I recently had the chance to talk with Karla Reigosa, who is an Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Florida Southern College. We took a look at methods and strategies to build relationships and improve your international student recruitment efforts. Below you'll find an edited transcript of our conversation.
Ian Evenstar: I know you've been in the field for almost a decade, how did you get into admissions?
Karla Reigosa: I was a student worker in college, in the advising office, and one of the advisors had gone over to another department and he was like, "Hey, do you wanna be an office assistant?" I went over and started doing recruitment specifically in my hometown. I was born and raised in south Florida, over in Miami. So I started there and that was really great. And within six months, the person in international recruitment didn't come back from maternity leave. And so they were like, "Hey, you speak Spanish. Do you have a passport?" I was like, "Yeah, I have a passport. I have visited my family." They're like, "Okay, do you wanna go to Brazil or something? And I was like, "Brazilians don't speak Spanish, but, yeah, I'm down." So I got to do this really awesome trip and started recruiting that way.
IE: Are you glad that you have that narrow focus of admissions and recruitment that focuses on international students?
KR: Yes. I'm definitely the type of person that wants to know everything that's going on. So in the office, somebody called me from Missouri and he just wanted to know about the admissions process and I was able to assist him with no problem. International recruiting has kind of helped me broaden the scope where I'm able to serve just about anybody.
IE: Is that how you approach most of your conversations with prospective students? Do you try to listen to their questions first and then respond? Or do you feel like there's a sales script or some set of points that you need to drive to?
KR: Definitely more conversational. I always talk to them about that, and how proud I am of them to even do this. Take the time to reach out to somebody and then try to figure out what they already know and what they don't know. And of course, I always preface with, "This is gonna be like very specific to Florida Southern." I try to explain, just in case they go to another institution, and they tell 'em something totally different. So I'm also teaching. And I think that starts the relationship as, "Okay, she's just trying to help me. She's not trying to sell to me." And so typically students open up to me a little bit more than others, and because of that, it is a very natural thing. We just had students start classes yesterday so we were over in orientation. I was down in Lakeland and there were a lot of hugs given out and just a little bit of tears even for some of these students because I know what they did to get here. And for some of them, they're gonna have some pretty awesome stories to share later on.
IE: I'm assuming you share some of those success stories with new prospective students, right? Do you have a handful of success stories that you like to highlight in those conversations?
KR: I definitely do that. Most of my students typically connect with other students, maybe not from the same country, maybe just similar backgrounds or similar majors. At this point, I have about 100 or 150 students typically to pick from, to connect with those students.
IE: That's incredible when we're looking at the success rate that you've had. So we'll talk about that here in a moment, but recruitment and retention seem to go hand in hand for you, and that's not always the case for admissions departments or admissions units within universities. Tell me about that. Why is retention equally important to you as the actual recruitment process?
KR: To me, it's just ethical for me just to think about, "Did I bring in the student to the right place and check-in on them continuously? Was it worth it? Are they taking advantage of the opportunities here? Are they going through any sort of struggle while they're here?" So checking in on them is part of it, and then having them participate and share also helps me learn more if they're not the type that shares with me directly. And so that's part of it, but obviously, sometimes students leave for something that I would consider maybe a little bit silly. Maybe they just didn't know. So connecting them to the things that they're having struggles with, because the school has so many resources. There is this thing where sometimes you have so much that you don't even know where to start. So a student will say, "I'm having trouble finding health-related things," and I was like, "Hey, did you know that we have a health center on campus and it's free to use?" And maybe they just didn't know, they felt silly to ask somebody and I'm the one checking in saying, "Did you know that there's a counseling center, depending on what country they're coming from?" That's not gonna be normal to them, and they're not gonna realize the opportunity and the advantage that there is to having a counseling center, right?
IE: I think this theme where you're constantly trying to help them succeed and you have a vested interest in whether or not they stay until graduation and ensuring that they succeed post-graduation, but you're coming back to this idea that you're continuing to find out what they know and what they don't know. That is a method of really aiding them and guiding them. And that in itself is an art, right? Listening, asking the right questions, and being able to then provide information. Where did you develop that skill or is that just something that you've always had with you?
KR: My parents raised me in a certain way to help others. I would say that foundations are built very strongly on families. Even to this day, there are families in other countries that I'm helping. If you wanna really talk about that immigration aspect, it was easy for me to pick up because I was already helping out with that part. Technically, I was a first-gen U.S., but my family did study outside of the United States. So I did come in with a slightly different perspective of struggling through the U.S. admissions process. But I definitely knew that I was gonna go to college because my parents were just not having any other way.
IE: All of those skills accumulated over time and you're still developing them too. I know you have this approach, which you call counseling-to-sell and maybe you could just highlight what counseling-to-sell means to you in terms of a methodology.
KR: I think counseling-to-sell is probably the most honest way to do it. You're gonna find better retention when you figure out what's the right fit. I get phone calls from these solar companies all the time. They're trying to push these solar panels on me. They're not considering the fact that I move every two to three years. I'm not a good candidate for this. And I try to tell 'em and they don't figure it out. I don't wanna be this solar panel salesperson. We have a really good CRM called Slate. We were not releasing admissions decisions electronically. It wasn't just international students, anybody that didn't have a U.S. mailing address wasn't gonna get this information. I had international students and other students do phone calls over video chat. Those are the most fun. I did video calls and a couple of other things just to make that personal. Culturally trying to connect with somebody who's so far away. It works not just with international students, it works with U.S. students. So they gave me transfer students within the U.S. And they gave me south Florida to work with this last year. And I was like, "Well, I'm not gonna make three different types of campaigns. That's just ludicrous. I'm just gonna call." I had the interns and tele-counselors; "You're gonna call them and congratulate them on getting accepted. And I think it's gonna be even more special if a Florida Southern student does that." So they loved it, it was one of their favorite things. They loved doing the accept-calls. Students were trying to apply to get that job. Students are getting really sincere congratulations. I have a separate phone since my office line doesn't reach out to every country. And so I would say, "Hey, I need to tell you some really good news. Can I video call you?"
And yeah, of course, we did reach out to the denies, but I did those calls, I didn't have my tele-counselors do those. And then I would talk to them about why they got denied and what they could do to get accepted if they wanted to. So my denies also got some clear information and I have had students follow up with me to tell me, "Hey, I've changed certain things. And I feel that I'm competitive enough to come to Florida Southern. Can I reapply?" For your admissions counselor, it's like, "Okay, Karla is a good person to reach out to. I can ask her anything. She will not judge me." I have students who get denied, but they still recommend their friends to apply.
So it's just trying to keep that positive, open communication with students. And it is not easy, but I do manage to do this within a 40-hour work week. It is something that's manageable within the admissions process, depending on how many counselors you have on your team. Our admissions team I would consider quite large for our size. Part of that is because we have to do financial aid as well. So it does require a slightly bigger team. I was picking up students from the airport who couldn't meet the shuttle bus this term. I love picking up the students. The first thing I tell 'em is, "Hey, make sure to let your parent know, whoever knows that you're here and that you're with me. Let's take a picture and send them over." I'll be sending out a questionnaire to them about a month in and getting them to tell me what this first month has been like. And then follow up with them to see about some opportunities that they could to participate and share their stories.
IE: Talk about relationship building. I know in recruitment marketing, there's this idea of nurturing people from the first conversation all the way through to admission and then enrollment. And I think what you're speaking to are significant investments that you've made in each relationship. So that level of investment in the relationship has to pay dividends; that is truly counseling-to-sell, but it's also like a counseling-to-brand advocate. I'm sure these students of yours who you've had this direct connection with and these relationships over time, they're gonna be lifelong connections and they will probably also be significant donors as alumni. And as you mentioned, they'll probably be willing to participate if you were to go back and ask them for an alumni success story or a testimonial or some additional ask down the road, once they graduate.
KR: That's the goal. It's just me doing the recruitment. And so when they travel, I'm like, "You need to be wearing your Florida Southern shirt the entire way in the airport." That's all I ask for. "Do you not have a Florida Southern shirt? Let me get you one."
IE: Anyone listening to this episode, I'm hoping they'll take away this key lesson, which is that the investment in the relationship will produce numbers, right? They will increase your applicant pool. They will likely increase the quality of the student. And at the end of the day, it doesn't really cost as much as maybe some paid outreach that you might be strapped for or need to go back and ask for. What do you think the biggest hurdles are right now facing admissions teams? I mean, you're a one-person shop. You must have a handful of key challenges, but what do you think some of those big, like the biggest hurdles, might be facing admissions teams?
KR: Overall, maybe professional development opportunities. I think that, for me, honestly my VP out there may be listening, he's great. If I ask, "Hey, I need to know more about this country. I need to do better with these foreign credentials." He gets it for me, but I know that at some places they may give this task to do recruitment or read applications from certain areas, learn about visa processes and not have anybody to really reference, which can be difficult. I know that within my first year I was sent out to Brazil but I didn't actually understand the Brazilian curriculum. I do now, but I didn't even understand the immigration process, so students would tell me about their particular process.
IE: So let's underscore that point because I think there are VPs and provosts out there listening who need to hear this: professional development for your admission staff. That's a crucial skill. That's a crucial area where they can be investing in their staff and help you grow and help you continue to do the best job for the university or college. Do you think that there are differences between the students that you talk to on the international front versus domestic students? And how have you been able to navigate those differences or distinctions?
KR: You wanna make sure that you know your state grants and your county areas because if another school is telling that student about a grant that you didn't mention, they're going over there. So you need to be very knowledgeable in that area. Or at least be open enough to make sure to ask the student about what they know as well. I do learn from them. Since I was working with that south Florida area, I knew the scholarship foundation or I was sending that information to my students, telling them, "Hey, did you know about these? The deadline is February, you should go do these." Not that everybody needs a scholarship necessarily, but it is good to let them know about all the opportunities that are available, and how they can apply for them at your institution because that financial aid bit is going to be really important.
IE: You mentioned professional development, but I'm also curious about what places you're innovating in, what are some new strategies?
KR: So the pandemic hit, right? Things have to change where there's a little bit more availability for these virtual aspects and trying to connect that way. Even though there is this saying that they're "Zoomed-out" and things like that. I don't think that's necessarily true. Maybe these larger sessions, but having more one on one with them, like what we're doing right now, they do really well with that. I do let them know that it's not an interview, because if you say "interview", they will run away. It's just a chat. And that I'm looking to try to learn more. It helps when I'm going back and forth in an email and I'm not quite understanding what they're asking, which may be because they don't understand what they're asking either. So sometimes that phone call is helpful.
I don't see a lot of schools doing this; we do a program called "Fly On Us", where we give up to $250 for you to come and visit campus. I've seen some schools do it in a different way, but not a lot. Most universities are gonna say that the students that come visit campus are the most likely to yield the best. They do have admissions criteria for you to be able to get that reimbursement, and they have a time period. But it's been fantastic. I've seen a lot of students hop on and maybe they're already coming to Florida. We are about 40 minutes away from Disney, so I literally tell him, "I understand if you wanna bring your Mickey mouse gear when you come to the campus, that's totally fine, but come to the campus and you'll get the "Fly On Us" reimbursement. And then you can head over, back over to Disney in time for the fireworks." So I have had students do this.
IE: I love the "Fly On Us" program and this idea of travel reimbursement as a motivating factor to come out and experience it firsthand. Would that be the one piece of practical advice that you would give to someone working in admissions? What's the one practical thing that anyone working in international student recruitment should be doing?
KR: They should be doing outreach. My admissions counselors and other places are not doing it. We're overworked and we're reading so many applications that we don't have time to do it. Use your students. I'm telling you right now, they love to tell somebody, "Congratulations, you've been accepted." And yeah, we're reading so many apps that it's really hard to do the rest of it, but I just allocate my time in a different way to try to make this happen.
IE: So we'll underline that again, use your students as part of the process because they really love it and they wanna participate at that level.
KR: They love it. I was getting students saying, "I wanna call people if there's anybody from Japan that's getting accepted. Can I do it?" And I was like, "Do you wanna get paid to do it?" And that same student is gonna be with me at this education fair coming up in September for Japan, because I need a Japanese-speaker. It makes that tele-counseling job a little bit more fun. If any of you guys out there have tele-counseling jobs, I know it was hard at the beginning to try to get people, but once they heard the buzz that it's super fun, then we got more of them to apply.
IE: We spoke briefly about something tactically, but how about the big picture? What's the key takeaway as we look to close? What's the one thing that you would leave with institutions trying to improve their recruitment overall, particularly around international student applicants?
KR: Definitely look at your data and figure out what's working well and what's not. The way that it was being interpreted was only international athletes are coming here because they're fully funded. But the thing is that athletes who are at that level are typically getting full offers at other schools. So to my knowledge, athletes pick schools in a slightly different way. If they have three schools where they're getting full rides, they're gonna pick their favorite team. And so I thought the same way, I said, "well, the reason why the athletes are coming is that their coach is helping them get here. And they're getting that support. Are we doing the same level of support that a coach is doing to try to get their athlete here?" And I didn't see that. So the data was being interpreted differently, right? Somebody was seeing that and saying, "Oh, the only ones that are coming are the athletes because they're fully funded." I said the only ones that are coming are the athletes because they're getting the most support and engagement to get here. So let's do that same thing and get the rest of the students here. And look at what's working well and do that for the other ones.
IE: And don't take correlations between data and results as direct causation, right? We hear that in science, but what you're illustrating too. It would've been easy to assume one thing, but you actually said, "No, it's only because of the way that we're handling these athletes, and we should apply this across the board." So I think that's really mindful. Thank you for spending this moment with us today. I know you've given us a lot of like direct encouragement in terms of nurturing, listening, having good empathy, and making sure to always be building those relationships. And I know that it's gonna continue to bring a lot of success to you and the college and just wanted to say thanks again for lending your expertise in your wisdom in this category.
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