Skip to content
Paid for and created by Study Group

Universities help international students feel at home in uncertain times


With more than 4,700 colleges and universities in the United States, selecting a university and navigating the admissions process is difficult for even the most prepared student. For international students, particularly those for whom English is a second language, the proposition of studying in the U.S. can seem particularly formidable. The seemingly endless options are daunting for these students seeking to find the university that matches their academic goals, financial needs, and desired college experience.

Study Group works with international students who are interested in pursuing degrees in countries where universities teach in English, including the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Their focus is creating pathways of academic, intensive English Language, and acculturation courses designed to ease students’ transitions into these new learning environments. For those students seeking to study in the largest international student market in the world, the United States, Study Group’s mission is especially crucial these days.

In November of 2016, just days after the Presidential election, Study Group met with one of its partners, James Madison University, to discuss whether students considering attending school in the U.S. would still feel welcome. All present agreed, after such a long and tumultuous election cycle played out on the world stage, it was critical to reassure international students that they were welcome on university campuses and in the U.S.

During the meeting, Study Group representatives and JMU officials conceived the social media campaign, #youarewelcomehere. The hashtag, inspired by the #illridewithyou campaign in Australia, and accompanying video, were created in just four days. The video includes students, faculty, and staff from various schools in Study Group’s U.S. network communicating the message, “You are welcome here,” in statements, photos and video. The goal was to let prospective students know that U.S. campuses and their students, faculty, and staff champion an environment that remains open, hospitable, diverse, friendly, and safe.

Originally focusing on Study Group’s partner schools, the campaign exploded after it was seen by other institutions, especially Temple University, and organizations like NAFSA, who have helped champion #youarewelcomehere’s expansion. Today, the campaign has grown to include more than 250 universities and organizations, garnering vast media coverage.

Islam Lafi has seen its impact firsthand. One of Study Group’s student recruitment managers for North America, Lafi is based in Dubai and Jordan, serving the entire Middle East. Her role includes counseling students considering pursuing a degree in the U.S. Regarding the campaign, Lafi says, “It was very much needed when it came out, as students and parents were worried. They saw stories on social media and felt targeted and unwelcomed. The video reassured them.”

For students who were then studying at university in the U.S., the welcome mat was already out. Ali Naqi is a senior at Roosevelt University. Born in Pakistan, his family moved around the Middle East often while he was a child. Naqi, who is majoring in business management and minoring in psychology, is in his second year at Roosevelt (he transferred after attending college in Bahrain for two years). Naqi has found the university to be very welcoming. “It’s a friendly and intimate environment, and all cultures are welcomed here. If things happen, the university addresses it and talks about it.”

Study Group is an integral partner in creating a welcoming environment at Roosevelt and its other partner institutions, even if students are only generally aware of Study Group’s contribution. According to Joe Monastero, Study Group’s global head of marketing for higher education in North America, “Our marketing approach is to build the brand of each our partners individually, but in that moment, our partners agreed it was important to send a unified message to students around the world ensuring them ‘you are welcome here’ at university campuses throughout the United States. Watching hundreds of institutions join this chorus and students’ reactions has been both humbling and inspiring.”

What students clearly understand about Study Group’s role is their help in making the decision of what university to attend and assistance throughout the application process. Lafi says, “A big part of my job is to be a facilitator between students, education counselor agencies, and admissions teams. Our goal is to pair the student with the right university based upon academic, cultural, and financial criteria, among others, to set them up for success in their studies and provide an easier transition to university life.”

For many international students, attending university is their first time away from home for an extended period. An adjustment period is inevitable. “They need all kinds of support, and it can be emotional. I remain a point of contact, and I get calls and emails from students,” says Lafi. Her role involves contact from the parents as well, whose concerns tend to be about safety of the campus, housing, and living expenses.

Nour Hewedak was born and raised in Cairo, but always knew she wanted to attend a university in the U.S. Now a sophomore majoring in communications at James Madison University, Hewedak was introduced to the University through an education counselor agency and to Study Group to help her navigate the admissions process. “I wasn’t sure what school I wanted to attend. They provided me a list of suitable schools based on my major, the culture, and the location. JMU was my first choice because I have friends in the area and their campus environment seemed like a great fit,” recalls Hewedak.

While selecting the right school is of critical importance to ensuring a good educational experience, other steps are significant as well. According to Hewedak, “They counseled me about being a full-time student in the U.S. and ensured I selected the university that was the right fit for me. They prepared me to enter into the U.S. education system and join the community of James Madison University.”

As Hewedak came to JMU as a freshman, transition to the university required more guidance than Naqi’s. She says of herself and the other international students who were in the Study Group managed James Madison University pathway program, “they provided whatever we needed, and if we felt homesick, they made it feel kind of like home. I didn’t feel I was somewhere I was not supposed to be – they made me feel welcomed.”

As the political environment of a country remains an important factor for whether international students choose to study there, the #youarewelcomehere campaign continues to play a key role in assuring students’ decision to study in the U.S. Lafi says of the campaign “The concern has lessened, but it is still there particularly when incidents arise.” Lafi notes the campaign has worked, as it has brought the students back. Simply having the video available helps Lafi, “When I have a student who is reluctant, I show them the video … I love to see their reactions. They end up with a nice smile and feel a sense of relief.”

Monastero, who will be giving a presentation on the success and future of the campaign at this year’s ICEF Miami conference, said “never before has there been such a concerted international effort by U.S. higher education institutions and organizations, and #youarewelcomehere shows no signs of slowing down.” Learn more about the campaign.

This content was paid for and created by Study Group.

The editorial staff of The Chronicle had no role in its preparation.

Find out more about paid content.