Pioneering a New Approach to International Student Success at Rutgers

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Monday, April 29th

Rutgers University has a long history of attracting international students and has shown a deep commitment to ensuring their success at Rutgers and beyond. The university's current strategic plan states that “international students play a vital role in promoting New Jersey’s global connections and intellectual resources and help boost Rutgers’ profile around the world.”  As such, it is crucial to support our international students academically by “heightening attention to student advising and services, both academic and nonacademic, to ensure student success and enduring satisfaction.”

In the past decade, Rutgers has seen a sharp increase in the number of international students. For instance, since 2010 the number of undergraduate students at Rutgers-New Brunswick has grown from 592 to 2934 and, currently, the university hosts about 9,000 international students from 120 countries. While this rapid growth in international student enrollment has been heartily welcomed by the university, it has also highlighted a need for new programs to bolster student advising and improve the experience for international students. How best to ensure that resources for international students keep pace with the rapid growth?

Enter the Office for International Academic Success, part of Rutgers Global and overseen by Anu Gupta, Assistant Dean, with guidance from Jeff Wang, Assistant Vice President of Global Affairs. The office was created to address this need for improved experience for international students in 2016 and charged with three goals: to enhance academic success of international students, to reduce redundancy in programming, and to ease the complexity of navigating a large university.

It was important for Gupta and her team to first identify the challenges that international students can face as they transition to a university in the U.S. Some of these challenges can include: cultural and language barriers, mental health stigma, immigration regulation compliance, lack of familiarity with U.S. academic system, teaching methods, and academic integrity standards.

From there priorities were designated, including, first and foremost, to enhance students’ understanding of expectations and resources at Rutgers. Another priority was to design and implement new academic support programs for international students. And, finally, to support faculty and staff capacity to address the unique challenges of international students.

Gupta created a multi-stakeholder working group with senior representatives from 12 school and offices across Rutgers, including Student Affairs, Admissions, the Foundation, the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), the School of Engineering (SOE), and the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS). The group is co-chaired by Gupta and the Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Academic Affairs Dr. Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui, and meets twice a month to work on projects that are actionable and scalable. “Each member of the working group is invested and takes ownership of these projects, which leads to their success,” said Gupta.

The first project was to create a Pre-Departure Orientation (PDO) in the home countries of our international students and their families to prepare them for their arrival to Rutgers. In 2017, the first international PDOs took place in Beijing and Shanghai. In 2018, New Delhi, and Seoul were added, and this year in May, the PDOs will take place in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, New Delhi, and Mumbai. Gupta shared that PDOs have significantly decreased “summer melt,” a term describing accepted students who place a deposit but do not ultimately enroll. She shared: “We looked at the numbers and we saw a decline in summer melt from 25% to 7% after the international PDOs were implemented.”

Second, the team conceived of and implemented RU-FIT (First-year International student Transition course), a one-credit course taught by Peer Leaders designed to aid international students in a successful transition to Rutgers University. Peer Leaders, upperclassmen (often international students themselves) are trained by faculty and staff advisors and, as mentors, become an important resource for international students during their time at Rutgers. Nimit Jogani, a Peer Leader notes, “This is a really important course for first-year international students … it will help keep them on track for the next 3-1/2 years at Rutgers.” (See a video about the RU-FIT course here). RU-FIT also reduced redundancy in programming across the university. In addition, it provides students with an important employment opportunity that bolsters their resumes upon graduation.

With RU-FIT, Gupta’s working group identified a key model for academic success for international students: a peer mentoring/leadership structure that helps ensure there are enough resources available for international students. Besides RU-FIT, the Office for International Academic Success is pursuing further projects using a peer mentoring model, including a student to student academic coaching mini-course; a peer-led academic coaching program at the Learning Centers; and peer advisors at Academic Advising Offices.

This key model of peer mentoring also works well with regard to providing support to faculty and staff, and there is a pilot project that pairs RU-FIT Peer Leaders with Teaching Assistants (TAs) in Rutgers’ signature Global East Asia course, which is currently comprised of 225 students with three TAs. Peer Leaders attend the course on a non-credit basis and hold office hours to provide additional support for international and domestic students.

Given that there are many factors beyond what happens in a classroom that determine academic success, such as integration into campus life, the office is creating strong partnerships with the International Student and Scholar Services office in Rutgers Global, as well as various units under Student Affairs, including Resident Life, to offer more holistic programs for international students.

What’s ahead for the Office for International Academic Success? New partnerships are being explored to create programs that bolster retention and reduce time to graduation. There are also plans to focus attention on international graduate students, as well as increased programming on the Newark and Camden campuses.

Since just 2016, Anu Gupta and her Office for International Student Success have created and implemented innovative programs that are quickly bearing fruit and being effectively scaled to have a significant impact on international students at Rutgers University. The unique placement of the office in the Rutgers Global office versus the more traditional academic advising offices has allowed for collaboration with partners across the university, as well as a creative and nimble approach. “I’m creating a blueprint for this new role,” said Gupta.