Getting Schooled: Lessons Learned from International Students

By Peter Morgan, College Counselor, Woodward Academy (GA). Previously Morgan served as director of college counseling at The Northwest School (WA).

​When I joined the faculty at The Northwest School (WA) three years ago, I had my first real introduction to working with a sizable population of college bound international students. The Northwest School is a six-12 day and boarding school located in the heart of Seattle. Our international students overwhelmingly hail from Pacific Rim countries with most living on campus in our residence hall and a smaller group choosing to live with homestay families or with guardians. From the onset of my tenure, I knew I would not be able to take a “one-size fits all” approach to guiding my international students through the college search process, but I was unsure of how to modify my counseling model to best serve this population.

I had not been at Northwest long when I discovered an alarming trend: none of my international students were flocking to my office to introduce themselves to me in the way my domestic students were; in fact, I had to employ all available resources to ultimately connect with all of my international seniors (dorm RAs, teachers, advisors, and administrators).  I felt as if I was engaging in behavior most people would call stalking, but it seemed to be the only effective way to connect with this population of students.

When I finally was able to have conversations with all of my international students about their college applications processes, I was happily surprised to see they all had developed college lists and seemed to be moving along with their applications. I was troubled, though, by the lack of knowledge my international students had about the schools to which they were applying. Most, if not all, had not visited their prospective colleges; further, they had no real concept of the size, location or nature of these schools. What they all seemed to know was the schools to which they were applying all possessed highly ranked academic programs, and this was reason enough for them to apply. I also began to notice most of my international students were applying to almost all of the same schools, a fact that would have been easy for me to discount as a function of peer influence, except for the fact that some of the schools to which the students were applying were pretty obscure even to me.

To gain better insight into working with international students, I reached out to Sam Moss and Ivy Brewer, college advisors at The Darlington School (GA), a school that also enrolls a significant population of international students. A few minutes into my conversation with Moss and Brewer, I learned exactly why my international students were less reliant on me for information and why their college lists were eerily the same. “Your international students are working with agents,” Moss and Brewer told me.  I was surprised to learn how prevalently international families, at least those from Pacific Rim countries, employ agents to assist their children through the college application process, some of whom charge a king’s ransom for their services, make promises that they cannot fulfill and have been known to take full ownership of the application process for their advisees. I was also stunned by my own ignorance of this reality and frankly appalled by the fact that bright, talented students and their families would entrust such an important process to people who often had never laid eyes on these students and had no concept of their strengths, challenges or goals. 

My initial reaction to this news was to do everything in my power to prove to my international students and their families that they did not need to use agents in the college search and application process. I began my campaign with the students. Some of my students told me they did not want to use an agent but their parents were insisting that they work with one; others were more frank and said this was just the way it was done in their countries. Regardless of the excuse, nothing I was saying was going to stop my international students from working with agents.

My second year at Northwest, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to South Korea, China and Taiwan with a delegation of administrators from my school to meet with families of currently enrolled students. I decided I would use my time with the families to convince them there was no need for them to hire agents. At each parent association meeting, I highlighted the services the Northwest School college counseling office offers their children, services that the parents had already paid for through their children’s tuition. I talked of the importance of fit in the college selection process, and I also emphasized the negative impact the influence and control of others can have on a student’s application process. The parents seemed receptive and genuinely interested in what I had to say, so much so I felt like I was making real headway with them, until I was dealt a huge dose of reality by one of my most supportive and engaged international parents.  

In a private conversation with the head of our Chinese Parent Association, she revealed to me she and her husband engaged an agent for their son early in his high school career and they had every intention of working with this person through the college search process. What was more, while she loved the idea of her son attending a college or university that would match his needs as a learner, the institution where he landed would have to have a strong international reputation. When I attempted a polite protest, she laid out her trump cards, leaving me with no real retort.  “Peter, I believe most of the international parents trust you, but this is simply how it is done here.  In order for us to feel like we are doing what we should do as good parents, we have to hire agents. We also need to know our children will be able to get jobs here at home when they are done with college. That is why rank is so important to us.” These words, coming from a parent who had done her utmost to embrace the American way of doing things, illustrated for me how much the college search and application process is shaped by our own cultural expectations.  Convincing this mother she did not need to hire an agent would have been almost as difficult as convincing an expecting American mother that she did not need prenatal care from a physician.  This was something this mother felt compelled to do because it was simply what a good parent would do.

While I have come to accept I, alone, cannot overhaul another culture and its norms, I have not abandoned my fight; I have simply changed my battle plan. Now, I work from inside rather than waging a full-frontal attack. For example, I know many, if not all of my international students and their families will choose to work with agents, and rather than trying to convince them this is unnecessary, I am working to educate my families on how to identify a good, ethical agent and what an agent can and cannot do for a student in the application process. I am also encouraging open lines of communication between all parties so we can all work towards finding great college homes for these students.  

I also continue to do everything in my power to educate my international students on the wonderful higher educational opportunities in the US, to engage them in a reflective process that allows them to identify their strengths and challenges and how these can and should relate to their choice of a college home, and to help them seek international student outcome information directly from colleges rather than relying solely on rankings as predictors of future success. I also endeavor to ensure my international students understand their obligation to engage in ethical behavior in the application process, behavior that is not only expected by US colleges but that is also reflective of the core values of The Northwest School community. After all, my international students and their families not only chose to send their children to the US for secondary education; they also chose The Northwest School for its community and its principles.  As my international students navigate this process, they should act in a manner that mirrors the same values that have overarched their secondary education: purposefulness, intentionality and integrity.  

Working with a large international student population has certainly been challenging, but even more so, it has been a tremendously valuable learning experience for me. Initially, I saw myself as the educator, and my role was to show my international students the right way to navigate the college search process. Three years later, I recognize I am also a student in this process, someone who has learned much by listening to the voices of my international students and their families and who has had to adapt and grow my own practices in order to honor and respect the different perspectives and values of this important constituency in my community.  

Expand / Collapse All

Relevant Resources

Guide to International University Admission

A comprehensive resource for counselors and students about undergraduate college options abroad.

Trusted Sources: Seeking Advice on Applying to Universities in Another Country

Are you a student who would like to apply to a university in another country? Researching and applying to universities in another country, and selecting an institution to attend can be both exciting and overwhelming. Trusted Sources: Seeking Advice on Applying to Universities in Another Country describes the advisors who can help you through the admission process.

Commissioned Agents and NACAC's Guide to Ethical Practice Series

A series of six periodically released resources aimed at guiding NACAC members in the responsible use of commissioned agents in international student recruitment.