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How to Market to International Students

It’s challenging enough trying to communicate with an 18-year-old.

An 18-year-old who doesn’t speak English as their native language? Well, that’s a whole other story.

In 2014-2015, nearly 1 million international undergraduate and graduate students attended U.S. colleges and universities. Now, more than ever, global is local.

At the 2016 NAA Student Housing Conference & Exposition, speaker Carla Cantu, Chief Marketing Strategist for Cantu Consulting & International Services, encouraged attendees to make more of an effort marketing to—and servicing—international students.

Although cultural differences and language barriers can pose challenges, Cantu says one happy international student often leads to 10 or 15 signed leases among their friends due to such strong word-of-mouth. That extra effort is worth it.

An international student herself in 1981, Cantu says it’s important to avoid stereotypes (based on opinions; suggest everyone within a group is the same; are often derogatory or negative) and instead operate with generalizations in mind (more neutral; based on research and facts rather than opinions; intent behind them is often to help and educate).

For example, in general, the majority of Chinese students in the U.S. are not interested in pools or tanning beds. When marketing amenities, most international students are more swayed by free parking, a carport, unlimited Internet connectivity or a maid or van service.

When it comes to interacting with residents, Cantu says it comes down to communication.

“We may be communicating but that doesn’t mean it’s been understood,” she says.

Among the most common sources of miscommunication, Cantu sites language, nonverbal communication, and attitudes, values and beliefs that we assume to be universally true.

“Do accept that your assumptions are the assumptions of others,” Cantu says. “Culture lies beneath the surface.”

In the U.S., for example, pets are considered a part of the family. Americans often assume the same is true elsewhere. Yet in many other countries, pets are not seen that way and are left to roam around. If cultural expectations surrounding pets are not discussed, an international student may leave a pet alone in their apartment for the entire weekend, or allow it to freely walk around common areas.

“Culture—shared behaviors and beliefs among a group of people that are accepted and familiar—is learned, multi-faceted, complex, dynamic and overlapping,” Cantu says. “And there are cultures within culture.”

In addition to cultural differences—leaving raw chicken out, not using a shower curtain—Cantu says student housing operators may also face safety concerns.

She says many international students—the majority of whom come from affluent backgrounds—will walk off the plane with $10,000 in cash on them.

One service technician entered an international student’s apartment and found $25,000 in cash sitting out in the room. Partnering with local banks and explaining the merits of renter’s insurance can help educate international residents about such safety issues.

Despite inevitable obstacles, Cantu says student housing communities who welcome international students will be the richer for it—in more ways than one.