A group of Prairie View A&M students studying in Costa Rica.

5 best practices for streamlining your study-abroad program

When Prairie View A&M University updated its study-abroad process, a number of good things followed

Established during the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War as the first state-supported college in Texas for African Americans, Prairie View A&M University is the second-oldest public higher-ed institution in the state. With today’s total enrollment exceeding 9,000, our HBCU offers a rich and diverse academic experience and recognizes the value that international programs can have on developing our students into global citizens.

Until relatively recently, individual colleges and departments at Prairie View operated our study-abroad programs independently, with a combination of paper forms and manual processes. But with a university-wide goal of increasing student participation in international programs, the administration realized our programs needed to be centralized and automated to ensure access to the widest number of students and provide a solid foundation for program growth.

We selected Terra Dotta, a provider of cloud-based study-abroad software, as our partner in this project, and the implementation and design process for the solution yielded important insights about automating and streamlining the study-abroad-management process.

Streamlining our study-abroad processes

As with any software implementation, it was critical for us to examine existing processes and determine where we could adopt the best practices offered by the application. Reducing the amount of customization always makes for a shorter project duration, a less complex implementation, and an easier upgrade path. We had a multi-step process where students needed to apply separately for the study-abroad program and for potential scholarships. As part of the project, we combined the program and scholarship applications to eliminate the redundancy and inconsistencies introduced by having them separate. We took the time to examine our existing processes and work with stakeholders to determine where they could achieve efficiencies and what the tolerance was for making the changes.

Related: 7 ways studying abroad helps students land sought-after jobs

For a program like study abroad that revolves around semesters, timing is important. We needed to factor in which aspects of the system should be addressed first. Our team felt it was important to begin with getting the program catalog online and centralizing all the different opportunities from which students could choose. This would give students a head start in understanding the available programs before they submitted an application.

Next, we focused on the program portal—a website that aggregates all the relevant information into an easy-to-navigate, comprehensive resource. This one-stop site offers program descriptions, brochures, travel tips, and testimonials from program participants. It’s designed to enable students to make a decision, apply for a program and scholarship, and plan their trip.

Finally, we focused on the application process itself and the best ways to combine the program and scholarship components. This led us to address the nuances and differences between student-exchange programs and faculty-led programs and what was required to apply for each.

A blueprint for improving the study-abroad process

Our team’s experience highlighted several factors that we felt were central to the overall success of the project:

Understand your pain points
Remember that you are implementing software to address particular challenges, so identify and articulate those challenges before pushing forward with a solution. Gather information from the stakeholder community, such as the registrar, financial aid office, and health clinic. Where do they have the most difficulty supporting the study-abroad program?

Take time to plan
Your software partner should have plenty of experience with project planning, so be sure to leverage their expertise for appropriate milestones and task durations.

Learn from peers
Speak with program administrators at other institutions who have undertaken similar projects to yours. They are an excellent resource for sharing what worked and what to avoid.

Identify a project champion
An executive champion is critical for ensuring that quickly resolving roadblocks, securing approvals, and fostering communication across departments.

Designate one or more “super users”
These people should receive system training and understand the ins and outs of the way the application is implemented. They can also provide training to end users and act as a first line of support.

Our biggest lesson learned? Try not to do everything at once. It’s important to scale gradually by addressing the most critical challenges first. An application with a flexible and modular framework, like Terra Dotta and others, makes it possible to add more functionality over time.

Related: 3 best practices for managing student travel

The results are in

Our international programs team continues to bring additional features and processes online, such as managing proposals for new faculty-led programs. But as a result of this particular effort, the university achieved important objectives, including:

  • Increasing the number of students applying for scholarships by combining the applications
  • Enhancing the marketing and promotion of the study abroad programs via the web portal
  • Allowing students to directly access and compare programs by providing consistent information, brochures, photos, and testimonials
  • Centralizing and coordinating all program logistics, such as passport and travel management, disciplinary clearance, and communication

Overall, the improvements in application management, productivity, and marketing have enabled us to make our study-abroad programs more accessible, thereby allowing more students to take advantage of this unique global educational opportunity.

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