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Samantha Martin, Via TRM, US

From study abroad professional to software founder, Samantha Martin is bridging the worlds of international education and ed tech. She’s launched a new system which she hopes will help evolve study abroad conversations and engage every student to make informed decisions about overseas experiences.

The PIE: Tell me officially what Via TRM is and does.

"The conversation around ‘students don’t read anything’ is old news"

SM: TRM stands for ‘travel relationship management’. We are a software company for education abroad offices and organisations and we provide interest capture, advising and application management software. We believe that ‘apply now’ is too late, especially when we talk about growing the number of students going abroad and also the types of students who have access to educational opportunities abroad.

We need to be talking to them before they hit the ‘apply now’ button, because those are the ones that haven’t decided. Those are the ones who need more information, those are the ones who may be first generation or who don’t have the community support around these experiences. Our software provides a way to easily get in front of those students and have them engage with global opportunities.

The PIE: How is Via TRM different from the current ‘apply now’ approach?

SM: The concept is you are on the university website and you are looking at that long list of programs that you have no context for because maybe you have never even been abroad. Then you see something that says ‘not sure, get your program matches in five minutes‘ and you think ‘that’s me’. You click build your personal profile and it is sort of an online dating user experience – you get matched to global opportunities through an algorithm based on your personal preferences.

The PIE: What has been the uptake so far? How many clients are you working with?

SM: Over 20 paid clients and 35 program partners and that is growing every month. We launched this current product last year even though we had been running pilots with campuses and program providers two years before that. It has been quite a journey.

“Every student should have the information to make the choice about an overseas experience”

The PIE: What has been their feedback?

SM: One of our clients said they doubled their advising capacity in one semester. We have had another client say it is the first semester where they haven’t gotten asked by faculty or students how to use the website. We have had folks say it was fun to even implement, that it really speaks to students, which of course is the goal embedded in our mission.

The PIE: Yes, tell me about your ‘every student’ slogan.

SM: We want every student to make an informed choice about having an overseas experience. The informed choice might be ‘no’, or ‘not yet’, but every student should have the information and the opportunity to make that choice while they are in their college years.

The PIE: What would you say is the most challenging part of engaging students with the idea of studying abroad?

SM: That definitely varies, however something that we really unpacked in doing pilots with some large schools was that the feeling of overwhelm is real among students. I think we have never really had a serious conversation about that in the field.

We talk about cost, we talk about lack of institutional and cultural support, we talk about curricular integration, but what we don’t talk about is the emotional state of students when they start to dip their toe into this process and how many we are losing because they think “I am totally overwhelmed and that means I am not ready to even take the next step”.

The PIE: Unpack this “feeling of overwhelm” for me. Is it about living overseas, being away from my family, what courses am I going to take?

SM: Yes it is that but it is also the ‘middle of the aisle walkers’ at study abroad fairs. They are literally clutching brochures, looking side to side and they don’t even know what is going on. When we ask them ‘hey do you feel overwhelmed?’ the look of relief on their face that somebody recognised that is palpable. So we say come over we have something for you.

What we try to convey to our clients is that you need to realise that is where your students are at and you can leverage the product to help invite them in a no pressure situation to get started.

“You can download an app on your phone and expect to start using it, that is how study abroad software should be”

The PIE: And how are you trying to help professionals who are working in study abroad offices who might also feel overwhelmed?

SM: The main pain points for the professionals are they are doing a lot of manual tasks that have nothing to do with building human relationships and advocating for students. The administrative burden is really high, putting in data after a fair into a system, for example.

But then there is a lot of hesitation to even implement something new because of what folks expect. Our mantra is: you do not need to be tech people, let us be the tech people. We have built it so you can’t break it. Just like you can download an app on your phone and expect to start using it, that is how study abroad software should be and that is what we have done.

The PIE: So what’s next?

SM: We would really like to grow our base and we would like to see the results come in. We have about a third of our client base that are now actually implementing and set to launch in summer/fall. Then we’ll be adding community and student-to-student peer interactions on top of the process layer. This will help the study abroad offices reach their goals because we know word of mouth and peer-to-peer influences are far stronger than any of us going into a classroom full of students who don’t know us.

The PIE: You used to work in a study abroad office yourself, right?

SM: I did, yes. I worked in the SUNY system at New Paltz and I also worked at Jacksonville University with International Education Programs prior to that.

The PIE: How did you journey from being a study abroad professional to developing software for those people?

SM: I never intended to be a software founder. I didn’t even really like tech to be honest with you. I have an MA in Peace and Conflict studies to add further context! I just out of sheer necessity realised that to get where we want to go as a field and to reach the students we want to reach we need some new tools. I had developed a little bit of an interest in tech through working with the SUNY COIL centre, and also just piecing together what 2.0 tools we were using to facilitate advising conversations prior to the student getting into the application system.

“I realised that to get where we want to go as a field and to reach the students we want to reach we need some new tools”

I thought from the student’s perspective it is one journey: I am interested, I am going to research, I am going to talk to someone, now I am going to talk to my friends, now I am going to go to this event, now I am going to prepare, I am going to go and now I am going to come back.

But in that one journey we are asking them to be in eight different systems and we ourselves are managing eight different systems. That seemed like a real opportunity to let systems do what they are good at and let people do what they are good at and that is how Via TRM came about.

The PIE: Very rarely do the worlds of ed tech and international education meet and it seems like you are trying to bridge the two. What’s that been like?

SM: It has been really fun to still get to be in international education because that is where I came from, but also to be in the business design, user experience and start-up world because there is a lot that international educators can learn from those fields. In addition to the product my team and I feel like there are a lot of concepts and ideas of what is working that we can pull in from other spaces that can be directly applied to international education.

The PIE: What types of concepts?

SM: Ethical sales and marketing for study abroad, talking about game design, applications to new students, talking about why user experience matters and how the conversation around ‘students don’t read anything’ is old news. Whether anyone uses our product or not that is a message that I want people to start to incorporate or have a place they can come to learn about that.

The PIE: So delivering the message of study abroad really needs to change?

SM: Yes, and we are not alone. Every industry is having to figure this out or has and are a little further along than international education.

In the old days people pitched a product and that is still what international educators are doing: ‘Hey there is this new program and you can do this excursion and this and that.’ That is pitching a product and that is old news.

What is happening today is building a community around valuable content and information and talking about global opportunities. Then when the time is right, students will pick the right opportunity for them and they will convert. But it is a mindset shift which I think is important for us to realise today.

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