The University of Iowa

International social media builds opportunity

August 29th, 2013

By Abigail Meier, The Daily Iowan

The University of Iowa is trading English for Mandarin and Facebook for WeChat to reach out to international students.

The university has announced it will hire a new global external-relations coordinator to connect the university with international alumni through social media throughout the world. This coordinator will help find jobs for current and graduating international students along with students who want to pursue positions in other countries.

The increase in the number of international undergraduate students has prompted the university to create this position with a starting salary of $33,280.00. 

“It makes sense for us to stay in touch and find jobs, network, and create more efforts around the world to give back to the university,” said Downing Thomas, the dean of International Programs.

The new coordinator will be in charge of developing, maintaining, and nurturing a program of international alumni relationships.

Thomas said social media can help the university to keep in contact with the international alumni on a regular basis — particularly from China and Taiwan, countries whose students make up the highest number of the UI’s international population. By using these new tools, the university can create opportunities for international students after they graduate and return to their home countries to search for a new job.

Dean Downing Thomas

International Programs Dean Downing Thomas speaks to a group of incoming international students at a pre-departure orientation in China in July 2013.

“It helps provide international students a way to become leaders within their home countries,” Thomas said.

The new employee will assist with international events and presentations. The coordinator is also required to speak fluent English and Mandarin. 

Even though popular U.S. social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter are not available in China because the government prohibits the use of them, this does not hinder international students’ social-media interaction. 

In China, a large number of citizens are using Renren instead of Facebook, Weibo instead of Twitter, and a new social media called WeChat, which is mobile phone, text, and voice messaging communication service.

Joan Kjaer, the communications director for UI International Programs, said this position will bridge the gap between the university and the international students.

“It’s hard to stay connected to international alumni,” Kjaer said. “This will help us create the tools to stay connected here and after they leave.”

Kjaer said almost 500 million users were registered to Weibo from 2011 to 2012.  Weibo is solely described as “the Chinese Facebook.” 

Kjaer said with different types of social media platforms, the new coordinator could communicate with international students in a professional manner by creating a Weibo page or in a relaxed conversation over WeChat. 

“They are always locked into some kind of electronic device,” said Kjaer about recent observations she made during a visit to China. “The subways, the streets, in cars, even in elevators, everybody is plugged in.”

Thomas said the department will run on the same budget after the coordinator is hired because many positions are being shifted throughout the department — meaning there will not be additional costs.

The other state Board of Regents universities do not have such a position on their campuses.

“If I had unlimited funds and access to resources then I think it would be a great idea,” said Tim Tesar, the senior international admissions officer at Iowa State University, adding that his department has one employee that oversees all outreach programs to international students. 

Iowa State uses social medias such as Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, but it has yet to dive into the international social networks. 

The University of Northern Iowa also does not have one point person in charge of social medias within other countries — though they still use common U.S. based forms of social media.

“The University of Northern Iowa has been using social media to reach out to international students for a couple of years,” said Craig Klafter, the associate provost for International Programs at UNI.  “It has proven to be an effective tool.”

The UI’s Thomas hopes to have the position filled within the next few months.  As they continue to develop this specific position, they will connect to the international social media scene.

“That’s where communication is happening, so the UI needs to be present,” Kjaer said.