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Student community as a support service

December 7, 2021

The pandemic has changed things for international students, and the details are now beginning to emerge as to just how that new landscape looks. ICEF monitor reported back in February 2021 that there was an increasing concern around the already acute worry over affordability, with international; students already often paying more than their domestic counterpart.

This naturally has led to an increased focus on getting a job, both during and after studies. Students, rattled by the instability of the Covid-19 pandemic, want some assurances that this will all be worth it. ICEF monitor stated that careers services and the ability to work while studying, were going to be more important than ever.

One question remains, however. With all of these assurances of increasing importance to the international student, who will they turn to? In a time when trust in online reviews and organisational claims is at an all-time low, the new generations of students want authenticity, and that means they want to speak to someone they can relate to.

The student ambassador as support

The November 2021 ICEF study said "43% believe it would reduce their worries if they were able to ask questions to current international students at the university". Enter the student ambassador.

In a digital first environment, the student ambassador is often tasked with giving online tours, being present in chat groups, hosting virtual welcome sessions, and all the rest of it.

A very quick review of the literature will give you a consistent narrative about the efficacy of the student ambassador in Higher and Further Education Institutions. That narrative is, roughly speaking:

  • Students trust ambassadors more as they see them as peers. They may even trust the ambassadors more than their own friends and family.
  • Ambassadors can play an important role at all stages of the lifecycle
  • Ambassadors themselves gain an enriched academic experience by performing the role

All good. We are not going to even disagree with any of that, but something is changing. With our ear to the ground in education, we are starting to see a shift in the perception of student ambassadors, and here is what we suspect:

  • Ambassadors are still "under contract" with institutions and, as influencer marketing reaches saturation point, we feel that trust may have already started to erode in the ambassador as an authentic source of advice and support. With such instability ahead of them, and such high stakes decisions to take, will prospective students trust that they are getting the real deal from an ambassador?
  • With student bodies diversifying as access widens, and travel restrictions fluctuate, we don't think student ambassadors can always be all things to all people. Being relatable, and able to understand the unique circumstances of that individual, is essential to building trust with prospective students, who often want to know that they will belong there.
  • The digital recruitment environment across time zones, means that responses to queries by prospective students cannot always be immediate. From a generation who grew up in constant communication with peers, waiting days for advice at decision-making points is not going to go down well.

Gen Alpha and crowdsourcing input

We have written about this before but we will say it here again - Generation Alpha are different. This new generation appearing at our doors, portals, fairs and taster sessions...well...they still want the hard facts about programmes, prospects costs and content from their institutions, but the decision is an emotional one above all.

How will I fit in? Will I belong here, and does this place feel like somewhere I can invest in? Is it authentic, and how do I know what the experience of studying here is really like? These are the decision points, when you are still in the running after the initial cost and content comparison, it is here that the decision will be made.

Crowdsourcing community

It must be tough for an institution to fully trust in really supporting prospective students to communicate with current and former students in an unscripted environment. We get that.

Nevertheless, this is the future. If your institution truly is all the things the brochure says it is, then trust in that, and let students talk to each other. A conversation with a student ambassador will never really feel like the inside scoop in those "post truth" world where we are learning to question everything. As the art of the influencer becomes ever more subtle, where do we find the raw facts beyond the spin?

Campus connect is an outlier in this new field of peer networking at the post-application phase. Managed by the university of college, prospective students can enter this digital space after their application has been submitted. Applicants can then find people they want to talk to, whether it is someone who is from their own region or country, or perhaps studying the same specialisations they want to.

In a recent #NEOchats with Declan Sweeny, Campus Connect Co-Founder, we explored the thinking behind this space. They have found that "96% of applicants who connect with someone on their same subject/course go on to enrol at the admitting university" because they begin to build that sense of belonging and security before they actually begin.

Live your brand and let the connections take care of themselves

That first bit sounds like a really bad T-shirt slogan ("live your brand"....ugh!) but happens to be good advice. There is nowhere to hide the downsides of your institution any more. If you are acting in accordance with your values, true to your word and open about what you still need to work on, then your institution is in with a good chance of survival in this age of great change.

If you are still trying to funnel prospective purely students to a polished pitch at a fair, or a lovely brochure with curated images, then there’s work to do. New generations are ready to do their own thinking, and ask their own questions to those they trust and can relate to. That brochure is really nice, but it's rising further up the funnel with every passing year.

Education is emotional and it is personal. The world is no longer full of linear certainties of positive destinations and predictable career paths. Decisions are ultimately going to be made in a space you can no longer control, and the institutions who embrace that are embracing the future.

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