Tag Archives: student services

Three organizational approaches to great student service

Over many years I’ve found that people who work in English language programs, whether teachers or  staff, are extremely kind, generous with their time and attention, and committed to their students. You’d think in an environment with people like that, students would always be well served. But in some cases the organization is set up in such a way that good student service is impeded. Here are three examples of organization-level problems and a suggested approach to addressing each one. 

  1. In one English language program, first-day check-in was conducted by the admissions team. They had it down to a fine art. Enter the lobby, present your I-20 and passport, check that you’ve paid your bill, show evidence of your health insurance, good to go, come back tomorrow for placement testing. It was highly efficient, and although the staff were friendly, this was hardly the welcome students should have been receiving after traveling thousands of miles and spending significant money for their program. 

    At this program, there was a siloed culture in which each team did its own thing. It was clear that students could be much better served if all staff, and faculty too, were involved in that first-day process. So, starting by inviting faculty to participate in welcoming the students that first day, the other teams – student activities and the academic staff team – were brought in. This resulted in a comprehensive first-day experience for students, starting with a warm welcome and conversation with faculty. Once the possibilities became clear, the academic and student services staff worked with the admissions team to create a process in which students could get a lot done – IT setup, activities sign-up, electives selection, program changes – in a ‘one-stop-shop’ approach that left students feeling welcomed and accepted into their new program. 

    Lesson: if your teams are working separately on serving students, break down the walls between departments and find ways to collaborate. You’ll find staff and faculty all pulling in the same direction and you’ll be serving students better. 

  2. Going back years, the summer term had been divided into ‘first half’ and ‘second half.’ This made it possible for teachers to teach just one half of the summer (which was an optional semester to teach in) and take the other half off. What’s more, the schedule had been adapted so that summer classes took place only in the mornings. The thinking seemed to be that the fall and spring were the ‘real’ semesters and the summer was just an optional, additional semester. 

    This may have been true for teachers, but not for students, many of whom wanted to continue their studies as normal over the summer and were inconvenienced by the mid-term change of teachers and the option to take only one 6-week elective in each half of the semester instead of two 12-week electives for the whole semester. 

    The arrangement seemed to suit faculty well, but had not been designed with students in mind. Again, there was no intention on the part of any individual to serve students poorly, but that was the effect of this arrangements. 

    Lesson: in decision-making around curriculum, schedules, and anything else that directly affects students, the first people to consider are the students. Always ask, ‘how does this benefit our students?’ In most cases, other considerations are secondary. Put students first. 

  3. In the final example, individual teachers worked with a staff member to plan and deliver specialized short programs. In some cases the staff member and the teacher had very different ideas about the role of each in the planning and delivery. One teacher viewed the staff member as ‘support’ – a back-office function to get students to the classroom where the learning happened. The staff member saw her role as integral to the students’ education and claimed more than spreadsheets and transportation arrangements. Disagreements got in the way of a team effort to give students the best possible service. 

    No matter the individual job – whether classroom teacher, student services staff, admissions personnel, and so on – everyone works for an organization that has the purpose of educating students. A narrow view of education is the ‘delivery to the classroom’ model – staff get students to the classroom where the ‘real learning’ takes place. But an English language program is a place where learning can take place at every stage and in every interaction.

    Lesson: As a part of the institutional goal to educate, see all employees as educators, and get them to see themselves in that light too. In particular, faculty and staff should see themselves as being in a partnership, with differentiated roles, to help students learn at every opportunity. 

    I hope you can see how impediments like the ones I’ve described can get in the way of good student service, no matter how kind the individuals in the program are. Look for examples of these organizational blockages in your own program and work to fix them. You’ll make a big difference to your students’ experience. 

Student Services when everything’s gone online

Image: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

“What do you do in Student Services?” I was asked the other day. It’s difficult to give a quick and easy answer, because the work of Student Service staff is wide-ranging and includes several functional areas. But I’ve found that if your listener has a minute or two, you can frame your explanation of Student Services with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Most of us are familiar with Maslow’s pyramid, though Maslow himself never drew a pyramid. His hierarchy is a motivational theory intended to describe five levels of human needs. In some interpretations, needs lower in the pyramid must be satisfied before needs higher up can be addressed. I find Maslow’s hierarchy useful in describing the work of our Student Services departments, because we try to take care of the whole person, beginning with satisfying some of their basic physiological needs (bottom of the pyramid), all the way to encouraging them to fulfill their highest aspirations (top of the pyramid).

Here are some of the ways in which Student Services staff address students’ needs at all levels:

Physiological needs: our housing service puts a roof over students’ heads and ensures that they have a means of obtaining healthy food and drink.

Safety needs: we satisfy students’ needs for order, predictability, and security by providing airport transfers, orienting them to the locale, helping them open a bank account or get a cellphone, advising them about local laws, and ensuring that they maintain their visa status by following rules and regulations.

Belongingness and love needs: we organize icebreakers, parties, trips, and other social events to help students get to know each other and feel a part of our school and community.

Esteem needs: we learn our students’ names and listen carefully to their concerns, and we celebrate their successes at end-of-term parties.

Self-actualization needs: we organize extra-curricular workshops, get them out into the community, and find opportunities for them to pursue their interests independently.

Seen in this light, Student Services departments provide an essential whole-person approach to caring for and educating students on their study abroad adventure, helping students to get the most out of the experience and excel in their studies. It is a set of jobs not to be taken lightly: we all know that a student who is unhappy in her living situation can be distracted in the classroom. A strong Student Services function can make all the difference to the success of an English language program.

But what role is there for Student Services when a program has gone online? You might decide that since there are no students on your campus or in your school, you don’t need Student Services. It’s true that if your students are studying from their homes, then the bottom two layers of the pyramid – physiological and safety needs – are likely taken care of or are not something you can help with. Student Services can still play an important role, though, in supporting students, binding them to your school, and helping them achieve their aspirations. To give just one example, the Community Friends Program at Lewis & Clark College connects international students with local volunteers in the community for friendship and exchange. Now, with everything going online, the program continues to connect students and volunteers through Zoom meetings. This kind of extra-curricular program has the potential to hit the top three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, and gives students a unique and distinctive experience. In a competitive online environment, that may be one benefit that keeps students loyal to a program.

Online Student Services is a new phenomenon for most English language programs, and we don’t yet know whether or to what extent students will take us up on these types of activities. But as we explore this uncharted territory, we have to try what we can to support our students and help them grow.

Putting Students First

At a recent professional development session at Stafford House Boston, Miyo Takahashi Le and I presented some principles and practices of good service to intensive English program (IEP) students. The simple mantra “Students come first” particularly resonated with many in the audience. It means that in any policy or practice consideration, staff should always prioritize what is best for the students. Putting students first may seem obvious, but although individual staff and faculty approach their work with their students’ best interests in mind, in practice there can be institutional or structural impediments that inhibit good service. Here are three examples.

At one IEP, the Admissions team was responsible for first-day check-in of students for its semester-length program. The team had made the process – which included scanning passports and I-20s, checking students’ insurance, and ensuring that tuition was paid – highly efficient. There was no involvement from the Academic team in first-day check-in, because it was viewed as an Admissions process. Yet many students had academic-related questions when they came in on the first day, and there was no process to get those questions answered. Worse, for new students who had traveled thousands of miles to come and study at the program, there was little in the way of a warm welcome, no chance for students to meet their teachers, and only limited opportunities to start bonding with other students.

This was changed by having Admissions and Academics collaborate to develop a first-day check-in experience that included a warm welcome and conversation with faculty, and advisors on hand to answer students’ questions. It resulted also in the Academic staff and faculty being able to take care of some academic procedures (such as elective class selection) on check-in day, which was more efficient and of better service to students.

Breaking down silos and seeing first-day check-in as an institutional effort rather than the activity of just one department led to better service to students.

Prioritizing Staff or Faculty Interests
In an IEP that ran three semesters per year, the summer semester was set up differently from the fall and spring semesters. The daily schedule was shorter, with all days ending at 1:00 instead of 3:30, because students were restricted to one elective rather than two. The summer was divided into two six-week sessions, giving faculty the opportunity to teach less or concentrate their teaching into one half of the semester. This also meant that electives that were designed to be taught over 60 hours were crunched into 30 hours. None of this was great for students.

The original rationale given for the different summer schedule was that the IEP was running its main semesters in the fall and spring, and summer was seen as just an extra that was not taken as seriously. But students wished to study year-round, and there was no reason why the program should be any different in the summer. In fact, it looked suspiciously as though the summer had been designed for the convenience of the faculty rather than the good of the students.

After much discussion and a faculty vote, the summer semester was brought into line with the fall and spring semesters, creating a smoother study experience for students studying over several semesters.

Institutional Inertia
At a residential program, students were required to sign out when they left campus and sign back in when they returned. This was an onerous process that began twenty or thirty years before, and was intended to increase the safety of the students by enabling staff to check who was on campus at any time. Upon review, it was found that many students failed to sign out and sign in correctly, making the system ineffective. Given that the Student Service team’s mission had recently been updated to include empowering students and helping them to be more independent, the sign-out/sign-in system seemed outdated and intrusive. And on reflection, staff realized that the system had been introduced before the age of smart phones, which students now all carry at all times, making them easier to reach than ever before. The reason the sign-out/sign-in system continued was simply because that’s how it had always been done. While some staff had reservations initially, the burdensome sign-out/sign-in books were finally removed, and in a subsequent survey, students overwhelmingly supported the change.

Serving Better
No matter how much you may want to provide top-notch service to your students, impediments – such as silos, prioritizing the interests of faculty or staff over those of students, and institutional inertia – can get in the way of great service to students. Do you recognize any of these impediments in your program? How can you serve better?



Thank you to Ece Gürler of Stafford house Boston for devising and publicizing the session ‘How Can We Serve Better?’