Found in translation: Higher ed reaches out to international students

Ways to approach the challenging goals of providing web content for non-English speakers

The University of Iowa adds narration in five languages to its online commencement videos so families from around the globe can experience their children’s graduation.

Ohio University offers virtual tours with subtitles in seven languages.

Colorado State University-Pueblo translates fact sheets geared toward parents into Spanish and posts them on admissions pages.

Sidebar: Web content experts on creating multilingual pages

As competition for international students intensifies and more first-generation students enroll, there’s no one-size-fits-all method for reaching families in their native languages. Institutions may opt for automatic translation tools, help from multilingual staff and students, or expert translations.

It’s not enough, however, to simply translate some text into Mandarin, Farsi or Spanish.

A website’s images must reflect diversity and be culturally sensitive, says Yoojin Janice Lee, a consultant with Visions, Inc., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit diversity and inclusion consulting firm.

“It’s really important that whoever is tasked with this, it’s not only those individuals’ task,” Lee says. “From students to deans to res life to faculty to the president—there’s a universal awareness of how to incorporate different cultures as well as a commitment to really prioritize that.”

Thought, oversight and follow-up are keys to getting the multilingual web content goals right.

Sidebar: Social media: Going beyond English

Making the case for multilingual content

U.S. colleges require students to be proficient in English. Some administrators may wonder why it’s worth spending resources on multilingual web content. Three reasons are:

1 The ability to reach whole families Because families are usually involved in the college search process, higher ed institutions find value in providing website content geared toward parents of international students, immigrants or the children of immigrants who are not English-proficient. Colleges located in areas with a high concentration of Spanish speakers find that to attract students, it helps to provide answers to parents’ questions on their website.


Hiring a translation partner

The admissions team at Ohio University, which has enrolled international students for more than a century and has offered English language instruction for 45 years, worked closely with its Global Affairs office to translate its virtual tour, powered by YouVisit.

They began with Mandarin and Spanish in 2009, then added five additional languages over three years. A third-party service translated and coded the text, which appears as subtitles and in a narration after a tour participant clicks on a language-options button on the page.

A grad student from China checked the vendor’s translation, and world languages faculty proofread subsequent translations for accuracy. As the virtual tour is retooled annually, so are the translations.

“This is such a front door to our campus,” says Craig Cornell, senior vice provost for strategic enrollment management. “We’re a rural campus. We are often rated as one of the prettiest campuses. We want to make it authentic to who we are.”

The team chose a virtual tour with subtitles for its first foray into multilingual content because surveys showed its international students were particularly attracted to its campus.

“Unless you’re ranked in the top 100 or on a coast, [international students] are not going to just show up,” Cornell says.

The University of Iowa has also improved virtual tour accessibility, so a Mandarin-, Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking visitor to the admissions page can explore campus, says Downing A. Thomas, associate provost and dean of international programs.

Geared to parents, the tours were created with the help of multilingual students.

Making the case for multilingual content (cont.)

2 Internationals’ continued interest in a U.S. education More than 1 million international students are pursuing their education in the U.S., with 300,000 new students starting class each fall, according to the Institute of International Education. While some institutions have blamed a dip in international enrollment on the current political climate, universities surveyed by IEE suggest international interest in studying in the U.S. is not waning.


Taking advantage of autotranslations

One quick and free—yet controversial—option for making an entire website multilingual involves adding a Google Translate button to every page.

Kristen Capezza, associate vice president for enrollment management at Adelphi University in New York, says it’s better than nothing, even with flaws such as the tool’s inability to differentiate between regional dialects.

“For us, it’s what’s realistic. We’d rather get the majority of the information out there,” she says. “We serve a highly diverse population—it gives us an opportunity to communicate, even if it’s on an imperfect level.”

Since this past August, when the school launched a Google Translate feature offering content in more than 100 languages, “the students and the students’ families are both using it,” Capezza says.

The primary focus is on families who want to learn more about where their son or daughter is applying. The university didn’t consider other options, says Erica Klein-Meisenhelter, director of strategic web design and production. Google Translate took just a few minutes to set up.

“We felt we needed to do something relatively quickly to deal with the international population we’re bringing on campus,” she says.

By early October, her tracking system showed the translation feature had been used more than 1,000 times. Administrators aren’t overly concerned about the translation glitches.

“A lot of users on the internet are familiar with autotranslate features and options,” says Klein-Meisenhelter. “I believe people are used to less-than-perfect translating.”

Administrators at other institutions, such as Ohio, would rather forgo using Google Translate to create a multilingual website because “it comes up with some pretty funky stuff,” says Cornell. Such automatic translations, Lee adds, are potentially offensive and can give prospective students a negative impression of the institution.

Making the case for multilingual content (cont.)

3 Word-of-mouth marketing being vital to extended reach Word-of-mouth marketing proves effective in reaching international students, according to research from IEE and other organizations. For example, institutions have experienced net high rates of sharing on social media posts that promote international students’ accomplishments and experiences while they are studying in the U.S.

Tapping internal translation talent

During a campus information session at Colorado State University-Pueblo, professor Grant T. Weller noticed a potential student translating the entire presentation for her mother, father and aunt.

“It really sank in—what a challenge it would be for this prospective student and her family, when she has to be the sole conduit of information,” says Weller, who is chair of the history, political science, philosophy and geography department.

The university requires students be fluent in English, but Weller saw an opportunity to reach first-generation college students more effectively. He asked his colleague, Visiting Assistant Professor Katie Brown, if the students in her translation course could interpret three brochures into Spanish.

The students were thrilled to be given a real-life task that benefits their university, he says. (Brown checked the translations for accuracy.) The brochures, which addressed frequently asked questions and other topics geared to parents, were uploaded to the university’s orientation webpage as PDFs.

If they’re well-received, Weller plans to ask students to translate more online and print brochures relating to financial aid, parent resources and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

When University of Iowa officials decided to give families abroad a chance to watch commencement, International Programs staff asked students and faculty fluent in other languages to produce narrated versions of its graduation ceremonies.

These narrations—in Mandarin, Korean, Spanish, Farsi and Arabic—are shared online and through social media platforms.

“The graduation ceremony is the culmination of years of hard work and years of investment and financial planning on the part of the family,” says Thomas. “This is a way of creating a bridge to these other parts of the world.”

Initially, the university livestreamed the graduation with Mandarin narration. But odd hours for viewers in China and technical glitches caused delays, convincing administrators they could create a better video by filming the ceremonies and posting the following day.

“It’s a fairly low investment when you take everything into account,” he says. “And it builds goodwill.”

Theresa Sullivan Barger is a Connecticut-based writer.

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