Student recruitment

Valuing human contexts and connection: University recruitment strategies during the pandemic

As the world braces itself for another year of the pandemic, representatives from the University of Southern California, New York University, and Graded: The American School of Sao Paulo shared what they have learned since 2020 in a panel discussion, hosted by Inside Higher Ed and moderated by Lou Greenwald, Director of University Partnerships at Cialfo


Yeo Wei Wei
February 11, 2022
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10 min

At a recent panel discussion organized by Inside Higher Ed, Alex Alvendia-Wienkers, Associate Director, International Recruitment at University of Southern California (USC), Katie Korhonen, Director of Global Admissions Evaluation and Strategy at New York University (NYU) Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Jeffrey Neill, Director of College Counseling at Graded – The American School of Sao Paulo talked with Cialfo's Director of University Partnerships Lou Greenwald about navigating the fast-changing landscape of university recruitment since the outbreak rendered traditional modes of outreach obsolete. The panelists spoke about how their institutions have come up with crisis-management strategies, dedicating more resources to digital content to cater to the needs and expectations of students, parents, and peers in these challenging times.

It was a candid and insightful discussion. Here are some of the key takeaways.


Beginning with context to achieve better outreach and communications

Travel restrictions and continuing uncertainty from new variants and the absence of globally policed and followed COVID-19 health and safety protocols have made campus visits unviable or risky and difficult to plan for.

“Things are constantly changing and evolving in our industry, but that rate of change has really quickened from the pandemic,"

Jeffrey Neill, Director of College Counseling, Graded - The American School of Sao Paulo

Taking outreach and recruitment efforts online was an obvious solution when travel and face-to-face meetings became impossible. However, the shift from in-person conversations to virtual, asynchronous communication has presented its own challenges. 

Online communication platforms like Zoom enable prospective students and their universities of choice to be connected, but they are less than ideal for conveying more than surface impressions. At the crux of every student application is “the particular context of that particular child” as Neill put it.  To make up for what video-conferencing cannot do, he and his colleagues are working hard to put out what’s going on in the context of their school via the profile and letters of recommendation.

On the other side, the loss of opportunities to get to know students through direct in-person engagement is also lamented, as Alvendia-Wienkers shared: “When we are reviewing applications, we lost a lot of situational awareness about the individual students in their high schools, in their regional communities. American higher education is rooted in this idea of holistic admission and it’s insanely hard to make holistic admission decisions when there’s no context.”

Universities like USC and NYU are trying to address this by working more closely with their networks of school counselors to find out what students are saying on the ground. NYU invites college counselors to speak to their recruitment staff at pre-recruitment training sessions. Knowledge of student contexts is critical to success in devising effective virtual content and outreach initiatives via social media. What this means is that the content must speak directly to the student’s concerns and needs.

Panelists from top left: Alex Alvendia-Wienkers, Katie Korhonen, Jeff Neill, Lou Greenwald

Adapting to changing preferences and needs

Korhonen shared that when NYU’s plans for spring travel had to be canceled due to Omicron, she and her team went back to the new event types they had been running since the start of the pandemic, programs with the specific goal of meeting students where they were in their college search at the time. For instance, NYU’s Zoom In sessions where students who were still in their college discovery phase could find out more about applying to college, or what it’s like to be an undecided student, and meet with NYU faculty online. Students who had already applied and were ready to further their knowledge of NYU, however, could attend sessions with topics like student life, creating community on campus, or what it’s like to be an international student at NYU.

Greenwald shared the results of a recent survey of Cialfo’s Student Advisory Board and their peers: “It’s not just Zoom fatigue. Students want shorter, bite-sized, and targeted sessions on different topics. And the really powerful tool is the student voice. Students want to hear from other students. They want to know what it’s like to be a student [at university], starting a particular major, what happens on weekends, is the campus a safe and welcoming community.”

For a university to stand out in the current market landscape where there are so many institutions competing for attention, what can make a critical difference is finding the right blend of material and content. Alvendia-Wienkers stressed the importance of providing enough information without being overly rote or coming across as being marketing-driven. 

“The challenge is to make the content feel personal to the student’s experience in terms of what they may or may not be looking for,”

Alex Alvendia-Wienkers, Associate Director, International Recruitment at University of Southern California (USC)

Speaking from the other side, on behalf of his students who are being wooed by universities, Neill reiterated: “Our students really want genuine and authentic.”

Flexibility is another important trait for recruitment efforts during the pandemic – the flexibility to change plans when a new variant of the coronavirus makes traveling unviable, as well as the flexibility to revise content to improve its appeal to the user. Feedback is more important than ever at this time, as is the readiness of an institution to listen and act. Korhonen ascribed NYU’s double-digit percentage increases in international applications each year to openness to general feedback from all their constituents – counselors, students – and keeping an eye on survey responses.

The panelists spoke at length about the current appetite for asynchronous access to content. At USC, the pandemic accelerated existing plans to create more asynchronous content to meet the different media consumption habits of Gen Z students. Nor are the students alone; finding answers to questions at a time that is most convenient to oneself has also become habitual to counselors and parents. This was a point made by all three panelists. 

Gains and costs of pivoting to digital for the community

The widening of the field through digital media during the pandemic has led some universities to go back to the drawing board and reconsider their options. Alvendia-Wienkers mentioned the possibility of opening up new markets in response to a question from the audience about shifts in recruitment strategy in light of Chinese students’ mobility coming to a standstill. He talked about the possibility of either stationing someone in China for easier access to travel within the country or dedicating resources to pivot to other regions and markets where those resources hadn’t been allocated before.

He also spoke about the leveling of the information landscape, a concrete positive outcome of digital strategies of engagement. This was one of the most significant changes in the field in recent years in his opinion: “From a diversity lens, equity, inclusion, this flattening of the field made college access more accessible and equitable.”

However, he and many colleagues have noticed that their interactions with prospective students have become increasingly one-directional and transactional.

On the one hand, pivoting to the digital sphere to reach students has generated the happy outcome of equity and democratization. With access to the same virtual sessions freely available to everyone, universities are able to reach students they hadn’t been able to reach before. 

On the other hand, the nature of relationships between constituents in the industry has changed. Alvendia-Wienkers was speaking about the relationship between his university and its prospective students, but throughout the panel discussion, this cost to the industry, one that has relationships at its core, was raised a number of times. 

Nothing comes close to the direct, in-person experience of university culture for student applicants. For industry professionals, school counselors and university admissions staff, these pandemic years have been a time of maintaining relationships rather than building new ones. The panelists acknowledged this as perhaps the hardest curveball thrown by the pandemic. After all, one of the core activities of an international admissions professional is the building of relationships.

Neill noted that a poll taken during the webcast showed that 20% of the audience have under five years of experience. He offered examples from his 20 years of experience as encouragement to them, saying that the industry is characterized by its generous spirit. When he needs something he can’t get any other way, he can pick up the phone or drop an email to an admissions rep. Though this is probably not available yet to newer members of the profession, he assured them that things should get better in due course.

Throughout the discussion, the panelists stressed the need to look ahead and incorporate the lessons and innovations of the present time in future strategies. Recruitment strategies during these pandemic years are more than short-term solutions; there will be lasting impact in the form of hybrid modalities of outreach and engagement, peculiar to every institution’s own particular context, blending effective virtual modes with in-person in-situ experiences. 


The focus, as ever, will be on human contexts and human connection. This is the lesson that the pandemic has reinforced – that tools do not replace human connections, and the most effective use of the tools at hand will be by the people who understand this best. 

To find out how you can partner with Cialfo for effective student recruitment solutions, contact us here.

You can watch a recording of the complete discussion here


Alex Alvendia-Wienkers, Associate Director, International Recruitment at University of Southern California (USC), Katie Korhonen, Director of Global Admissions Evaluation and Strategy at New York University (NYU) Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Jeffrey Neill, Director of College Counseling at Graded – The American School of Sao Paulo (Graded) were panelists at a discussion hosted by Inside Higher Ed, moderated by Lou Greenwald, Director of University Partnerships at Cialfo.

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