Student recruitment

Rethinking recruitment in a post-pandemic age

Insights on changing recruitment strategies from top universities in the US and Canada

Heather Lee
August 13, 2021
8 min read
Rethinking recruitment in a post-pandemic age
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Rethinking recruitment in a post-pandemic age

The shifts wrought by the pandemic in the higher education landscape are obvious, but how exactly have they affected universities’ recruitment strategies? Cialfo recently conducted a global survey of close to 4,000 students to shed light on if and how student sentiment on pursuing an overseas education has changed.

On the basis of this, the PIE led a panel discussion with representatives from Brown University, Washington State University, the University of Toronto and Sheridan College, on how they’ve shifted their recruitment and outreach strategies to better meet the needs of students and address their changing concerns.

Visas and vaccines: New worries as a result of Covid-19

Felicja Syska, Vice President of University Engagement at Cialfo, notes that despite growing concerns related to the pandemic, students are still excited about pursuing their studies abroad. ‘Without a doubt, students who were planning on studying overseas are still very interested … The desire is still there,’ she remarks. ‘But what we also found is that in the APAC region in particular … there are concerns — not just [on the part of] students, but their parents too, who are concerned about travelling internationally, attending school abroad, and for students in China and India, about things like safety and travel restrictions.’

These observations have been echoed by Daniel Saud, Director of Undergraduate International Admissions, Recruitment and Marketing at Washington State University (WSU): ‘The pandemic’s effect has been so vast and deeply personal … We’ve seen increases in [applications from] areas like Northern Africa and Pakistan… we’re always used to getting applications from India and China, but that has actually levelled out because they’re concerned.’  

‘Without a doubt, students who were planning on studying overseas are still very interested … The desire is still there.’

Felicja Syska, VP of University Engagement at Cialfo

Supporting international students

These are concerns that universities on the panel not only understand, but have taken comprehensive steps to address. 

In both the US and Canada, universities and government agencies have sought to accommodate international students arriving in the country. Gabriela Facchini, Regional Manager at Sheridan College, points out that ‘Canada’s always been open to international students, even before vaccinations; we’ve never closed the border to international students, but they had to do a quarantine.’ 


The country’s commitment to its international students is clear. As long as international students arrive with verified documentation proving that they are fully vaccinated with one of the four vaccines that Canada has recognized, they will not need to be quarantined. Facchini explains that ‘if they’re not fully vaccinated, they’re still required to do quarantine, so all students are asked to have a quarantine plan ready just in case … But if you’re fully vaccinated then you’re not likely to have to do a quarantine, so that’s great news for students coming in.’

At the University of Toronto, vaccinations are mandatory for students living in-residence, and international students who haven't been vaccinated are able to access vaccinations upon their arrival in Ontario.

‘We are supporting students wherever we can,’ says Natasha Bijelich, Assistant Director, International Student Recruitment at the University of Toronto. ‘In terms of students quarantining, we’re supporting them with a quarantine program — students can register with us and either do a quarantine program with the University of Toronto if they’re going into residence, or they can do a program at home if they’re moving into their own private residence.’

Flights and visas have also proved to be concerns for international students heading to Canada. With the Canada Border Services Agency recommending that students only arrive four weeks prior to the start of their program, Facchini notes that 'some students who have arrived early have been turned away, and there might be a potential shortage of flights as the start of term nears.'

Adding to what Bijelich describes as a ‘delicate’ situation are the closure of visa application centers in certain countries, which has resulted in some students not being able to complete their visa applications in time for the start of term. The University of Toronto is providing full support to affected students: ‘We’re in constant communication with students and we have a couple of resources online on our website where students know to go to find the most up-to-date information for UT when it comes to any policies or changes that are made for upcoming students,’ Bijelich says.

United States

Brown University and Washington State University in the US are also accommodating these changing needs and concerns. In particular, they are doing all they can to ensure their students are vaccinated and safe.

Panetha Ott, Director of Admission, International Recruitment at Brown University, says, 'We are going to work with all students to make sure that they’re either vaccinated or that there’s an exception. Right now, they have to either upload what they have, or if they don’t have anything when they come, they will either be vaccinated, or if it’s not clear whether they can be vaccinated, then there will be an exception.’

With regards to quarantines, Ott explains that they are prepared to replicate what happened last January, before vaccinations were available — international students had to be quarantined, and were accommodated with online classes until they could return to the campus. In addition, Ott says that ‘We will be testing people every week if they’re not vaccinated.’

Washington State University transitioned to online learning in the previous academic year, but Saud explains that ‘this fall, we’re having a very robust in-person experience. … WSU is very proud to provide free vaccinations upon arrival for every student coming to WSU on all our campuses. We are also recognising all WHO-listed vaccinations for students so that if you have received a vaccine in China or the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, you can still travel [if] you show proof of vaccination.’ 


To support this, companies such as Cialfo are working to help their university partners in disseminating accurate, relevant and up-to-date information with high school counselors, students and parents.

‘At Cialfo, we’re offering the opportunity to our university partners to get the word out. We have over 13,000 [university] partners listed in our database and students from around the world search it every day … [We’re] potentially introducing the opportunity to put vaccination requirements as part of [a university’s] profile within our database. Once those policies are in place or you have those specific pieces of content that you need to share with students, getting it out to the Cialfo network in particular is really important and we can certainly do that through some of our events, but definitely through the platform itself,' Syska explains.

Students at the heart of a new recruitment strategy

‘Even if we return to the in-person model … virtual recruitment is still going to be there, it’s still going to exist, because it’s been such a great year and we’ve seen that it can work, so it’s definitely not going to go away for the University of Toronto.’ 

Natasha Bijelich, Assistant Director, International Student Recruitment at the University of Toronto

Representatives from all four universities acknowledged the new opportunities afforded by virtual recruitment strategies prompted by the pandemic, which they believe will be here to stay even as schools reopen and travelling resumes.

Big, but worthwhile, shifts

‘Pre-pandemic, the University of Toronto did very little to no recruitment virtually,’ comments Bijelich. ‘We had the traditional model of travelling to places, doing things in person, meeting with students in person, welcoming them to our campuses for tours and things like that. So for us, it was a really big shift to cut all of that out and switch to a more digital and virtual recruitment environment.’

Despite this, the University of Toronto has successfully embraced virtual recruitment methods, and even found that in doing so, they’ve enhanced certain aspects of the traditional recruitment process.

Bijelich shares that ‘we’ve enhanced our virtual campus tours so students have more options to have a better campus tour experience or have a tour led with a current student online. That’s where we’ve seen a really big advantage of doing online recruitment — we are able to incorporate current students into more opportunities to meet with prospective students, and that has been really beneficial as well.'

The on-demand nature of websites and videos has also increased accessibility for prospective students doing their research on the institution. 

WSU’s Saud foregrounds the importance of partners like Cialfo in formulating a recruitment strategy. ‘We’ve had to look at our partners like Cialfo … [and think about] how do we go into these communities, have these specific conversations with students and counselors to give them an opportunity to still see WSU as an affordable place for them to pursue their higher education, while also speaking to our teachers and professors here in the US to change the way they’re teaching online for these students.'

Reaching a wider audience while maintaining a personal touch

For Brown University, the priority has been to keep as many of the positives of the in-person recruitment experience as possible while being virtual. While the university isn’t a stranger to online recruitment, Ott observes that it was a big shift that ‘in-person interactions went down to zero, replaced by Zoom interactions.’

‘We tried to reach kids personally to the extent that we can… Our desire was to make sure that kids felt comfortable; we wanted them to feel that they weren’t losing out,’ Ott explains. ‘A lot of them felt they were never going to be able to get a college experience, so our concern was to make sure that they felt comfortable. To that end, we did a lot of this through Cialfo, anytime there was a fair — and we usually don’t do college fairs — or the opportunity for a presentation, or any online option, we were there, because we wanted to give that to the kids.’

Like Bijelich at the University of Toronto, Ott believes that these new methods of virtual recruitment will be here to stay: ‘I think a lot of [this] will stay. It doesn’t mean that we won’t go back to in-person, I think a lot of people find that important, but we’re going to incorporate the online opportunities as well, because even in a good year you can’t reach everybody. You think you are, but you aren’t.’

Facchini of Sheridan College echos Ott’s sentiment on trying to reach as many prospective students as possible, describing how virtual recruitment methods meant that ‘we were able to reach out to regions we hadn’t reached out to before … You don’t normally go to tertiary markets as often or at all, so this allowed us to participate in fairs in markets like Albania and other smaller European markets and some of the stands that we weren’t getting to normally. It allowed us to infiltrate new markets, so in that way it has been very helpful.’

What’s next?

Despite the numerous shifts, challenges and surprises that the pandemic has sprung on the higher education landscape, there can be no doubt that students and their education are at the heart of it all, and institutions that put their students first have it right.

Brown University’s Panetha Ott sums it up best: ‘The most important thing for me is that you want the reality of a US education to be at least in the realm of possibility for kids — you want them to feel that they’re valued, they’re good enough to go any place and do anything that they want to do. That is the value of it … They need to be aware that they are valued as students and as future leaders.’

Want to watch the webinar in full? Click here.

This webinar was hosted by the PIE Live, featuring Felicja Syska, VP of University Engagement at Cialfo, Panetha Ott, Director of Admission, International Recruitment at Brown University, Natasha Bijelich Assistant Director, International Student Recruitment at University of Toronto, Daniel Saud, Director of undergraduate international admissions, recruitment and marketing, Washington State University, and Gabriela Facchini, Regional Manager at Sheridan College

Image credits: Brett Jordan and Dylan Ferreira

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