Jessica Luna

St. Thomas University, an attractive option for high school students in Latin America

Despite the challenges brought by COVID-19, St. Thomas University continued to reach potential students via one-on-one, personalized online recruitment.

I sat down with Ryan Sullivan, Associate Vice President Enrollment Management at STU, to learn more about how they started building their presence in Latin America and how they use a holistic approach in student recruitment.

This interview has been edited for length, context, and clarity.

Jessica: Hi Ryan, thank you for joining me. Tell us about your role at St. Thomas University, and how long you've been working there?

Ryan: Thank you for having me, Jessica. It's funny you mention it, because next week will be the second anniversary of me returning to St. Thomas. Previously, I worked here for 14 years and took some time to go in a different direction. I'm glad to be back! For the last two years, I've been in this role as AVP for Enrollment Management. My job is to ensure that services are available and running well for students from the point of contact until graduation. So, I work with the Recruitment team, the Admissions team, Student Services, and Residence Life.

Jessica: STU is a very attractive university, especially for Ecuadorians, and of course, Latin Americans, to pursue their education. How did Latin America become a priority for you in terms of recruiting? 

Ryan: It traces back to the first student who came from Ecuador. She found us. Her high school counselor supported her in coming here. As a student, she was very bold and had a wonderful experience at STU. 

Through word-of-mouth back to, in particular, Quito and Colegio Americano, a couple of other students came, and they started having a great experience and telling their friends. It all just started to roll out from there! We identified not just Ecuador but Quito, and specifically Colegio Americano, as our key micro-region, saying, "Okay, we're going to start visiting that school, talking to students and counselors, and make ourselves present." 

And that's what we did. We started building a reputation, working with current and former students. We'd host small events, and our recruitment team prioritized connecting with former students back in Quito, have little receptions, talk to parents, etc. 

Word-of-mouth helped us build on that. It was a multi-prong approach, ensuring that students had a good experience and something that they would talk about. We worked with the high school counselors and engaged with parents. Since then, it expanded outside that one particular high school to other schools as well. 

Jessica:  What about other countries in Latin America? Is Ecuador still your strongest region?

Ryan: Ecuador is still our most substantial region. We also looked at Tegucigalpa in Honduras. We've done well in Colombia. For a while, we were also doing very well in Venezuela. We've had students from Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil.

Jessica: STU is an excellent example of using network effects correctly. Your first Ecuadorian student had a great experience. She became a form of ambassador (or what we in marketing call, brand evangelist) for your University, and you were able to take advantage of that opportunity to build the right relationships to make your student enrollment grow.

Ryan: That's right. We were fortunate because, as I said, she found us, and the wave of interest that came after her was enormous.

Jessica: Amazing! Let's talk about Brazil. What approach have you been using to tackle this market?

Ryan: Brazil has been a bit more of a challenge for us. And it's hard to put the exact reason why. There seems to be a bit of a different headspace in families about higher education and going abroad. 

So, for example, in Brazil, there are a lot of students who come to Canada to study, but a lot of them are coming to learn English, not necessarily to look for a bachelor's degree. That has changed a bit over the last few years, especially as it relates to Brazilian students looking at two-year colleges in Canada as a pathway to immigration. 

But again, that's very different from a student coming for a four-year degree who ends up staying and immigrating, even though that wasn't the primary intent. Whereas, in Brazil, we found immigration and language were two main drivers. More recently, though, the success that we've had has been related to working with the province of New Brunswick, which has its curriculum in schools in Brazil. So, we agreed to do their curriculum at a private high school in Brazil and then have them come here.

We just recently hired one St. Thomas graduate who went through that process. Her brother is here now as a student. Our goal is to develop a network in the same way we did in Quito

Jessica: Going back to just recruiting in Latin America, what would you say is the main challenge when recruiting in Latin America? 

Ryan: The number one thing is presence. And I think that's why that magic with Quito happened. Through counselors, parents, and students, we were able to have a lasting presence. Trust is a crucial part of the process for parents, but in Latin America, even more so.

Our ability to be ever-present is limited both in terms of our financial and human resources. But I think it boils down to—how we create that presence, trust, and legitimacy. If a student asks their counselor if they have St. Thomas as an option, their counselor can say yes, that we've been on their campus and alumni from their school have gone there. We then talk to the parents. That adds legitimacy. Then, when we show up, we can vouch that their interests are at the top of our minds. It's hard to do that in many places with a small team and a small budget.

Jessica: Yeah, significantly more complicated for you to be physically present. And like you said, the Latin American family is based on trust. They want to meet you and get that confidence from you before deciding where to send their kid to University.

Ryan: I was invited into more homes than I have in any other market [laughs].

Jessica: I can imagine! So, what things did you do this past year to tackle these challenges? How did you increase your presence in markets that were already attractive for you, with travel being restricted?

Ryan: It's been a real struggle. We are running as many online webinars and attending online fairs. They're tough, but you have to do them because you need some way to build a funnel. Our numbers are just so small when we do those fairs compared to standard years when we can be in person at a fair. It's also about running our webinars. Our team is available for one-on-ones, Zoom, Google Hangouts, chats, WhatsApp, everything. We are trying to personalize the online experience as much as possible. 

It is interesting to note that this shift doesn't place our counselors in person, but their availability has increased. Their focus is on recruitment. They've been able to have more one-on-one sessions. They have had the opportunity to email back and forth with the student, asking questions and suggesting they jump on a chat. That builds that trust, that recognition.

We're still trying to figure out how to build our funnel. How to increase our numbers, and take what we do very well in person and translate that to an online presence.

Jessica: I think this next year will still be all online, and it just gets more challenging for universities to make themselves seen. 

Ryan: Absolutely, it's become exponentially more challenging to keep our market in certain schools or regions due to the increased presence of other schools, and at the same time, students are getting fatigued by webinars and presentations, and our lists are getting shorter.

Jessica: I think the uniqueness of these events has to increase! They should provide a memorable experience to students. It's better to capture ten qualified students from a cohort of 30 than being in a room with hundreds of students, and not capturing anyone, and having a tour recruiter sit in a virtual booth with no one showing up.

Ryan: Exactly. 

Jessica:  Thank you so much, Ryan, for your time. It's been wonderful to have you in our Higher-ed Tide series. I really appreciate it.


St. Thomas University is taking networking to a whole new level by building relationships with college counselors, alumni, future students, and their families, even after COVID. They focus on taking what they do well in person by creating an online, personal experience for each student.


What is UniCentrico by Centrico Digital? 

UniCentrico is a Canadian-Ecuadorian recruiting service and platform that helps North American universities identify and connect with prospective students from Latin America. UniCentrico uses digital marketing to help universities identify and qualify prospective students. For more information, please contact Jessica Luna, Higher Education Marketing Head at

To read more about other institutions changing their game in international student recruitment, read our previous Higher-Ed articles here!


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