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Best Practices for International Student Coordinators

This month, I was lucky to lead a workshop series in schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut—where international student coordinators came together to sit around a table and share best practices. The workshop series began several years ago when Roberta McGuire of the Maine Central Institute came to me with a request. She reminded me of this recently:

“When I was originally hired for this position, there were not many town academies that had an international student program coordinator and I wanted to hear from other schools that did,” Roberta told me over email. “ I wanted to at least begin to build on the experiences of others. International students are very important to all town academies and we are responsible to assist and guide them while they learn English, experience our culture and succeed academically.”

That first workshop was an enormous hit—dozens of schools sent representatives, and this past month (four years into the program) we’re seeing the same interest. International students are becoming a vital factor in American education, yet the people who work with these students sometimes feel alone in this position.  The job of the International Student Coordinator includes managing the bigger issues like overall cultural adjustment, homestay challenges, weekend and vacation activities to the smallest details—like helping international students find  chargers for their phones and prom dates.

As we sat around tables in Matignon High School and Woodstock Academy, many different themes came up. We explored what a successful orientation program looks like--why student ambassadors are necessary and how to handle vacation policies and language policies. 

Equally, time management is a huge issue for Chinese students; at their schools in China they are there until 5.30 or 7.30 at night. Our schools end at 2.15pm. These students don’t necessarily understand how to join clubs so it’s essential that schools learn how to acclimatize the kids. From the American context, it seems so obvious and natural for a student to join clubs—but this is an alien concept for many students from overseas and there are layers of social cues that the coordinator needs to unravel.

One coordinator mentioned that she will physically bring students into the room and sit with them and introduce them to the kids, she has them go for 3-4 weeks and see if they like it. Another person gave an example of a student who was shy, so she suggested the chess club—which was the perfect solution. International Student Coordinators need to be aware of the cultural sensitivity around this.

Experiences were also swapped on issues like vacation policies: What policies do schools have in place for weekend travel? The form says you are visiting a family member, but in China anyone older than you is your uncle! How do you know you’re visiting your blood uncle or a kid in New York who is 21?  One of the participants explained how she was trying to organize trips to Disneyland, but many were wanting to travel on their own to see their friends and family—so she decided to not organize that again. Stories like these were swapped, and best practices discussed.

Coming away from these empowering conversations, it struck me that once all these practices are in place, there is a chance to take it one step further: and start to show the entire student body just how disorientating it can be to be on the other side of the world. By developing a sister school program, there is a chance for the American kids to broaden their perspective—and gain first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to have jet-lag, to be in a dizzying new culture and to not understand all the cultural cues.

This leads to empathy, which of course is the essential ingredient in this entire process. By understanding how international students feel and the specific challenges they face, coordinators are able to do amazing things. They are able to give students the tools they need to thrive.  Suzanne Fox