Any agent worth their salt knows that commission payments are not the be all and end all of their job. Making sure that students are fully prepared, aware of their options and equipped to handle challenges is an integral part of their role in fact their reputation depends on it. “As the conduit between home, abroad, institutions and the students, it is our job to make sure that students succeed,” affirms Mike Wittig from the National Registration Center for Study Abroad (NRCSA) in the USA. Greg O’Neill of Insight Education Consulting in Thailand, meanwhile, adds that “this is an essential part of the suite of services that agents must perform if they are doing their job properly. Our role with the student does not finish until well after graduation and often through to their return home country and to finding suitable employment.”
So what does a good agency service entail? Inspiring students and understanding the reason for their trip, according to Susana Ramínes at Timpany Languages Courses in Spain, an agency offering counselling in seven different languages. “All Timpany team members have had experience travelling abroad, and this helps us understand the way of thinking of the students as we have all been in a similar situation,” she explains. “Being empathetic is key to understanding their fears, nerves, needs, excitements and dreams.”
Indeed, as Rose Gulnihal Aydin from Futureducation in Turkey highlights, figuring out the reason why students want to study abroad is half the battle. “It is no good if a student comes to me telling me he wants to enrol on an engineering course because his friend has, or because that is what he thinks he should do,” she says. “They need to have motivation and they need to plan how they are going to advance in their career, otherwise they are going nowhere. If they don’t do this, I tell them that for them, studying abroad is a waste of time.”
And for Lars Zimmermann at Academic Embassy in Germany, an issue is that students often have a fixed idea of where and what they would like to study but are unaware of more suitable options. Some students, for instance, may not meet the required language or grade point average (GPA) requirements for their desired programme. “Therefore, these students need to be guided through the process in order to submit an application at a university where they have reasonable chances of getting accepted,” he says. “A good alternative... are pathway programmes, which, after a year of intensive training, give students the opportunity to make up for academic and language deficiencies [where] under regular circumstances, the course would not have granted access to the student.”
Another part of the pre-departure preparation process, Zimmermann adds, is expectation management, often for parents who are “an important player in the selection process. While it is usually fairly easy for them to identify the tuition cost per semester/academic year, it is a general challenge to define the realistic overall cost including accommodation, books and personal living expenses.” And for parents and students alike, “it is important that the students and parents are fully aware of what to expect in terms of course selection, living conditions and the workload expected”.
Luckily when recruiting for language programmes, according O’Neill from Thailand’s Insight Education Consulting, the process is comparatively straight forward as programmes are less complex. However, “Counsellors need to understand the diagnostic tests such as Ielts, Toefl or school placement tests,” he says, adding, “The timetabling of programmes may also be important for certain types of students.”
However, it is important that agents inform all student clients, regardless of their programme type, that they might experience culture shock. Although, as James Johnston from Practigo in Germany and Spain relates, this isn’t always something that agents can do easily. “Regardless of how many times we tell a student that standards of living may be different to what they expect at home, they don’t often realise this until they have arrived,” he says. “We send a lot of students to London and always make them aware that the city is big, and that they will probably spend a lot of time on the tube or on buses. This, again, doesn’t always sink in until they spend an hour or two each day getting to and from their accommodation.”
Regarding differences in culture, another thing that agents should point out to clients is that “the unspoken social rules are where foreign students face most trouble”, as Pia Flores from Explorius Education in Sweden highlights. “People may expect a certain type of behaviour from [international students] but cannot explain what exactly is expected,” she says. “Very often students’ (especially northern Europeans’) lingual skills develop faster than their knowledge of the social rules. People feel easily embarrassed by explaining to a foreign person how to say thank you, for example. If, in these situations, a student is told that her behaviour is bad, then she will hardly see it that way.”
Therefore, it is crucial that agents are aware of the cultural nuances of their clients’ study abroad destinations in order to provide an effective de-brief. Ready For You, with its head office in Malta, also has branches in Brazil, Germany, Ireland and the UK. This means, according to Alvaro Alberto Benevides, that the agency can recruit students from their origin as well as from their destination chosen. “Thus, we can demonstrate that we are prepared to receive them and give the necessary support when they arrive in a new cultural environment,” he says, explaining, “We know all the schools we promote, as well as the local transport systems, and can also offer emergency support.”
World Study in Brazil, meanwhile, sends agent staff on an average of three fam trips per year “so they can know every detail of the school and city”, says Laíse Menucci from the agency. “We care about every detail the weather, the language, the cost of living, the duration of the programme, the housing options, the personality of the student and any other concern they could present.” The agency also employs psychologists, who prepare students on both a practical and emotional level, Menucci adds, which is a good way to prepare students for the effects of homesickness.
And in terms of initial everyday support, O’Neill tries to provide a “buddy” another international student who has been in the country for a while for departing students. And, as Antonio Reyes from Diversity Abroad in the USA explains, online resources are also useful. “[The Diversity Abroad website] has a host of resources available for students preparing to study abroad,” he says, adding that the website includes articles that cover the study abroad process from beginning to end. It also features videos and interviews from students who have studied abroad.
Not to be overlooked is the importance of developing a good rapport with clients. As O’Neill relates, “Rapport allows counsellors to build a student profile and access their learning needs, aspirations, goals and their financial situation,” he says. Indeed, without a good relationship with their agent, students might feel unable to open up to agents about any difficulties or queries they have, which would be detrimental to the student’s study abroad experience.
Keeping in touch
Once students are aware of setbacks they might encounter, many are reassured that their agent is only a phone call or email away even if they don’t require further supervision. This is something that James Johnston from Practigo in Germany and Spain affirms, adding that, “We always contact our students after one or two weeks to ask if they have settled in, but some don’t even reply. Therefore we also contact the host companies to ask for feedback so we can at least get an idea of how things are going.”
Jana Oveckova from Austra Agency in Slovakia, on the other hand, says that her agency doesn’t keep in contact with students at all while they are on their placement. “Honestly, our students are prepared before their departure in such a way that after arrival abroad they usually do not have any questions or problems,” she says, adding that the consultation process involves discussing every single eventuality in person with the students as well as the schools.
A number of agencies, however, prefer to pro-actively contact students, with Claudia Landolt from globo-study in Switzerland explaining the agency or sub-agency is regularly in touch. “Moreover, we ask for attendance records from schools... If we realise that the students are not 100 per cent comfortable... we contact the supplier immediately.” Others, such as Explorius Education in Sweden, emphasise the importance of local contact people, while Bianca Buganè from STI Travels in Italy reveals that Facebook is a good tool for keeping in touch and monitoring whether students are happy.
TSA Association in Italy even keeps in touch with students once they return to their home country, often offering discounts on English courses and examinations in Italy “in order to consolidate the knowledge achieved during the study abroad programme”, says Annalisa Cucco, Director.