International recruiting values more than just numbers

Courtesy of Vassar Media Relations
Courtesy of Vassar Media Relations
Courtesy of Vassar Media Relations

In two weeks, newly hired Assistant Director of Admissions, Sarah Fischer, will travel to a few select schools in Hong-Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam to recruit the best and brightest to Vassar. Fischer, along with most of the other admissions staff, will spend about eight to ten weeks overseas this year alone. This number that has consistently increased over the last several years.

Head Director of Admissions, JC Tesone, believes this amount of travel time is crucial for the department’s central aim: “We want to bring in as diverse a group of students as we can to the college, and to represent as much of the world as possible.”

For Tesone and the admissions team, there is a big educational benefit to the entire student body when they are exposed to people from around the world. The Admissions Department does a surprisingly thorough job fulfilling this goal given their resources. By the end of each year, admissions officers will have traveled to Canada, South America, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, the Middle East, China, India, the Pacific Rim and British Columbia. However, there are some major impediments to their ambitious goal of representing the world.

The limitations to staff size and travel time requires some creative thinking. As a result, regional placement of admissions officers differs based on volume and interest of applicants.

In 1995, when Tesone began working at the Admissions Department, travel to East Asia was limited. He said, “Now, every college in America sends about two or three staff members to China and Asia for about three months a year.” With a small staff, there has to be a focus on countries like China, which have large populations of qualified students interested in top-tier American educational institutions.

Admissions between the dedication to finding the most diverse group of students possible, and being realistic about available resources. Unlike domestic recruiting, international recruiting at Vassar is not need-blind. The college has roughly $4.5 million per year to spend on need-based financial aid—a relatively small budget.

Amherst, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, MIT and UPenn are the only American Universities to offer need-blind admissions to international students. Vassar is on the small list of US colleges to offer any need-based admissions for international students, but the admissions team dreams bigger. Tesone’s personal hope is for a large alumni endowment in international recruiting in the next few years. Until then, recruiters can only do the best they can with the resources offered.

Back from Beijing, Shanghai, Changzhou and Ningbo in July, Fischer has a unique perspective on Admissions’ efforts to bring the most diverse group of students possible while keeping in mind the realities of a limited budget. In China, Fischer said, “You have a lot of wealthy families who can send their students to top tier schools,”

More than that, finding the Chinese students who will thrive in Vassar’s environment becomes even more complicated because of “agents”. “Agents craft applications for students.” Fischer said, “Sometimes we see an application, and we don’t know if it’s the actual student.” The increasing interest and limited availability of American Schools creates a culture of high competition, and in addition to hiring agents, students will often memorize answers to standard interview questions centered on academic and extracurricular interests.

Language proficiency, and being culturally savvy, Fischer suggests, are the two most important factors for recruiting. To test these, while making sure to avoid memorized responses, Fischer and other international US recruiters have invented some unusual questions:

“I’ll ask questions like: ‘what is your understanding of the ‘black lives matter’ movement in the US?’ or, ‘tell me your thoughts about Hillary Clinton running for president. What do you think it means to have a female president?’” These kinds of questions not only test their language and cultural proficiency, but how they express ideas that are very complex.

While Fischer and other American recruiters have adapted to changes in the global admissions environment such as these, there are other schools and recruiters who capitalize on the wealthy emergent applicant pool. Vassar’s international admissions keeps itself in check with its mission to foster the most diverse group of students possible

Faith Adongo ’16 is a political science major here at Vassar from Nairobi, Kenya. In sophomore year she was the Vice-president of the African Students Union (ASU), and in Junior year she was an active member of the Vassar International Students Union (VISA). But, after she was initially accepted, it was unclear whether Adongo would make it.

At the last minute, Adongo experienced major visa delays that prevented her from arriving for her first semester. She remembered, “After a while, I lost interest.” Adongo had been accepted to a law school in Nairobi, but she wanted a liberal arts education in the States. “Vassar convinced me to go to the embassy one more time, and I got it!” Adongo said, “Had it been any other school I don’t know how invested they would be in making sure I came.”

For Adongo and many other international students, receiving a visa and traveling to Vassar is only the first step. “People can adapt to weather, and they have an idea of what classes are,” Adongo said, “but it is very difficult to adapt to Vassar’s social climate.”

When asked if she had any advice for incoming international students, Adongo said, “Keep an open mind, and be ready to be educated because it is very different. Vassar has a lot of people who are not afraid to air their opinions and beliefs which is a great thing but can be a bit of a challenge for someone coming from a different cultural and belief system who might say what is considered to be ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate.”

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