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Supporting International High School Students at US High Schools

Enrolling international students has school-wide implications. It is important to evaluate campus readiness for hosting international students, student support services, and administrative processes to ensure that international students are supported and able to succeed at your school.

Frequently Asked Questions by Topic

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q: How does an international student orientation differ from a domestic student orientation?
A:  International students need to get acclimated to life in a new country, get an assessment of their English skills and their level of academic achievement, learn about and understand the academic expectations of US school students. In the separate orientation, an international student can connect within a smaller cohort and with student leaders trained to support them.

Orientation can begin in the summer, with contact between the incoming student and adults/student ambassadors. While a school might require a dedicated orientation for internationals from abroad (F-1 visa holders), it can invite other “international” students, like Third Culture Kids (TCK), dual US citizens living abroad, etc. Even short-term exchange students need a “mini-orientation”; non-September school entrants need “a day” orientation. Use feedback from prior orientations and international students. Ask your graduating seniors to write down advice for the incoming class.

Q:  Is it best to conduct international student orientation separate from their domestic peers or do orientation as an entire incoming class?
A:  Ideally, do both – a separate international orientation, followed by an integrated orientation for the entire incoming group of students.

TIPS

  • Crowd-source for ideas, and responses to questions as they arise.
  • Ask current international students to reflect on their experience and perceived needs: How can orientation prepare incoming students well? What advice do they give to new students?
  • Orientation is an ongoing process and doesn’t end after the completion of the initial program. Hold regular meetings throughout the year to keep in contact, troubleshoot, solicit ideas and concerns.
  • Borrow ideas from other successful programs, including college international orientation programs.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q: How can the school best vet and train potential homestay families?
A:  Having an application that families must fill out gives families a greater sense of commitment and provides schools with important information they need to know for responsible hosting, i.e. religious values, dietary restrictions, prescribed medication, pets, family routine and lifestyle, living accommodations for the international student, etc. If possible, meeting with the host family on campus or in their home is also good. Families have a chance to ask questions and to learn about expectations (who pays for what, if the students are expected to follow family rules, what are the school’s expectations, what do we do if we’re concerned about a certain behavior, is the student allowed to drive, discipline issues, etc.) You should check with your district to determine existing policies such as background checks, etc., and work on school guidelines as to where host families fit into these policies.

Q:  How often should homestay coordinators be in touch with host families and the students living with them?
A:  If the student is enrolled at day school, once per month has proved effective. This can be via phone calls, email or in person, but email is typically easier for everyone. It can be just a quick “touch base” to ask how everything is going ie. school work, social adjustments, behavior in general. For boarding schools, perhaps after the visit period ends to see how things went and to ask questions. Families love to feel appreciated and a phone call goes a long way.

Q:  Should there be stipends for host families?  How should one determine stipends for host families?
A:  There are many schools that offer stipends and many that don’t.  Some of this depends on whether the student is living with the family full-time or just for vacations (i.e. in boarding school during school time).  Certainly offering stipends changes the dynamics and expectations on the part of the host and the student. Schools should certainly consider this and determine what is the best fit for the school’s environment.

Q:  What are some ways to create a positive dorm environment for international students?
A:  Whenever it is possible, have a policy where international students share rooms with American students. They assimilate more quickly and may end up having more invitations to go home on weekends. Having opportunities for students to do activities together on the floor or in the dorm like international cooking night, movies, international games, etc. are positive ways to increase interactions. Provide professional training and development for dorm staff and student proctors on working with international students.

There are many cultural differences that must be considered when asking two different cultures to room together. Concepts like “cleaning a room” and “sharing belongings” can vary widely from culture to culture. Time differences will be an issue for students who wish to communicate with family and friends. Roommate contracts and a climate of personal responsibility and community caring can go a long way to avoiding conflicts.

Q:  How does one set up vacation home stays for boarding students?
A:  Many schools will send an email out to current families over the summer or in the beginning of the year to ask if they would like to host a student over the various school breaks. Typically, they will include a short biography on the student(s) that will be joining the school. Families can then volunteer to take students over one or all breaks.

During international student orientation, students are encouraged to let their new acquaintances know that they would be interested in learning more about American family life and would welcome the opportunity to spend time over a long weekend or break with a family. American kids are typically good about inviting students.

Send a letter to your host families letting them know what the expectations are for them and for the student. Families need a contact number at the school during vacations in case of any problems. Students need to have their medical and permissions information for host families.

Prepare international students on the expectations of the families, particularly if they will be there for a major holiday, e.g. Christmas or Thanksgiving. Emphasize the importance and value of saying “thank you”, writing a little note of thanks after their stay and being helpful while they are staying with a family (offer to help in the kitchen, sit with the family over dinner or while watching TV and share your culture with them). Families want to learn. That’s why they host.

TIPS

  • A good reference point is the Department of State’s webpage on hosting international students in your home. Note that there are different pages for hosting individuals and families and hosting in conjunction with a school.
  • It’s important to have a team of people in any school who are committed to watching out for the international community. Considering these individuals and what they could bring to the table as part of such a team:
  • It’s important to have a team of people in any school who are committed to watching out for the international community. Considering these individuals and what they could bring to the table as part of such a team:
    • A teacher or head of the language department – to ensure students are in the right classes, to assist students with proper ESL support, and to facilitate communicating with teachers/advisors
    • An admission employee – to be the first point of contact for the student and their family and can often assist in finding homestays
    • An employee from student support or student activities department or overall dorm parent – to make sure there is a dorm open on campus when international students cannot go home, to plan activities, and to assist students in integrating themselves into the school’s student body
  • Like US students, make sure that your students’ religious needs are being met. This may include providing a safe place to pray, reminding faculty that some cultures have set times for prayers that will interfere with classes and practice, wearing special clothes, dietary requirements and more.
  • If housing international students in dorms, have a dorm parent or resident coordinator of each gender available for students to go to with questions or concerns.
  • Have a student ambassador program and student ambassadors in every dorm.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q: What are some issues to consider when feeding a diverse student body from all around the world?

A:  If international students are living on campus and eating in the cafeteria for the majority of their meals, try to plan diverse meal options, keeping in mind the varying dietary backgrounds of your students.

Ask during the registration process what dietary/religious needs you will need to accommodate.  Remember that these can include students fasting during the day, eating before sunrise and after sunset.  Accommodations by faculty, coaches, dining hall staff may need to be made.

All students should have the same number of options for meals, regardless of dietary needs. If there is usually one hot meal option, if pork is served, there needs to be a non-pork hot option.

Include the students themselves in planning meals and suggestions.

Make sure that the culturally appropriate spices, sauces or condiments that students are used to having available on a regular basis are provided. Similarly, make sure that cultural musts such as sticky rice, noodles, or kim chee are provided on a regular basis. Host an international dinner with students cooking the dishes for their peers. Celebrate every cultural holiday represented in your student body with a special meal or dish.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q:  How do schools insure that students have the proper vaccinations and physicals? Do required vaccinations vary by the student’s country of origin?
A:  The school should require medical records, translated into English (use a translation company like OPI – Optimal Phone Interpreters – to translate documents and phone conversations). Required vaccinations do vary by country.  Have the Health Office or School Nurse arrange vaccinations onsite for students who are missing vaccinations.

Q:  What if students bring prescription medicines?  What if the medicine is prescribed here and is over-the-counter in the home country?
A:  Follow the school’s policy for distributing prescribed medicines during school hours.  If the student  is under 18, the host family parent should be distributing medicines outside of school hours.

Q:  What is the best course of action for getting a student a prescription-only medicine in the US that is an over-the-counter medicine in their home country?
A:  The Health Office or School Nurse should arrange to have the student see a doctor for a prescription.

Q:  What should a school do if medical records are not in English?
A:  The school should have a policy that requires all medical records be sent translated into English. If they are not, use a translation company like OPI – Optimal Phone Interpreters – to translate documents and phone conversations.

Q:  If a health scare breaks out while a student is visiting his/her home country, what is the protocol for allowing that student back on campus?
A: The school should have a policy that covers this eventuality. They should consult the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and follow government guidelines. If the school is concerned about liability, administrators should consult the school lawyer.

Q:  What is the role of a US social worker in regards to international students on campus?
A:  It is the same for all students, US or international.

Q:  What is the best course of action in supporting a student that has received bad news from home, such as a death in the family or political/humanitarian/natural disaster?
A:  Make sure the student knows where to go for support, and that adults understand the cultural differences that can arise (personal loss in some cultures is kept very private – literally no one knows about the loss/crisis.)

Create safe spaces for talking, and opportunities for help.  Keep everyone in the loop as needed: advisor, health services, host families, dorm personnel etc.

Sometimes, a political / humanitarian / natural disaster can be an opportunity for the entire community to become aware and be of service. Letting the community know of such issues in countries where students are represented in the community can be a way to globalize the community.

Q:  How should one talk about issues such as Suicide Awareness/Prevention, Drug/Alcohol Awareness, Sex Education, Eating Disorders?
A:  Ascertain what the student(s) already know. Be aware that cultural norms around all of these issues vary wildly; many of the programs that schools consider normal in the US are shockingly frank and taboo in other cultures. School faculty should be aware of these differences, be sensitive to the need to perhaps discuss the issues in a different setting and context and at a different pace from the rest of the community, and be able to reassure students that all can learn from the education even if they do not see it as relevant to themselves (they have friends from other cultures).  A sensitive and careful approach needs to be taken in talking with parents about their student’s needs in these areas.

TIPS

  • When possible, build a network of therapists or counselors on staff or on call through school partnerships with fluency in the student’s native language for ease of communication and full-expression.  Working with other schools (public and private), hospitals (who are required to have translators) and reaching out to the community can be helpful.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q:  What are some ways to get international students involved in the greater student body?
A:  Begin with faculty and staff education.  Help them to understand the barriers that English and cultures as well as being a shy teenager present, and give them tips to encourage participation in the classroom, on the fields, in the dorms and in the community.

Beginning with orientation, set expectations for all students about involvement in all aspects of the community: residential life, service, jobs on campus, academics, athletics and more. Communicate clearly how, where and when to participate in activities at school in written form so that the student can re-visit the information as needed.

Q:  How do you best combat stereotypes about international students among students and faculty? What are some key points to teach your school community to promote a healthier space for all students?
A:  Combatting stereotypes is central to an education:  the curriculum, leadership should be diverse and celebrate diversity, helping all students to have their voices heard. Educators need to learn what schools of the sending countries are like, to help bridge international students into American schooling. Here, international students can be the teachers. Understand “I am not my country.” Avoid western-centrism, be cognizant of idioms in and out of the classroom.

Q:  How do you combat the desire of many international students to socialize only with their international peers or speak their native language?
A:  This is a false assumption. International students are eager to socialize with American students but the universal fear is that they will be laughed at because of their English skills.

At the same time, use of their native language(s) at certain times e.g. mealtimes, can be a necessary relief from the stress of doing everything in a language not their own.

Schools need to establish appropriate policies for speaking a non-English language – such as English only –  whenever in a setting with people who don’t speak the same language (class, dining hall, sports and clubs). Train American students to reach out and help international students master enough English to be comfortable using it socially. Work on cultivating skills for speaking English throughout the school day.

Q:  What should you do for international students that are experiencing bullying on campus?
A:  Bullying is bullying across any culture.  However, there may be issues within certain foreign cultures that are culturally acceptable back home, but which constitute bullying in the US.  Certain cultures, for examples, have an acceptable hierarchical structure in secondary schools that allow for such customs as younger students waiting on/running errands for older students that is not acceptable here. This should be dealt with sensitively and expeditiously during orientation.

Q:  How can I internationalize my campus as a whole?
A:  Globalization is cool.  Establish internationalism at the top – school leadership. The curriculum, school trips, exchanges, clubs, presentations, assemblies, sports, service: all are ways to inject global issues and understanding into the school community.

TIPS

  • The American Council on Education’s  Model for Comprehensive Internationalization is one resource to consult.
  • Talk to your local community about your students and brainstorm ways in which local stores and organizations can help. Community Service? Can the local Chinese take-out host a special night and/or deliver to the dorms?
  • Encourage international students to organize campus-wide events to share their culture and unique holidays and celebrations with their fellow students. Start an international cultures club. Host an international dinner for the school, and if appropriate, the community. Celebrate each holiday.
  • Consider special training for your school’s counselors/therapists for working with students that are coming from conflict areas. For more information, check out this UNICEF study on Children and Conflict Zones.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q:  How do I better support my international students’ English language acquisition?
A:  This depends on the level of skill in English. Schools need to accommodate ELL students through a variety of options. There are full-blown ELL programs and sheltered contact courses, “Bridge” classes, and integrated curricula for ELL students. Using Special Education to provide ELL services is not appropriate.

One problem is the mindset of international students whose culture of origin rejects help as a sign of weakness; another is the US expectation of participation in class which can be strongly discouraged in other cultures.

Learning those cultural norms will help teachers be more effective in their support for English learners. Helping international students understand these expectations should be an important part of orientation.

Faculty training in supporting ELL students in mainstreamed classes is important.  Accommodations can and should be made, just like for learning differences. Peer tutoring, faculty tutoring, evening study halls, required courses that stress US culture and English communication are all ways in which to help speedy language acquisition.

TIPS

  • Organize a weekly English language table where American students can volunteer to help international students with their conversational English. The international students may be able to assist their American peers in their foreign language study as well.
  • In contrast, establish a language exchange table so American students can learn the language of their international peers. There are many peer-to-peer conversations about the similarities and differences about life as a teenager.
  • Put students in a position where they have to use English: an English-only roommate, lab partner, project partners – any activity where students work together and have to speak English (and make friends).
  • Avoid letting students isolate themselves. Joining a club/sport/activity/arts class should be a mandatory element of their program.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q:  Are there any limitations to an international student becoming a student athlete?
A:  International students may participate in amateur athletics if they maintain their nonimmigrant student status. Sports and the arts can be a great melting pot and should be encouraged as a way for students to integrate. English-only as a policy while on the field needs to be encouraged for safety reasons. Be aware that athletically there may be cultural limitations – in female dress, for example. Interruptions to follow prayer schedules need to be tolerated.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q:  How often should my school be in touch with the guardians or parents of my international students living abroad?
A:  The school should already have policies and schedules for regular communication with parents.  However, the school must be aware of the limitations of communications abroad. For exceptional circumstances, such as when a medical, safety, or disciplinary situation arises, communicate with parents or guardians as soon as possible. Develop an emergency communication protocol with your team

Q:  What are ways you can ensure effective communication with your international students’ parents?
A:   Communication often involves nuance and a translation service should be used as needed to navigate both linguistic and cultural minefields. Faculty and administrators should practice with the service to be fully comfortable is using the resource.  Consider adding a translation tool to your website or creating entire pages that are in the native languages of your international students. If you have a sizeable international student body, you can create an international parent organization that gives them a forum for discussion and a channel of communication to the school, as well as interfacing with potential students’ parents during the recruitment process.

TIPS

  • Make a weekly school e-newsletter in parents’ native languages to send them and keep them connected to the school. (or in English, if the school has ascertained that all parents’ level of English suffices)
  • Send photos and videos of students to their parents – no language needed!
  • Consider forming a separate parent association for international students’ parents or an international committee within the established parent association, so that they can express their unique concerns. Utilize these good relationships to interface with other prospective students and their parents abroad.
  • Use your alumni connections and past parents.
  • Connect parents to the school and/or each other by an accessible Internet forum.
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