the next five weeks,” says Bryan Gross, Vice President of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England, which is expected to have its largest and most diverse incoming class overall. “We have a number of students from France that are waiting for decisions. But we’ve heard from our families a sense of hope and optimism with the Biden Administration. There is a feeling that [the environment in the U.S.] is going to be more welcoming.”
Whether students overseas can get here in time–Western New England remarkably had 75% of its classes in person last year–it promises to students in person or online, the way it did early in the pandemic.
“Despite having sent our domestic students home, we allowed our international students that didn’t have a place to go to remain on our campus throughout,” Gross says. “Those that didn’t return home, we maintained our relationships with them, making sure they were safe and had information from the Department of State so that their visa wouldn’t be compromised in any way.”
Gross credits those connections with the success Western New England had last year and through the years in building its international student base.
“One of the things parents have been feeding back to me is, it’s about personal relationships,” Gross says. “Anytime they called, people got back to them. In a pandemic and despite a lot of fear, I think Western New England was able to make a positive impression through those relationships. You think about all the technology, all the fancy marketing and virtual events, but I think a big storyline for our success was doing what we’ve always done so well, which is connecting with people.”
Looking to the fall
Last year’s logistics were tricky, from restrictions placed by the previous presidential administration to the pandemic. Yet, many challenges remain, including travel, vaccinations and the Delta variant.
“I think a big theme the whole year is being flexible, because the information that comes out from the CDC this week may be very different four or five weeks from now,” Gross says. “It’s really hard to put out a firm policy or stance now knowing how quickly things change.”
Gross, who is on the university’s emergency response team and also sits on the Executive Board of the American International Recruitment Council, says colleges and universities need to be nimble. Aside from those personal connections, he offered five other thoughts as institutions look to the fall:
Recruiting here and abroad: “We automatically think about international students coming from overseas to study in the United States. But we have a proportion of our class that is locked in because they’re already studying at a high school, or they’ve been at a community college or another four-year institution… We have never stopped recruiting via multiple channels. We have maintained communication with our overseas consultants, school counselor connections and partners in the Department of State and Department of Commerce.”
Providing flexibility for online learning: “We heard early on there was a reluctance to engage in online learning, but as COVID continued, we saw a willingness [from students] to engage in online courses.”
Lending a helping hand: “The two primary competitors to the U.S. are the UK and Australia. How can we support international students who maybe were going to go to Australia or were going to go to the UK? We have an opportunity to help them get to the United States.”
Offering financial help: “International families have been hit financially, so be proactive in thinking about merit-based scholarship programs and need-based scholarship programs. One big development is the three rounds of HEERF funding. Round 3, where international students, F1 visa holders, are fully eligible to receive this funding, is a game-changer.”
Being true to international students: “With declining demographics, changes in consumer mindset, unsustainable tuition discounting practices and the rhetoric around struggles in higher ed, a lot of institutions have jumped into the international recruitment market. Competition has increased by 300% to 400%. But a large majority of late-comers aren’t taking a value-based approach. They’re doing it because they’re hoping to diversify their international student portfolio. No matter what, you’ve got to be in it for the right reasons. International students provide such richness. They benefit our domestic student experience. They benefit our faculty. And our faculty appreciate that diversity of thought and diversity of perspective. It’s powerful for our brand and powerful for the students. It is a win-win-win in so many ways.”