TIE5: Getting Squirrelly: Creating UC Davis’s Pre-Arrival Guide for International Students

Like many campuses across the United States,  the University of California-Davis has seen its international student enrollment skyrocket. That jump created a need to better serve international students before they arrived on campus.  UC Davis tackled it with an online pre-arrival guide– and squirrels.

In her talk “Getting Squirrelly: Creating UC Davis’s Pre-Arrival Guide for International Students” Sharon Knox, director of communications in the Office of Undergraduate Education at UC Davis, told an audience at HighEdWeb17 Monday afternoon that the project had tight deadlines and required agile thinking. The lesson of a previous HighEdWeb– that you can never go wrong with squirrels — helped to inform the decision to create Scrunch the Squirrel as a mascot for the guide.

“We wanted to avoid stereotyping and we wanted the character to be relatable,” Knox said. A squirrel, designed by a student artist, fit the bill.

UC Davis brought international education and arrivals together under one office in 2013, to deal with a population that had gone from 400 students to 3,200 students in less than 10 years. However international students still faced challenges, Knox said. They include: Comprehension of materials on the web by non-English speakers, the visa acquisition process and related interviews, and the need to make decisions on orientation and housing. Course selection was also hard for students who may not speak English or have easy access to an academic advisor.

Stakeholders settled on the online guide as a model, but wanted something turned around in less than two months for June arrivals. That meant the project team had to be quick, well-managed, and forceful.

“We had to say no a lot,” Knox said.

They were able to say yes to a plan that created  short easily-digestible videos to help walk international students through what they needed to do before arriving on campus. And an online course selection tool that made picking classes from afar easier, through a series of simple questions. The results were well-received and students found the site easy to use, Knox said. The site was built with existing tools,  including Cascade CMS and the course selection tool was a custom-built web app.

UC-Davis is planning to expand the project and update the project videos on a three-year cycle, she said.  The team also wants to integrate the site with a new learning management system that UC-Davis acquired, and the schools Banner services.