A Look Back at 40 Years of WES with Executive Director Mariam Assefa

Presenter [1]In 1974, in its first year of operations, a fledgling World Education Services [2] (WES) completed credential evaluations for 20 foreign-educated individuals. Fast forward 40 years to 2014 and the now-largest foreign credential evaluation organization in North America is on target to help over 150,000 internationally educated individuals meet their U.S. or Canadian educational and workplace goals.

The longest serving member of the WES team, Mariam Assefa, has been with the organization for 33 years, and at the helm as the Executive Director for all but one of those years. In a recent interview with World Education News & Reviews, on the occasion of WES’ 40th anniversary [3] celebrations, Ms. Assefa reflected on the growth of the organization over the last 30 years and on changes within the world of credential evaluation more broadly.

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Immigrants Helping Other Immigrants Realize Their Dreams

Originally an immigrant in the United States herself, Ms. Assefa’s story is much the same as many of the hundreds of thousands of WES clients that she and the organization have helped integrate into the social, economic and educational fabric of the United States and Canada over the last four decades. Born in Ethiopia, educated in France and the United States, Ms. Assefa embodies both the organization she heads and the clients she and her staff of over 200 serve.

“In the office today, we have so many people who are immigrants themselves. They understand and have experienced the same issues faced by the applicants that we serve. This work isn’t for everyone, so you have to be dedicated to the mission of the organization.”

Reflecting on this thought, Ms. Assefa recounted the story of a recently hired WES credential evaluator, who upon telling her parents about her new job was surprised to learn that they were familiar with the organization.

“One of our employees here told her family that she found a job with WES, and she was surprised when her parents told her that they knew of WES. It turns out that they had used WES’ services when they first arrived in the country. She on the other hand had no clue about WES. She was the twentysomething, U.S. born daughter of parents from India. With her job acceptance, the WES story has come full circle and she is now working in the offices of the organization that had evaluated her parents’ credentials over 20 years ago.”

Credential Evaluation: Part of the International Admissions Ecosystem

One of the biggest changes that Ms. Assefa has seen in the world of foreign credential evaluation is the acceptance by admissions offices of external agencies such as WES. Much like the current debate surrounding the use of international recruiting agents, outsourcing the evaluation of international student credentials by academic institutions was once a taboo subject not much discussed, let alone admitted to.

“External credential evaluation is not as mysterious as it once was. In fact, a lot of institutions frowned upon it. Admissions departments believed that evaluations could not be done by services outside the campus. They seldom referred students to us. But that has completely changed, nowadays many academic institutions find it more convenient to use an evaluation service and there is no stigma attached to it. Nowadays evaluation services are part of the international admissions ecosystem.”

Today, WES delivers evaluations to more than 2,500 academic institutions, employers and licensing bodies in the United States and Canada. There are many reasons for the eventual acceptance of credential evaluation services by higher education institutions, and much of that has been budgetary. It takes a long time to train the skills needed to accurately evaluate foreign academic credentials, and oftentimes when key international admissions personnel retire or leave an institution, the knowledge of foreign education systems and credentials departs with them.

“Schools don’t always have the wherewithal to replace them or they choose not to, so they found that they can just as easily outsource the evaluation process, so increasingly we are part of the solution, part of the tools at the disposal of campus administrators,” Ms. Assefa pointed out.

Changes Within the Industry

Much of course has changed within the credential-evaluation industry as well over the last 40 years. Access to information, for example, has become much quicker and more convenient. As a result, the WES turnaround time for evaluations has shortened significantly.

“It used to take a month and now [for the standard service] we do it in a week,” stated Ms. Assefa, adding that, “there is a lot more information available today. When I first started in this field, we were always looking for information, mail was slow and information was not easy to come by.”

However, with change come new challenges. This has been especially evident with the exponential growth in the numbers of students and academics moving across borders for study and research. And, perhaps more significant for the workload of credential evaluators has been the explosion in the number of higher education institutions and programs.

“What has changed is that there are many more programs and institutions all over the world now. In the old days, the feeder countries and feeder schools were limited. Nowadays, higher education provision has exploded all over the world so you see new programs, new schools all the time. Determining the status of these schools: Who they are? When did they open? What’s their status? That’s a lot of work.”

And it’s not just the new programs and new institutions that are adding to the complexity of accurately evaluating foreign academic credentials. New cross-border delivery methods raise significant questions related to oversight, to quality and to legitimacy.

“Transnational programs produce a lot of the qualifications that we see now, and determining their status can be very challenging,” said Ms. Assefa.

Indeed, the increasingly complex and interconnected world of international education is one of the main reasons why WES has had to invest so significantly in research and technology over the years.

“We not only do evaluations, we provide tools, we share our knowledge through World Education News & Reviews, through our workshops and webinars. We’re not only delivering evaluations, but we’re also contributing to the knowledge base in the field, and that makes me very, very happy.”

Over the last decade, in fact, WES has added three new departments to help meet its mission of sharing research findings and in fostering the integration of foreign-educated individuals into academic and professional settings.

Research and Advisory Services [5], Global Talent Bridge [6] and the Knowledge and Research Exchange [7] all really go the core of the WES mission, the integration piece: what happens to people once they get their evaluation? For us, it is very important to make sure that people receive the right information and resources to help them progress to the next stage of the integration process. We understand that the evaluation is just the first step in continuing one’s education or resuming a profession. We thought long and hard about what people need beyond the evaluation, the additional information that can help guide to where they need to go professionally,” said Ms. Assefa.

Changing Evaluation Needs

The end use of a WES evaluation has also changed significantly over time. In the early years, WES evaluations were used primarily by immigrants looking for employment. And while that continues to be the case with evaluations completed by the WES Canada office, the majority of the evaluations done in WES’ New York office are used for educational purposes.

Reflecting on this fact, Ms. Assefa pointed again to the fact that in the past, campuses tended to perform their own evaluations, so just with the shift in attitude towards third-party credential evaluation among admissions departments, the end use of WES evaluations has shifted markedly. But another factor at play is the policy arena into which temporary immigrants are arriving.

“So now, 80 percent of the work that we do – in the United States – is for educational purposes. In Canada it is the opposite, 90 percent is for immigration and employment because that is where the demand is.”

Source Countries

Along with changes in the reasons why people apply for a credential evaluation have come changes in the demographics of the clients, their nationality in particular.

“The one thing that has never changed is that India has always been the top sender country. It was then and it is now, although China of course is today a close second. But when I started at WES, India was always number one and the Philippines number two. All throughout the 1980s and ’90s China was not such a huge player, but in the past few years China has become a major sender of students and we see a lot of Chinese applications as a result.”

The WES sample size is large – over 150,000 evaluations this year and over a million since 1974 – however applicants don’t necessarily come from the same top feeder countries reported on by the Institute for International Education [8] (IIE) or the Student and Visitor Exchange Program [9] (SEVP). Both IIE and SEVP data show that the number of Chinese students in the United States today is almost double that of the Indian volume. Nonetheless, students with Indian credentials remain the top source of WES applications.

Speaking to the reasons for the dichotomy, Ms. Assefa suggests that the answer has more to do with where the applications are being sent from, rather than where the credentials were originally earned.

“What is interesting for us is that our volume mirrors [IIE volume] for the 40 or 50 percent who apply from overseas. Those mirror the IIE data because they are the same people who go to school. But the ones who apply from within the United States, who are already immigrants residing here, do not necessarily reflect the trends seen in the IIE data. The Philippines is a country for example that we do a fair number of evaluations for, but I don’t believe it is anywhere near the top of the IIE source-country chart. The United States doesn’t have that many Filipino students; they are mainly here seeking professional licensing and employment.”

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It is for these very same reasons that WES sees much larger applicant volume from countries like Ghana and Nigeria than is seen in the IIE and SEVP data.

“They are already in country on some other visa and so they don’t get captured in the IIE student-visa data. If you are here on a visa other than a student visa or you are a permanent resident then you are not captured in the IIE data, even though you may be applying to a school with international credentials. I bet you a good half of the Indian evaluations we do, for example, are for immigrants already in country,” reiterated Ms. Assefa.

10 Years From Now

Thinking about current trends in the delivery of educational programs and the awarding of academic qualifications, and also the manner in which students and workers acquire skills, WES may look different and be offering newer, more innovative products in 10 years’ time, according to Ms. Assefa.

“We might be doing a lot more in terms of innovative services. People’s qualifications are no longer just about the pieces of paper they get from attending a school. It’s also the skills they have acquired along the way. Perhaps we need to be in the business of skills assessment. People are going to complete a lot of courses through MOOCs for example, so we might need to look at skills assessment and outcomes assessment. That’s going to be very important in the future.”

Whatever the future holds for WES, the foundational tenors of the organization have long been set and they remain the same today as they did 40 years ago. It is an organization that grew out of a mission to serve the needs of immigrants; an organization that is staffed by the sons and daughters of immigrants; and an organization that is spearheaded by a woman from Ethiopia, who was educated in France and the United States, and today continues to be driven by her first-hand understanding of and dedication to the communities that she serves.

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