A Look at International Student Enrollment

November 10, 2020 / By: Salyani, Azaan
Walkway with students

This Fall semester, St. Thomas had a record year in degree-seeking undergraduate international students. There are 54 new international students total, with 33 in the United States, and the remaining 21 taking digital courses outside of the country. I had the opportunity to talk with Ethan Olson, the Associate Director of International Admissions, about how the university brought in so many new students during this difficult time. A big factor in this semester’s admissions is St. Thomas’ growing partnership with ELS Language Services, which has a language center on our St. Paul campus and many more around the country. Students can be admitted to St. Thomas through ELS programs in three different ways. First, any student who completes the language program at an ELS language center can apply to St. Thomas. Second, ELS can directly recruit students to the university, where they would immediately start the standard St. Thomas curriculum. The third and final way is through the International Year One program (formerly called Pathway) in which students take a mix of English learning classes and St. Thomas curriculum classes for their first academic year. The IY1 program is co-managed by the university and ELS, and is a recent development within the last couple years.

In order to learn more about the program, I spoke with Katie Leatherberry, who is the IY1 Student Services Manager. The main idea behind the program is to create a community for international students who need additional support whether that pertains to academic support, language learning, or cultural learning. The students in the IY1 program all take their classes together as a cohort, which helps to create a sense of community, and an understanding that they are not alone. While the program was designed to be entirely on-campus, students who cannot travel due to either visa issues or the pandemic, are currently able to take some courses online in their home country.

This fall, St. Thomas has eleven students in the IY1 program, with seven students globally connecting from their home country. Within the program, there are differing levels of support offered to the students to ensure that they have all the resources they need. Like any student, they have the support of their professors, and can meet for office hours if needed. The instructors who teach in the program are specifically chosen in regards to previous experience working with international students, which allows them to better understand the unique challenges that the students may face. Within the curriculum is an additional support course, called language lab, in which a student meets with an instructor who specializes in ESL, to help support the students with more practical language learning (summarizing an article for a paper, for example). There is also an optional language tutor specifically for IY1 students.

From there, the next level of support is Katie herself, as the main point of contact within the Office of International Students and Scholars. Katie keeps tabs on students’ progress in order to make sure they are on track for success and that their needs are met. She meets with students once a week for their first semester (alternating between meeting as a group and individually), and with less frequency over the second semester so that the students can gradually learn to support themselves. During group meetings, more broad topics are discussed such as campus news, and goal-setting and achievement. In the one-on-one meetings, Katie goes in depth to find out how the student is doing, where they might need help, and how to access resources that provide support. Once the students complete their first year, they join other St. Thomas students, and take entirely standard curriculum classes.

To gain some perspective from the point of view of a student in the traditional international program, I interviewed Ndeh Awasum, a 20 year-old sophomore from Cameroon.

Why St. Thomas?

I chose St. Thomas because I wanted to find a school with a small community, where I was more easily able to get to know everyone on a personal level. I had checked out some public schools, but I felt connected at St. Thomas. My first semester here, I was able to make some great friends, and have wonderful relationships with them. Honestly, they weren’t even in my classes, I just saw them around the campus and we ended up talking. Having to deal with COVID this previous semester was really difficult, and then I met these guys and they helped me feel more at home, and meet new people. As harsh as the transition to online learning was, it was helpful that everyone was in the same pot of soup, and I was still able to enjoy my courses.

What was most helpful for your transition, both before and once you arrived at St. Thomas?

Before I came to St. Thomas, there were two people in the OISS who really helped me get to know all the staff I would be interacting with, Ethan Olson, and Amanda Hager. They were both very responsive. Once I actually got here, something that helped me a lot was my orientation leader, Keanu Daley. We clicked during the orientation and became friends, he’s graduated now but we still have that relationship, and that experience was exactly what I was looking for.

If you had the option to complete your entire degree online, without leaving Cameroon, would you?

As an international student, I feel that I need to broaden my horizons and leave my comfort zone. I need to experience what life is like outside of what I know. Of course, many classes are online for us now anyway, but there’s so much more to learn outside of your courses. Meeting new people, attending clubs, understanding new cultures, adapting to a new environment—these are all part of what I feel I needed. Even if I could do it again, I know I would do it this way.”

What piece of advice would you give incoming international students?

Just be yourself. You have to learn to be comfortable in your own shoes, and when you’re not being someone else, people get to know the real you. Of course, in life you’ll face failures, hardships, and rejections, and those are all part of the experience that shape you into the person you’ll become. It’s important to let life go its course, and be open to new things.