The University of Michigan (U-M) is a public, postsecondary institution with nearly 45,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled. Every year, the school’s Office of University and Development Events plans over 150 events, including official academic ceremonies like commencement. To give all students the opportunity to have a family member attend their graduation ceremony, the events office allows international students to request a formal letter of invitation, which assists guests who have to apply for a visitor visa to attend commencement. To better serve students and families through an automated visa letter request process, U-M turned to Formstack and WebMerge.
When students first started requesting visa letters, it was a highly manual process. A student would send a request via email, and the Office of University and Development Events would manually draft a letter, print it, and mail it through the postal service.
Eventually, U-M introduced some automation by creating an online visa letter request form. The form helped the university get the information needed to draft a personalized letter, but team members were still developing the letters manually after receiving the digital request. Additionally, they only worked on the letters at specific times of the year, which was inconvenient for students.
"Sometimes students were late requesting a letter or they needed it at a different date than we were ready to send them out, and we’d be inadvertently holding up the visa process," said Jenny Freels, Director of the Office of University and Development Events
The university’s international enrollment—which is currently 15.3% of total enrollment—has increased every year for the past several years. This means the number of letter requests has also increased, overwhelming the events office.
"The letters used to require an extreme amount of manual labor from our staff," Freels said. "At one point, we hired a temp employee just do these letters because we were getting thousands of requests in a calendar year."
When the person who was managing and preparing the visa letters got reassigned without replacement, the events team was faced with a choice to take on the added work or find a technology solution.
Hoping to avoid absorbing the extra work, Assistant Director of Ceremonial Events Amy McDonald sought to create fully automated workflows for the visa letter process.
"We wanted the process to be totally automatic, so I was trying to figure out how we could produce the letters without being involved," McDonald said.
The Office of University and Development Events had been using Formstack for event registrations and other data collection, so it made sense to use it for the visa letter request process as well. When McDonald discovered the Formstack-WebMerge integration, she found the perfect solution.
McDonald created a visa letter template in WebMerge and connected it to the letter request form in Formstack. She set up the fields on the Formstack form so that she would get the exact output needed to populate the WebMerge template and create a custom letter.
McDonald sets up the letter in WebMerge once each year, and then the process runs on its own through the established workflow automation: WebMerge creates a PDF letter based on the Formstack form submission, and the letter is automatically emailed to the student requester.
Now, students can request visa letters throughout the year—even during an off month when the university normally wouldn’t have the resources to process them.
"This way, international students can do their own letters whenever they’re ready or whenever it’s needed for their graduation ceremony," Freels said.
According to Freels and McDonald, creating a fully automated process for visa letter requests has saved the Office of University and Development Events hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. Bringing efficiency to the process has also benefited students tremendously.
"Three years ago, students were making a submission on Formstack and getting a manual response from us two to four weeks later. Now, they submit a request via Formstack and get the actual letter very quickly—the same day," McDonald said. "And if they make an error in Formstack, they can submit another request and get the corrected letter the same day as well."
The University of Michigan receives over 5,000 visa letter requests each calendar year. Around 3,500 requests were submitted for the most recent spring commencement. According to Freels, it’s great that students no longer have to wait on her office to get what they need. If family members have a visa meeting in their country a year before the event, the student can easily get them the letter for the meeting.
"We can’t guarantee that a country will let a family member visit based on our letter, but we’re doing what we can to help," Freels said.
On top of the visa letter requests, the Office of University and Development events uses Formstack to seamlessly manage other commencement-related processes, such as special accomodation ticketing, faculty and staff attire needs, and volunteer recruitment. The features and integrations that are most beneficial (aside from Formstack Documents) include:
"I think for all the communications our office sends out, we keep in mind our guests. We want to make their participation as easy as possible and provide them with all the information that they’re going to need to have a successful and exciting experience with us," Freels said. "With Formstack, we’re able to that."