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Leveraging campus partnerships to nurture international student persistence

The way forward should be collaborative if we are to retain the students we recruit.


According to Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), at the end of 2020 there were 530,540 international student study permit holders in the country. That represented a 17 per cent decrease from the previous year – a first in almost two decades – as reported by the Canadian Bureau for International Education. But with a projected increase in post-pandemic international student enrolment, Canadian institutions must be well-positioned to support the increasing number of students on their campuses.

Retention vs. persistence

Retention and persistence are often used interchangeably, however, the main difference between them lies in scope. Persistence rates demonstrate a student’s ability to continue to the next term, while retention rates demonstrate the institution’s overall ability to retain students.

Impactful student retention and persistence program development lies in understanding your student body. Do you know who your students are and where they are coming from? Do you understand their knowledge gaps upon starting university, and their goals for attending your institution?

At Ryerson University, the International Student Support (ISS) office supports persistence using an appreciative advising model. Every year, through a welcome form and one-on-one welcome appointments with an international student advisor, the team collects arrival and immigration details in addition to students’ personal goals for the year ahead. This faculty-based model of arrival support began in 2016 and over time, has evolved and supported seven international student cohorts.

Breaking down institutional silos

The direction forward in higher education should be collaborative if we are to retain the students we recruit. Our work over the past two years has shown us that:

  • The work cannot be done by a single department. Persistence efforts in higher education must be collaborative across campus departments to successfully retain students.
  • Developing an understanding of how the system supports and/or challenges the student experience is pivotal to driving change.
  • This work is ever -evolving and changing alongside our students.

Student retention and persistence efforts in postsecondary education are best fuelled by collaboration and breaking down institutional silos. Many of us come to international education with the goal of helping students, often personally connected to the work through our lived experiences either as settlement workers, immigrants or former international students. Shared goals directed by institutional strategic mandates, in the form of campus master and academic plans and internationalization strategies, provide the university with a blueprint to help guide persistence and retention efforts.

Students pay the price when there is a lack of collaboration, integrated support and understanding of how our work is connected. Intent on streamlining the international student experience, we began to imagine what this work looked like. It was important to understand our existing relationships across campus and to be curious about opportunities for new relationships. In the pilot year of the program, we established our purpose and the learning outcomes for students, weaving student connectedness throughout this blueprint. We wanted students to know about the plethora of ways the institution supported their persistence, through our partners. This has led to stronger relationships with faculties, including supporting faculty-specific orientation and retention committees. It has also facilitated the establishment of direct referral pathways with partners across the institution  for counselling, housing or registrar services, among others.

Action-plan advising

In 2020, ISS identified the following key pillars in the creation of its retention and persistence program: academic, English language, financial, mental health and social transition. International student persistence is supported by working collaboratively with students to develop an action plan: a personalized, step-by-step referral guide to address the challenges affecting their persistence. Direct referrals are made to campus partners. In the pilot year of the program, 80 per cent of student participants accessed at least two campus supports outside of ISS, which were co-identified with their international student advisor. The goal of creating an action plan is to connect students to campus resources and help them build self-efficacy by understanding how to best navigate the systems and structures at the university.

Where do we go from here?

Informed by an evidence-based approach and prioritizing our students’ lived experiences, the goal at ISS is to continue to evolve our work through the creation of a persistence-based model. The aim is to explore the systems our international students navigate during university and identify the institutional indicators that they are at risk of not completing their program. As the university continues to grow and sets ambitious goals for welcoming international students to our campuses, we owe it to students to think not just about how we get them here, but how we provide opportunities for them to persist. This means meeting students where they are at, creating opportunities for identity exploration, making connections, and reaching their own personal definitions of success.

Call to action

Are you thinking about how your institution’s international recruitment strategy is connected to your work in supporting persistence and retention? Are you aware of the indicators at your institution that a student is at risk of dropping out? What are your relationships with partners on campus and how can they be leveraged further?

As educators in the postsecondary landscape, these are just a few questions that we should be asking ourselves. They can help keep us grounded in the knowledge that putting students first, and considering them is directly correlated not only with their persistence but also their retention.

This column is coordinated through the internationalization of student affairs community of practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

Lyn-Marie Farley is senior manager of international student support and engagement at Ryerson University. Yassin Sagnia is an international student advisor at Ryerson University.
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  1. Joe / December 1, 2021 at 14:54

    The author should note which Canadian universities are attempting to do the exact opposite of everything stated here – such as Memorial University’s attempts to outsource all supports and 1st year courses for international students to Navitas (collecting international tuition while subcontracting it to a private company whose instructors lack job security or living wages, and where the quality of instruction is at the whim of the company’s CEO and their shareholders).