International student enrollment has swelled in recent decades. Driving this growth is the passion of millions—not just of the students and their parents dreaming of an education abroad, but of the university faculty and staff helping these students feel at home.
Tom Kleinert, associate director of admissions and recruitment at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, discovered a passion for international education following his own undergraduate study abroad experience. He has since dedicated his career to supporting students studying overseas, and today he works with international students interested in pursuing an education at NYU Steinhardt.
NYU Steinhardt has been a WES partner since 2006 when it began receiving our credential evaluation reports via AccessWES. Our partnership has only deepened over the years. Currently, as part of its admissions requirements, the school recommends that international applicants obtain a WES credential evaluation.
As one of our longtime partners, Tom was recently invited to sit down with us and discuss his experiences in international studies, higher education, and working with WES.
Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with us! To start, can you tell us about your journey of working in education and how you reached where you are today in your career.
I studied at a small liberal arts college called Lafayette College in Pennsylvania where I studied international affairs and minored in Spanish. I studied abroad in Spain for part of my junior year. During my senior year, I knew I wanted to do something related to international studies.
I wanted an experience where I would meet people and possibly travel. I thought I would like a career that might prepare people to have the opportunity to study in another country, to learn another language.
I went on to work for an organization called the Council on International Educational Exchange in their travel division on student and teacher travel at the School for Field Studies. I worked with study abroad programs that brought us students to study the environment around the world. I loved it.
This was one of my first jobs. Then I realized I wanted to advance beyond what I was doing. So I went on to graduate school at Teachers College at Columbia University, where I studied Student Personnel Administration under Higher Education Administration.
What opportunities opened to you after graduate school?
I went on to work with high school students on study abroad programs through an organization called AFS or American Field Service, which also works with international students that come and study anywhere in the world.
After that, I worked on the Fulbright Scholar Program and supported international students that were studying at graduate schools in the United States.
What prompted you to transition to a university environment?
I realized that I was preparing students for study abroad programs, but I never actually saw the students. You review their application, make a decision, and then off they go to another country. You never see them again.
The Fulbright Scholars were also traveling to the United States, but you don’t see them either. It was then that I decided I wanted a university experience. Through the Fulbright Scholar Program, I got to know many people at NYU and a position became available there.
Starting in July 2002, I worked in admissions and was the person managing international student admissions. Even though NYU was a very international university, at that time about 16 percent of our students were international. Now, we are closer to about 35 percent.
What was your experience working in the admissions office?
I was basically by myself navigating the credential evaluation process, using the paper WES grading scales booklet (which I still have!) to figure out GPA and relying on the internet. I was also using the International Handbook of Universities. It was a very paper-based system.
We reached a point where we realized we couldn’t keep doing this on our own. Applications from international students were growing, and we were becoming more diverse with the students that were applying to NYU. One person could not do the credential evaluations on their own.
This is where the idea of using WES came in and has helped us tremendously because you are the experts. Referring our students to WES has helped us immensely, and we now just require the WES evaluation report.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
In my current job, I am getting students excited about graduate study and the opportunities that they have at NYU and to pursue a field of interest that could be their lifelong career. Things have changed a little bit with COVID, but seeing future students face-to-face in many, many ways is always so motivating and rewarding. It’s that type of interaction that I really love.
How do you build relationships and authentic connections with students?
I have a very casual style. I think that’s actually one of my strengths. I really don’t intimidate the students. Sometimes when they come to graduate admissions, they think that I’m deciding whether they’re a worthy candidate before they even apply. I always try to share that I’m a resource—and I don’t make the decision, so that puts the student at ease.
I also tell them that I studied abroad in high school for two and a half months. I was in Peru when I was 16 years old, so I feel unique in the field because very few Americans were going abroad at that time. Interest in studying in another country has really grown now, which is great.
What are some other challenges that your office has experienced in the last few years, and how are you overcoming them?
We felt that our strength was seeing people face-to-face and that was no longer possible during COVID-19. Everything shifted to Zoom, and here we are trying to promote a wonderful opportunity to study in New York and our international students, and even our U.S.-based students, were all taking their coursework remotely. We were wondering what was going to happen. Were people going to say, I’m not interested in graduate school until we’ve cleared away COVID? However, we found that that was not the case. Class could go on, and we could still recruit via Zoom.
It is a challenge that there’s still less face-to-face interaction—which feels forever changed. But it does bring new opportunities as well. We have found that when we had in-person sessions, the people that were able to attend were limited to those in the New York metropolitan area; this is no longer the case. Now, if we host an online information session, people can join from all over the world.
How have your recruitment efforts and activities changed in the past few years?
We have definitely focused on running our own information sessions, and these are mostly online. We’ve really developed these as opposed to what they used to be. Information sessions used to be me and a faculty member. Now, we can have a faculty member, a current student, an alum … we want to give those that are attending our information sessions the opportunity to ask questions of any of us.
We now create our own recruiting events. We’re doing way more than we used to and the events are now very program-specific. We are not traveling abroad to recruit or going to graduate school fairs as much anymore. We found that those weren’t working for us. It’s our events with our faculty, our students, and our admissions staff that have been the most effective. It’s also much more cost-effective to run an event in-house than for me to get on a plane to Chicago, book a hotel room, and possibly rent a car.
In regard to your international application numbers, we continually see growth in your area. Would you say NYU Steinhardt is meeting its goals for international enrollment? Is the flow of applications as you had expected? Are there specific goals you are trying to reach for the next five years?
We’re seeing a lot of interesting things. We’re seeing a decrease in our domestic applicants, but part of that is that the graduate population of the U.S. and permanent residents has decreased. But we are seeing an upsurge in international students coming to our programs.
There’s also an increase in our international students that already have a four-year undergraduate degree from the U.S. They don’t need a WES evaluation, but still, there’s always a flock of new students that are coming in who do. We are most excited by the international students who are pursuing their first degree in the U.S. with us as opposed to graduate students, who have already been in New York for four years and say, ‘I’m going to stay at NYU and get my graduate degree.’ They don’t need as much support. They’re like, ‘I’m here. I understand the visa process. I found housing. I have friends in the States already, even though my family and friends are 10,000 miles away.’
Are there any specific regions or markets that your school is trying to develop?
We would love to see a larger population from anywhere in Africa. We would love to see more Europeans and the countries beyond China that are in Asia, but we’re not actively targeting specific countries. But we want to diversify our student body. Our main performing countries are China, India, South Korea, and Canada, which we’re happy that it’s a consistent and, in many ways, growing group.
Are there any other trends that you’re seeing and monitoring to inform future goals and strategies?
I think we’re seeing that people want to know more beyond the academic degree. They’re going to get the academic rigor of a program, but they want to know what student life is going to be like. They want to know about safety and networking opportunities. ‘Can I connect with alumni? Can I connect with current students? What is the campus culture like?’
They are really curious about all aspects of what it’s going to be like to be a student at NYU Steinhardt. Counseling services have been coming up more, what support services we have for someone that has a learning disability or a mobility or visual issue. How comfortable are they going to be? Not just as a student, but as part of a community.
Are there any challenges that your partnership with WES has alleviated for your office?
By having AccessWES, we sometimes receive a heads-up from WES as to who our applicants are. They start the WES application before they begin their Steinhardt application. It is great that we can anticipate that this person is most likely going to apply to our program if they’ve started or completed their WES application.
It is very helpful having the WES team so accessible to us and answering the questions that we have. We certainly try not to burden you but, as you know, we’ve seen our applications growing, so that means there are going to be more questions.
NYU is a very large and sometimes confusing place, but you have helped us when an applicant has sent materials to the wrong division by making that shift and communicating with the applicant. You help us with those bottlenecks or glitches to get applicants through the funnel.
Is there anything WES can do to enhance your admissions process?
Some students say a WES evaluation is going to take them forever because they have to mail everything. But as WES continues to increase the number of universities it works with that can send digital transcripts, then we’ll hear less about this challenge.
We love the partnership. You are just so quick at responding to our requests and at helping us navigate this process, so we’re all helping the students. It’s not just about them applying. We also don’t want people to be stressed when they’re applying to graduate school.
Again, I always share that we’re a resource. I’m not here to intimidate anyone. I want them to have the best experience when applying to NYU, and the smoother the WES process can go, the more it helps to provide a good experience for our international students.
Learn more about how the Institutional Relations team at WES can support your international admissions goals and process.