By MARIANA ZEPEDA ’14
Wellesley prides itself on enrolling a diverse international student population from all parts of the world. Yet the number of students who enroll from Latin American countries has remained low throughout the College’s history, and this year’s incoming class did not include any non-immigrant visa-holders from Latin America. Non-immigrant visas are short term visas, including student visas, granted to non-US citizens.
As of spring 2013, Wellesley’s student body included 10 non-immigrant visa-holders from the region, which spans Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. This does not include students who are permanent residents of the United States or who hold dual U.S. citizenship. Countries represented include Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
Wellesley’s Latin American international student community has expressed concern that the College has not been doing enough to reach out to students in high schools across the region.
“I was the first one in my high school who came to Wellesley, despite it being a very old, well-established international school,” said Mariajose Rodriguez-Pliego ’16, an international student from Mexico. “Wellesley’s just not known in Latin America.”
According to representatives from the Office of Admission, Wellesley faces particular challenges in attracting students from Latin America.
“We’ve never had high numbers of Latin American students at Wellesley. That number has always been small compared to other parts of the world, and it’s been historically small at other institutions like ours in our region of the country,” Director of Admission Joy St. John said. “No one’s really found a good solution to increasing recruitment from Latin America yet.”
Over the past years, the Office of Admission has been working hard to recruit students from Latin American countries. External factors, such as economic growth and globalization in the region, are expected to increase interest in U.S. academic institutions. Furthermore, the Obama administration has promoted initiatives such as Education USA to help bolster interest in educational exchange.
Education USA is the higher education branch of the State Department. The network has offices throughout the world that focus on promoting U.S. education and helping local students research and pursue opportunities in the United States. The Obama administration has increased funding for Education USA, pushing to open more offices in different parts of the world, including Latin America.
Wellesley hopes to take advantage of the growing interest in the region. Admissions staff has spent time developing strategies to increase enrollment numbers and hope to use technology to reach out to students in the Latin American region.
“Visits are important but they’re not the only tool, it’s become clear to us,” Associate Director of Admission Minerva Mareva said.
This year, Mareva has been coordinating virtual Wellesley visits, which will be broadcast throughout the region via the Sao Paulo and Lima Education USA offices.
But despite these efforts, the old challenges remain. The composition of every class of international students depends greatly on factors outside of the College’s control, and trends in international education can be difficult to predict.
“Before the economic boom in China, colleges in the United States barely received applications from China…now Chinese students apply to the United States in incredibly high numbers. Before China, we used to see those kinds of application numbers from Eastern Europe, but then many of those countries joined the European Union and so Eastern European students had access to other opportunities in other parts of the world,” St. John said.
As of 2012, according to the Institute of International Education’s 2012 Report on International Educational Exchange, students from Latin America and the Caribbean make up 5.5 percent of the world’s “globally mobile” students, meaning that they have participated in educational exchange. Of this group, 32 percent have come to the United States. Although many Latin American countries are experiencing economic expansion, the College has not seen a corresponding increase in the number of applicants. This anomaly has somewhat baffled Admission officers.
“The type of growth that [Brazil] is experiencing has typically led to a stronger flow of students into the United States educational system,” St. John said. “I don’t have the sense that Brazilian students are flocking to the United States the way that students from other booming economies have done in the past.”
Though Wellesley’s current rate of Latin American student enrollment is comparable to similar liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, members of the Latin American community at Wellesley hope these numbers do not stop the College from devoting time and energy to increasing its Latin American population.
“Yes, we are on par with comparable institutions, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying hard to increase our numbers,” Mared Alicea-Westort said. Alicea-Westort is the assistant dean of intercultural education and advisor to students of Latina descent. “If we are committed to being diverse, we need to look at what diversity means—and what countries are represented.”
Alicea-Westort has met with members of the Latin American international student population in order to discuss ways in which the community can help address the issue.
The College not only faces challenges recruiting students from Latin America to apply to Wellesley. It also must confront a number of problems in persuading students to enroll. Financial aid is a significant barrier to international students, regardless of their countries of origin.
Additionally, the concept of a liberal arts college does not translate well into the Latin American context, which tends to value institutions that are professionally-oriented. Misconceptions regarding women’s institutions form another significant barrier to enrollment of students from the region. This has been the case throughout Wellesley’s history.
“In Latin America, when you apply to college, you apply directly to a specific major,” Savitri Restrepo ’16, an international student from Colombia, said. “Many people have the misconception that by being at a liberal arts college, you’re not focusing on anything in particular, that you’re sort of wasting your time.”
Mareva cited this as an important challenge, as Admissions has to work even harder to educate prospective attendees on the advantages of a liberal arts education.
But Wellesley faces even deeper challenges in attracting students than other liberal arts institutions face because of its status as a women’s college.
“We are a women’s college, and what that means in the U.S. context is very different from what it means in the region,” Mareva said. “We have—particularly in this region—probably the strongest reaction to that across the board.”
The idea of a women’s institution has specific connotations within the Latin American context, and these misconceptions can be difficult to address.
“All-girl or all-female institutions [in the region] tend to be very conservative and oftentimes have a very religious affiliation. That’s the automatic assumption that parents and students make,” Mareva said. “But these are young women who want to be in a progressive place and get the best education and exposure to peers in the United States.”
Mareva explained that it can be difficult to get students to realize that they’ll have access to the same types of opportunities than they would at a co-ed institution. St. John remarked that this is one of the biggest challenges the Office faces during recruitment efforts.
“We already battle here the myth that going to a single-sex college is like going to a convent,” St. John said. “This makes the concept extra foreign.”
Still, students feel that the College must work harder to overcome these obstacles, primarily due to its commitment to diversity, but also because it would lighten the load for the current community of Latin American students.
“You end up having a skewed international population,” Rodriguez-Pliego said. “And it affects the type of environment that exists for the students that are here. People want to go to a place where they will feel at home, where they will have a support group. Yes, I’ve made friends from a lot of different nationalities and I’ve learned and grown a lot from that. But still, it can be scary not to have that [support] in a place where you’re a minority.”
Rodriguez-Pliego explained that many of the students she knows from home who applied to schools in the United States considered the school’s population of Latin American students a critical factor.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Restrepo said. “Once you don’t have enough students from a region, it will self-perpetuate.”
This cycle also has the potential to skew Wellesley’s alumnae network, meaning students who are looking for jobs in Latin America may not have the connections they would in another region.
“When we don’t have a lot of students coming from the region, then we don’t have a lot of alumnae in the countries, and we do a lot of work in collaboration with alumnae and students,” Mareva said.
Students also expressed concern about the lack of diversity even within the population of Latin American students. At Wellesley, Mexico is the most represented Latin American country, with four non-immigrant visa holders. All of the other countries are represented by only one student. It is important to note that since the Latin American student population is so small, differences in its composition are not statistically significant and could vary from year to year. Still, representation from South America and the Caribbean is currently quite low.
Additionally, most students from the region either come from international schools or applied from the United World College (UWC) system.
“The reason why I ended up at Wellesley…was because I wasn’t at home. I wasn’t recruited from Latin America. I was recruited from [Li Po Chun United World College in] Hong Kong,” Restrepo said.
Mareva explained that the Office of Admissions’ efforts have been geared toward attracting a more diverse pool of applicants from within the region.
“We’re trying to create a diverse class and to bring perspectives, and students from the local systems are important as well,” Mareva said. She recently returned from a recruiting trip to Costa Rica, Panama and Puerto Rico.
The Office hopes to forge relationships with local schools and administrators, though this poses its own set of challenges. Preparing students to attend a U.S. university requires much investment from local educators.
“U.S. schools favor international students who are yes, intelligent, but also involved in lots of different areas outside of academia,” said Alix Lewis ’16, an international student from Trinidad and Tobago. “We don’t stress that as much as we could [in Trinidad].”
Additionally, students applying to school in the United States are required to take the SATs or ACTs and write admissions essays, which they would not be expected to do if they remained in the local system.
Currently, Mareva explained, the Office of Admissions visits the UWC in Costa Rica every year and is exploring the option of visiting Brazil every two years. They’re also experimenting with visiting different combinations of countries in the region to form a strategy that is cost-effective and yields results. In years when visits to the region are limited to Costa Rica, Admissions plans to focus on online promotion and video conferencing in order to spread the word about Wellesley.
Though the Office has a strategic recruiting plan, they don’t hold all the cards. Their plans depend on global trends in international education, which are shaped by economic and political conditions across the world.
“We do have a plan and also it’s constantly being reshaped by what is going on,” Mareva said. “It’s challenging and fun at the same time…as there is no straight formula.”
Mareva especially hopes that Wellesley’s Student Ambassador Program will prove effective. Vicky George is coordinating the program and will host two upcoming training session on Nov. 13 and Nov. 19 so that students can learn how to get involved in Wellesley’s recruitment efforts in their communities.
“We hope that most students will join these efforts because they’re invaluable—you can’t replace the student voices,” Mareva said.
Admissions is optimistic that changes in the region will eventually allow Wellesley to draw in more students.
“[Latin America] has been relatively insular as a region,” Mareva said. “But I think this might be changing. I’m hoping our efforts will yield results in the not so distant future.”
Mariana Zepeda is a Mexico City-born English and History major. Follow her on Twitter @zepedamariana.