NAFSA 2016 Conference: My Top 5 List

It was great to be back at the NAFSA Annual Conference again after last year’s maternity leave-related hiatus. Familiar faces, fantastic sessions, great connections–there are so many reasons to love this conference! Here are a few of the aspects of the conference that I enjoyed the most this year.

5. Helpful updates from SEVP

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) was “large and in charge” at the conference. They were very well-represented, participating in a variety sessions and activities either in person or by teleconferencing.

Representatives of IEPs were particularly happy to receive updates from SEVP about the next steps that we can expect related to the guidance that they plan to issue about a variety of subjects that affect us, including:

  • Conditional Admissions/Pathway Programs;
  • English proficiency;
  • Annual vacation;
  • Five-month rule; and
  • Bridge programs.

In several sessions, the SEVP reps indicated that their focus over the past year has been centered on issuing new guidance for OPT for STEM students. Now that this has been completed, SEVP is turining their attention to the rest of their pending guidance items. They assured us that the guidance for Conditional Admissions and Pathway programs is considered a high priority, and that the first update–in “interim final guidance” format–will be released in the next few weeks. Additional guidance is expected to be released every 2-4 weeks for the rest of the summer.

4. Location

Denver was an absolutely fabulous location for NAFSA. With comfortable weather, plenty of cafes and restaurants, and convenient (and cheap!) public transportation, Denver was almost perfect for this type of event.

3. A few gems among the sessions

This year seemed to include many basic sessions (i.e., sessions for those who are just beginning in their career in International Education, or who must begin learning about some new aspect of the field). So, at first glance, a veteran in International Student Recruitment may have felt a little discouraged at the list of sessions. In fact, this is something that I heard several people say at the conference.

But, as for me? Just call me “Pollyanna!” I participated in several useful and enjoyable sessions at the conference. My personal favorite was The Student Journey Through Technology: User Experience and Game Design. Chaired by Samantha Martin, CEO of Via TRM (a technology company that creates solutions for managing education abroad programs), this unique session explained how applying some simple elements of game design theory to one’s institution’s digital communications platforms and strategy can create a much more accessible user experience. This, in turn, can help to increase student engagement, conversion rates, etc.

Although the session was meant for Education Abroad professionals, the concepts are certainly applicable to anyone who is responsible for their institutions’ digital communications strategy. I was so excited after this session that I talked my colleagues’ ears off about all of the ideas that we can apply to our online marketing tools (read: I totally geeked out, LOL).

2. Intensive English Programs of the world, unite!

englishusa_logo_500x250pixOnce again, EnglishUSA and our colleagues in IEPs across the country did an absolutely fantastic job of providing activities that were meant solely for IEP professionals. Whether one’s focus is assessment, regulatory/visa-related issues, recruitment, etc., there was an IEP session, open meeting, or other event for everyone. Plus, as always, Wednesday night was the fabulous EnglishUSA reception, where professionals from across the field were able to get together and reconnect.

My favorite IEP session was “The Role of Intensive English Programs in Strategic Enrollment Management.” This session included guest speakers from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and from the US Commercial Service.

The representative from IIE, Christine Farrugia, shared the most updated Open Doors student mobility trends for IEPs. As expected, China and Saudi Arabia topped the list, though we know that the report for 2015-16 is going to show a decrease among the Saudis.

The Director of the US Commercial Service Education Team, Gabriela Zelaya, shared information about the promising markets that their office has identified as having potential for the recruitment of IEP students. Among the data that was shared was information about the growing trend of students who are seeking short-term English for Specific Purposes programs which have a direct connection to their field of study. This is particularly true in areas like Latin America, where many of the local currencies have been suffering due to the strength of the US dollar.

Another useful IEP session was the “Open Meeting: Intensive English Programs – Dialog of Current Trends.” This meeting included a representative from EducationUSA in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as well as an official of the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM). Though most of the information that was shared was repeat info from the webinar last March, the SACM official was able to provide us with some new information, incuding the fact that the ESL Department and the Academic Department at SACM will be merging. This should bode well for programs that allow students to take a combination of ESL courses and university courses for credit.

 1. Cuba is back in the game!

Cuba Engagement digitpack_200x150As relations continue to normalize between Cuba and the United States, international educators in both countries are seeking opportunites for institutional partnerships, teacher training, faculty exchange, research opportunities, etc. NAFSA is poised to play an important role as a liaison for these activities via its Cuba Engagement Initiative. To that end, the annual conference included several events that enabled attendees to learn more about opportunities for collaboration between the two nations. There will be several exciting opportunities in Cuba in the coming years!

All in all, it was a wonderful conference. I left NAFSA feeling physically exhausted, but mentally rejuvenated, with so many ideas to explore for my institution. Kudos to the NAFSA Conference Committee for another job well done!

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