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Leveraging campus partnerships to nurture international student persistence — University Affairs

The way forward must be collaborative if we are to retain the students we hire.

According to Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), at the end of 2020, there were 530,540 international student study permit holders in the country. That represented a 17 percent drop from the previous year – the first in nearly two decades – as reported by the Canadian Bureau of International Education. But with the expected increase in international student enrollment after the pandemic, Canadian institutions must be well positioned to support the growing number of students on their campuses.

Retention vs. perseverance

Retain and persevere are often used interchangeably, however, the main difference between them lies in scope. Perseverance rates show a student’s ability to last until the next semester, while retention rates show an institution’s overall ability to retain students.

Developing an effective and persistent student retention program is all about understanding your own student body. Do you know who your students are and where they come from? Do you understand the knowledge gaps they had when starting university, and their goals for joining your institution?

At Ryerson University, the Office of International Student Support (ISS) supports perseverance using the discretionary mentorship model. Each year, through a welcome form and individual welcome appointments with an international student advisor, the team collects arrival and immigration details as well as students’ personal goals for the next year. The faculty-based access support model began in 2016, and over time has developed and supported seven groups of international students.

Breaking down institutional silos

The forward trend in higher education must be collaborative if we are to retain the students we hire. Our work over the past two years has shown us that:

  • Work cannot be done by one department. Perseverance efforts in higher education must be collaborative across campus departments to successfully retain students.
  • Developing an understanding of how the system supports and/or challenges the student’s experience is pivotal to driving change.
  • This work is constantly evolving and changing alongside our students.

Student retention and persistence efforts in post-secondary education are best supported by collaboration and the breaking down of institutional silos. Many of us come to international education with the intent of helping students, often with a personal connection to work through our experiences as either settlement workers, immigrants or former international students. Shared goals directed through institutional strategic mandates, in the form of academic and campus plans and internationalization strategies, provide the university with a blueprint to help guide perseverance and retention efforts.

Students pay the price when there is a lack of cooperation, support, and an integrated understanding of how our work is related. Determined to simplify the international student experience, we began imagining what this business would look like. It was important to understand our current relationships across campus and to be interested in opportunities to forge new relationships. In the pilot year of the program, we defined our goal and learning outcomes for students, and weaved student cohesion throughout this chart. We wanted students to know the plethora of ways the Foundation supports their perseverance, through our partners. This has led to stronger relationships with the colleges, including support for the college’s steering and retention committees. It has also facilitated the creation of direct referral pathways with partners across the organization for counseling, housing or registration services, among others.

Advise on a business plan

In 2020, ISS identified the following pillars in creating its Retention and Perseverance Program: Academic, English, Finance, Mental Health, and Social Transformation. The perseverance of international students is supported by working collaboratively with students to develop an Action Plan: A customized step-by-step referral guide to address challenges that affect their continuity. Direct referrals are made to campus partners. In the program’s pilot year, 80 percent of participating students had at least two on-campus support outside ISS, identified jointly with the International Student Adviser. The goal of creating an action plan is to connect students to campus resources and help them build self-efficacy by understanding how best to navigate the systems and structures of the university.

Where do we go from here?

Building on an evidence-based approach and prioritizing the lived experiences of our students, the goal at ISS is to continue to advance our work by creating a perseverance-based model. The aim is to explore the systems in which our international students navigate during university and to identify institutional indicators that they are at risk of not completing their programme. As the university continues to grow and sets ambitious goals to welcome international students to our campuses, we owe it to students to think not only about how they got here, but how to provide opportunities for them to continue. This means meeting students where they are, creating opportunities to explore identity, make connections, and come up with their own personal definitions of success.

call to action

Are you thinking about how your organization’s international recruitment strategy relates to your business of supporting and retaining perseverance? Are you aware of the indications in your institution that a student is at risk of dropping out? What are your relationships with your campus partners and how can you benefit more from them?

As educators in the post-secondary scene, these are just a few questions we must ask ourselves. They can help keep us grounded in knowing that putting students first, and looking at them is directly related not only to their persistence but also to their retention.

This column is coordinated by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) Internationalized Student Affairs Community of Practice. For comments or questions, please contact international@cacuss.ca.

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