Creating a Global Learning Environment

Fall 2019

By Clare Sisisky

Sisisky.jpgMany independent schools in North America have longstanding international student programs. Others are far newer to the work of recruiting, housing, and educating international students. Most of these schools either began or significantly grew their international student program as part of their survey enrollment management strategy after the 2008 recession. In the most recent survey from the Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG), 77.1% of the 96 schools participating said they enroll international students.
Many schools enroll nonmatriculated international students, as they see these exchange programs as substantially beneficial to the school community as a whole in terms of increasing the diversity of global perspectives in the classroom and beyond. This concept is not new. ASSIST, one of the leading nonprofit organizations supporting independent schools with exchange students, turned 50 this year. And GEBG, which has 260 member schools, continues to see growth in the number of schools building strong international partner school networks for exchanges.
Students with international backgrounds also enroll in independent schools as recent immigrants—numbers that are not accounted for in student visa numbers but that some schools report are increasing. These students are often accompanied by their families and are moving for economic opportunities, such as a parent who gets a position in a global corporation. The students bring many needs and assets similar to those of a more traditional international student.
No matter the reason for seeking education in the United States, international students must be included in their communities in a way that contributes to the growth and development of all students. Many schools are wrestling with how to best do this. How can schools ensure that these students gain a mission-centered education as well as a diploma? And how can schools embrace international students and their perspectives in their desire to develop global competencies in all students? 

Fulfilling the Mission

In a complex and interconnected world, students will require an advanced set of skills and mindset to be able to navigate diverse work environments locally as well as globally. Recent research on global competency in education, most notably that of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Asia Society, articulates numerous global competencies, such as understanding multiple perspectives and collaboration across differences, that could be made more accessible to every student through active engagement of international students on campus.
At Woodward Academy (GA), which currently has 40 international students from 10 countries, the social studies department in the upper school has seized the opportunity to share and collaborate across differences. The faculty works with international students to develop a course called “Topics in Multicultural, Ethnic, and Diversity Studies” to empower them to share their unique views and perspectives around complex topics ranging from race and identity to genocide. The course tackles issues that are sensitive to the diverse population of American students at Woodward. But as the social studies department seeks to prepare students for intellectually active participation in a global society, the school’s international students help create that global society in the classroom to benefit all the students in the course.
Encouraging international students to share their ideas and perspectives in relevant courses to enrich the learning environment and to develop the competencies of all students may seem like an easy win. But in the classroom, it is often much more complicated and requires an advanced skill set in cross-cultural communication and awareness, as well as the ability to navigate potential conflicts.
At Westridge School (CA), a course in world history that includes substantial material about China requires significant nuance to teach when the classroom includes students born in China, first-generation Chinese Americans, and Chinese-American students whose families have lived in Southern California for multiple generations. The diversity of perspective and connection to the course material creates a rich opportunity for engagement and development of global competencies, but facilitating such a learning environment requires specific skills not usually listed in a world history teacher job description. Intentionally hiring for these skills or for prior cultural knowledge and providing specific training is still not the norm at most schools, which can result in a missed opportunity for all students to benefit from the real inclusion of multiple perspectives in the classroom.
International students also greatly benefit from this type of faculty training, as greater empathy and intentional inclusion from the faculty help further their education. International students are as equally deserving of a full, mission-driven education as any other student at a school, which seems like an unnecessary statement, yet many global directors and international student coordinators describe classroom settings in which the international student is not an active participant but rather a passive consumer of the material. Much of this may stem from culturally embedded habits or notions of what makes a good student, but it can also be attributed to the feeling of being a “guest” at school.
Palmer Trinity School (FL) has a strong English as a Second or Other Language program that has made it an attractive choice for parents of international and recent immigrant students. The school enrolls 12 students from China through a partnership with New Oasis/Tower Bridge International. New Oasis/Tower Bridge has worked with the school to design custom faculty training that focuses on how best to include Chinese students in a school with strong Latin American cultural influence. Fully delivering on a school’s mission for international students may require additional faculty support and training, something they may welcome as they work to fully engage the international students in their classrooms, dorms, and sports teams. 

Building an Inclusive Community

Another way to create a greater sense of belonging and inclusion for international students and faculty on campus is to actively engage them in the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work. Many of the international student support systems currently in schools can be described as focused on an explicit or implicit goal of assimilation, asking the international student to adapt and adopt the cultural norms of the host community rather than expanding the diversity of the community.
Miss Porter’s School (CT), a small boarding school with 15% international students, has taken a different approach. Santiago Enrique, international student adviser, describes it as intentionally recognizing international students and providing them a space in the community “just as we would any other diverse group and celebrating how their contributions are integral to the school culture.” The school has drawn on the skills developed through DEI work but also understands the unique circumstances of international students and has created substantial programming for them. Enrique acknowledges that the first step is creating a sense of belonging for international students, which requires a cultural shift in the community. When a school recognizes that not every student in its classrooms is American, this can have broad implications beyond class discussions and parent interactions.
The Northwest School (WA), with a significant international boarding student population (70 from nine different countries), fosters opportunities for relationship-building and collaboration among international students and their American classmates. It recognizes students’ backgrounds in small ways, by acknowledging important holidays from international students’ countries and working with dining staff to feature food from students’ cultures. Other more subtle but intentional ways that Northwest has designed the international student experience to be more inclusive includes allowing day students into the common spaces in the dormitories and creating a local parent group that supports and advocates for each international student through regular meetings with them. Taking a more inclusive approach has empowered international students in the schoolwide conversations and programs focused on DEI, says Dmitry Sherbakov, director of global outreach and programs. “They have challenged everyone on campus to recognize the diverse cultural and historical contexts, and family and societal values that shape our views on race, gender, class, privilege, and social justice,” he says. When schools step back and draw on their DEI work, they can work to include—rather than assimilate—international students, and this can empower them to contribute to schoolwide DEI learning. 

Exploring Student Identities  

As schools engage international students in the school dialogue around topics such as race and identity, another cultural shift may have to take place around international students’ identities. Research and practice working with American students from diverse backgrounds demonstrates that all students need space to develop their own sense of self and wrestle with their identity in its full complexity. Schools need to extend their efforts around identity exploration to include international students and help the school community develop greater awareness.
Palmer Trinity has worked hard to support its Latin American student population, including a relatively recent influx of students from Venezuela. The school’s equity and inclusion coordinators, new faculty members who share students’ identities, and revamped coursework on American democracy and citizenship—including required programming in Washington, DC—have allowed the school to successfully manage the shift in its demographics. The student population is now more than half bilingual (Spanish and English), and there has been “an increase in Latin cultural fluency in general among students,” according to the equity and inclusion coordinator and college counselor. Although this demographic makeup is likely somewhat unique to Miami, schools can gain insight from the approach to student and faculty identity that has shaped the inclusive nature of Palmer Trinity’s culture and curriculum: Students and teachers of all backgrounds have complex and intersecting identities, and a school cannot make implicit assumptions about what America or Americanness means as a part of that identity.
Designing the international student experience from this vantage point will lead to a more inclusive community, stronger personal growth, and more fully developed global competencies for all students. In this way, international students can contribute not only to the diversity of the student population or to a school’s financial stabilization, but they can also contribute to the education of all students—and thrive as students themselves.

Strategic Start

As schools build out global education programs while supporting international students, here are a few strategic guiding principles to keep in mind.
  1. Empower international students in the classroom to benefit all students.
  2. Ensure international students get a mission-focused education.
  3. Aim for inclusion, not assimilation.
  4. Intentionally engage international students with your school’s DEI work.
  5. Identify opportunities for international students to share a more multidimensional version of themselves with the wider school community.
  6. Partner with faculty through support, training, and hiring.
Clare Sisisky

Clare Sisisky is executive director of the Global Education Benchmark Group, a nonprofit membership organization of K–12 schools that researches and establishes best practices in the field of global education, based in St. Louis, Missouri.