The PIE: What initially attracted you to the international education sector?
Jessica Sandberg: I got into international education because I participated in student exchanges growing up. Actually, my parents were not originally hosting exchange students, but in high school, I was seated next to a German student in my English class. We struck up a conversation, discovered we had a mutual interest in fashion and became friendly.
“It was post elections, and we knew students were anxious”
She was having some problems with her host family and the head of the exchange organisation at my high school approached me and asked me if maybe my parents would consider hosting her. After I graduated from high school, I got to go to Germany and visit her family.
I had some travel experience as a teenager, international experiences, and I think that just whet my appetite. I knew that I was pretty good at talking to people and then came across someone that I knew was working in college admissions and I thought: ‘ wow that could be me!’.
Working at a university with young people, helping them find the right fit, I thought that would bring together my interests, and I wanted to do it internationally. I worked with domestic admissions for a year and a half and then moved into international admissions – so I am pretty much a lifer!
The PIE: Can you trace back the origin of the idea of the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign?
JS: First of all, I did not coin the phrase ‘You are welcome here’. As you might imagine, it has been used in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons, and the first entity to use it in international education was Study Group. They put out a video in November 2016 and I later learnt that Dolores [Blough] was the person behind the scene, she works for James Madison Univerisity and in the brainstorming session with Study Group she came up with this phrase.
When they produced the video I saw it and thought – this is an incredible concept, and I think it was just the right time, the right message, I just had this feeling that we all needed something so when I saw that I thought that was perfect.
The PIE: Do you know the metrics of the campaign impact?
JS: We have 350 participating universities, HEIs, and then we have over 60 organisations, member organisations, anybody in the international education space and then we have over 20 secondary schools now. Which I would like to see grow, but that’s currently the size of it.
The PIE: What makes you most proud about the campaign?
JS: I think the biggest thing that I feel proud of is the level of collaboration that I haven’t seen before in my higher education career, which is fairly long.
“We discovered that 13-to-14% know of the campaign – which is not as good as we would like”
I remember the last crisis, 9/11, I was in international education then, so I can compare it to that. But I haven’t seen universities, at least in our industry, come together under one banner, and the US is kind of notorious for not being able to do that. I mean, the UK, Australia, Canada have more of a centralised brand and marketing effort, at least that’s how we see it.
The PIE: It does show great camaraderie.
JS: I think that the fact that universities were willing to do this still kind of surprises me and makes me feel really good that we have been able to collaborate because it was necessary. I think it’s also a statement about the urgency that institutions feel, that they are willing to give up a little bit of individuality for the greater good. And then similarly the cooperation with the UK University of Sheffield, with #Weareinternational, I still always find that very heart-warming.
I have recently co-presented with them – it was the first time we got to meet in person, and I think that’s just another example of how those of us working in international education are sort of banding together to advance the ideals that we believe in.
The PIE: Why did you have this feeling that the US HE sector needed to do something?
JS: Because we knew that the perception issues were mounting. It was post elections, and we knew students were anxious, and I think we had already had a year of experiencing the negativity of the messages that were coming out of the US.
It wasn’t like it suddenly changed in November 2016. Prior to that, there were already these sensational and negative nationalistic messages out there that were worrying students, and students had been asking about and I think in November there was already that cumulative effect, such that when I saw that message, I just thought ‘Okay, this will work, we need to do it.’
“From current students what I hear often is: ‘this reflects what I already know to be true’”
And it’s not like I ever sat alone in my living room and thought ‘I’ll develop a campaign’, it was more about ‘wow this is a great idea, let me try and share it with my network’. I had been working on a book for NAFSA, which I have just finished, with 20 different authors from NAFSA, so I had a pretty good network and I just thought – why don’t we just use my connections and see if I can twist people’s arms to get into this.
The PIE: How did the campaign grow wings?
JS: As it got momentum over a few months, it was actually the #weareinternational connection: their staff – I laugh about it now, because of how naïve we must have looked to them at the time – they said to us: ‘you are doing a great job, but here is what you need: you need a website, designated official social media channels not just your own, you need to create a marketing tool, etc.’ and we all sat in the room at Temple and we thought ‘wait, what staff, what budget?’
We were really overwhelmed at that moment, but then we just worked it out – we were building it in the background as people were getting interested in it and then having a website meant there was a place to send people who were interested and it just evolved like that and became its own entity and it became a national campaign, so I think of myself as the adopted mother – the accidental spokeswoman.
The PIE: Is this a natural role for you?
JS: I guess it must be a natural fit for my personality because it seems to be working. I don’t know that I ever thought of myself doing something like that, I just fell into it. and I had an interesting conversation with Rahul Choudaha [of Studyportals] who is such an admirable leader, and he was talking of my leadership of the campaign and how inspiring it was and I had trouble a little bit with that label and description of me.
I said something like ‘Thank you, but I didn’t set out to do this, it just sort of fell into my lap and I tried to push it forward.’ So he said ‘Yes, that’s what leadership is! It’s when something falls into your lap, and what you do with it, what you make of it.’ And I thought, ok, I’ll take that into consideration, but that feels like a more comfortable definition.
The PIE: What is the actual impact of the campaign on students? Do you have any feedback?
JS: There are surveys that have been run, so I can always share with you the metrics. Hotcourses did two surveys for us, six months apart, on their own student databases, and basically we discovered that 13 to 14% know of the campaign – which is not as good as we would like. But of the students that know of it, it’s something that 91% said it influenced their perception of the US. And about 80% of those said they were more likely to consider the US as a study destination. So it’s the right message and we need to get it out – the numbers tell us we need to work harder to get it out to students.
I have two things I have heard in terms of prospective students and current students. From current students what I hear often is: ‘this reflects what I already know to be true.’ And that they feel flattered, they already knew it was a good place, but the campaign is almost like equated to a greeting card saying ‘thinking of you’. That’s the message.
“Young people are pretty comfortable with risk, a lot of them anyway, but it’s often the parents that are the ones watching the news”
At Temple, in particular, our students are so elated that their school is the headquarters for the campaign, so they like to brag about that to their friends. Prospective students instead often tell me that it meant a lot to their parents. Young people are pretty comfortable with risk, a lot of them anyway, but it’s often the parents that are the ones watching the news.
So the parents are uncomfortable, and the students are sharing the campaign with their parents – so there’s the football player, the coffee shop owner, administrators, and American students, all with this happy message, that’s a different image than what they are getting in the media about the US. And that’s what we wanted. We wanted to give a view into the daily life, a view from the ground, so to speak, and I really believe this reflects what reality is for many of us.