International Students: Where St. Thomas Has Been and Future Direction – Newsroom | University of St. Thomas – University of St. Thomas Newsroom

This fall marks the highest ever enrollment for new international undergraduate students starting at the University of St. Thomas, with 78 students (58 first-time, first-year Tommies and 20 transfer students). In addition, this academic year marks the highest ever numbers of international undergraduate students studying at St. Thomas at 237. With 67 countries represented by this fall’s undergraduate cohort, this is also the university’s most diverse.
In 2017, International Admissions merged with the Office of International Students & Scholars (OISS) at St. Thomas. The goal was to create a relationship with the students and their families from recruitment through alumni as well as create a seamless transition for students upon arrival. International Admissions, within OISS, is focused on recruitment and admissions of international undergraduate students while helping with their arrival to St. Thomas; OISS continues with retention efforts as well as the rest of the campus community.
In 2017, St. Thomas had 166 international undergraduate students with an overall international student population of 574, mostly graduate students. There were 42 countries represented at the undergraduate level; now there are over 67. Not only has St. Thomas grown its international student population, but the university has made up for those countries that have significantly decreased in sending students to the U.S. and/or St. Thomas.
Many have asked, “Why don’t we have so many Saudi students at St. Thomas anymore?” In 2015, after King Abdullah’s death, the Saudi government had a huge budget deficit due to the sharp decline in oil prices and needed to cut costs. Due to this, the country’s scholarship program was reduced significantly and tightened the standards so that only the top 100 universities in the world were eligible to receive Saudi scholarship students or the top 50 programs in a particular field. St. Thomas only has a few programs that fit these criteria, hence the number of Saudi students decreased rapidly.
Vietnam is a prime example of St. Thomas’ successful recruitment strategy. Active recruitment in the country began in 2017, and annual enrollments have been strong ever since. The International Admissions Department identified Vietnam as a promising market due to the country’s impressive economic growth since 2010, its well-known cultural commitment to education, and its rapid increase as a source of international students coming to the U.S.
St. Thomas has strong relationships with several business partners in the country who collaborate on marketing strategies and help connect prospective students. For example, during an early recruitment trip, Associate Director of International Admissions Ethan Olson became acquainted with Tam Le, a Vietnamese teacher who mentors students in after-school programs. Le, who trains students in English language and SAT prep, has become an invaluable partner, coming to visit the St. Thomas campus several times, and reliably referring multiple students to St. Thomas every year.
In fall 2022, International Admissions Counselor Amanda Hager traveled to Vietnam and joined the St. Thomas partner’s classes as a guest lecturer in American History and Culture – an opportunity to build trust and develop meaningful long-term relationships with the students. This type of personal connection has proven to be a highly effective recruitment strategy that is also consistent with the culture of personalized attention and care at St. Thomas.
Although enrollments from Vietnam dipped slightly during the COVID-19 pandemic, they rebounded strongly in 2022 and show no signs of slowing down in the future. St. Thomas International Admissions intends to continue regular recruitment travel to Vietnam, visiting partners and participating in recruitment tours that include high school visits and college fairs in multiple cities. Vietnamese students are expected to comprise a substantial portion of the international student population for the foreseeable future.
St. Thomas’ growth in India is due in large part to the university’s partnership with ELS, who has a dedicated person in India whose goal is to recruit Indian students to St. Thomas. The ELS India team works with students, parents, high school counselors and agents all around India and now Nepal to promote St. Thomas. This partnership kicked off in 2019 and is growing at a rapid rate.
Where is St. Thomas currently traveling to recruit internationally and why? This fall, St. Thomas is traveling to six countries to continue to grow the international student population. Representatives have traveled to Norway, Kenya, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Azerbaijan. In Norway, St. Thomas had an international alumni reception; in Kenya, the team hosted two dinners for high school counselors and a dinner with parents of current students, alumni, and prospective students. In Vietnam, St. Thomas hosted a dinner with parents of current students. The university also has on the ground agents and partners who share similar values with St. Thomas and know St. Thomas well in Norway, Kenya, and Vietnam. In fact, partners from all three countries visit St. Thomas in May to get to know the university’s academic programs better, connect with current students and get the full St. Thomas and Minnesota experience.
The department started exploring United Arab Emirates in spring 2022 after a two-year travel break due to the pandemic. UAE awards many scholarships for students to study in the U.S. and has a wide diversity of students and schools. Kuwait also has a strong scholarship program, but only a few students here and there have come to St. Thomas as a result. The team is looking to grow those connections and explore those regions.
A lesson learned.
The department never fully got comfortable relying on a certain country like China or Saudi Arabia. If one looks at the large decline in students from China, it is important to note that St. Thomas can never just focus on our top three or four countries and keep those strong. The world is volatile. Economies and politics can change in a day – the university needs to stay on top of its current sources and always look for the next up-and-coming markets. Some work well and succeed like Vietnam, but others may not come to fruition. The team is also looking at building connections in Latin America, is working with existing partners and is looking for new local partners who might be able to help.
As a staff or faculty member working at St. Thomas, you too can play a role in international student recruitment and retention.
To learn more or connect with the International Admissions team, please reach out.
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