Helping International Students Through the Lens of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Fall 2019

By Melinda Bihn

Binh.jpgTo serve our students, we must know them. And as independent schools become increasingly focused on the experiences of students of different backgrounds in their work to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive (DEI) communities, knowing students is ever more important.

In the wake of the 2008 recession, when many independent schools began to recruit international students to strengthen enrollment, they often did so without planning appropriately for how to serve unaccompanied teenagers from around the world. Until recently, the focus has been on how to recruit international students and administer visa and housing programs. Little attention, however, has been devoted to how these students experience our schools or to how our school policies and practices support or undermine equity and inclusion for learners who cross the world to study in independent schools. As a result, many independent school practices do not support international students.
Adapting our school practices is not easy work, but providing proper support to international students is an issue of equity and inclusion. To admit students but fail to acknowledge their identities, accommodate their needs, and provide them with access to a full academic experience neglects the promise of our schools’ mission statements and the ethics of our profession. Framing our work with international students as DEI work deepens our understanding of the experiences of international students and invites us to examine the equity of our practices and the inclusiveness of our school communities.
In my work in international schools abroad and U.S. independent schools, and now as the head of a bilingual international school in San Francisco, I have been privileged to work with many international students and families in a variety of settings. While I was a high school principal in a U.S. independent girls school, I conducted my doctoral research with an extraordinary group of international students, most of whom came to the United States from China and Korea. What I learned from them in particular deepened my appreciation of their experiences and contributions to our schools. 

Identity Development

Most international students in independent schools are unaccompanied international sojourners—adolescent students who come to North America without their parents for high school and who plan to attend colleges and universities here. These students learn to live “here” and “there,” in their host country and their home country, places between which they are often moving. The result can be a divided sense of self. We can find similarities in the experiences of other independent school students—students of color in particular—and we are faced with the same responsibility to support these students as they make sense of their experiences.
With or without our support, international students are responding to their experiences at our schools in ways that shape their own identities as well as those of our schools. They describe constructing a new, international identity for themselves, one that must take into account not only their national identity and language but also the nuances of race, gender, and class in North American culture. This is complex work. Chinese and Korean international students describe being called “Asian” by American teachers and peers, as if their race obscures their nationality; they also describe the challenges of moving into a multiracial society from their largely homogeneous home cultures. They contend with the implicit bias embedded in the model minority myth, and often with more explicit forms of prejudice as well, expressing frustration about being mistaken for each other and hurt by comments that imply that they are “the competition” for host country students or that they are part of a “takeover” of the school. The experience of navigating race and nationality in the United States, particularly in the current political context, can be deeply disorienting and requires intentional support from the school.
Language, a related and powerful component of the international student experience, is central to our sense of identity, especially during adolescence. Language frames the entire experience of the international sojourn in independent schools: Families send their children to North America to learn English as a way to improve their educational and economic opportunities. International students must acquire English quickly to be successful in independent schools, and they must also retain their home languages to maintain their sense of self. This balancing act is especially difficult when multilingualism is not always valued in their schools. It’s hard, for example, for international students to understand why their American peers are lauded for language learning, while they are sometimes instructed not to use their home languages. When international students see signs in school about speaking English or are not allowed to use translating dictionaries during tests and quizzes, for example, it becomes clear to them that in their school not all languages are created equal.
As a result of these challenges, international students—like many students of color in our schools—construct communities of support for themselves. Independent school educators often wonder why international students “stick together” or “don’t mix” with national students. International students describe arriving with hopes of close relationships with American peers, and they do work at these. However, the nuances of language and a mutual lack of cultural comprehension can make it hard for students to move beyond superficial connections, especially initially. The culture of “niceness” in independent schools can thwart international students’ desire for deeper connections, just as it does for students of color. Without explicit support, it can be hard for domestic independent school students to lean into the challenges and potential awkwardness of trying to understand or be understood in a conversation with an English language learner, and thus to have a real conversation with their international peers. Like American students of color, international students also describe changing relationships in their home communities, as their own lived experience diverges from that of their families and friends at home.
In response, as their sense of their own national identity is intensified by experiences here and as connections to home weaken, international students often form linguistically bounded, nationally affiliated communities of support in which they coach and support each other. It makes sense, really, that so far from home students would speak their native languages and seek out their home country peers—most people would do the same.

Critical Areas for Support

Communities of support help international students navigate a new environment. Schools can support these groups while providing scaffolded opportunities to engage with host country peers and other members of the school community. And in their work with international students, schools can attend to several other key areas.
Housing. Unaccompanied students usually live at school and, like all boarding students, have much to say about their experiences. The distance from home for international students amplifies the need for quality residential life. It is not enough for day schools to rent apartments and provide nominal supervision at night, nor for boarding schools to increase the number of “heads in beds” without gauging the impact of new or larger international populations on their programs. Appropriate lodging, food, and adult supervision are the absolute minimum needed to house any students: Quality programs, like the ones to which independent schools aspire, must include more, such as residential life activities, language support, and programming for shorter holidays when international students cannot go home.
Academic programs. International students in independent schools describe several policies and practices that limit their access to the academic program and impede their learning. Appropriate language support (usually English as an Additional Language, or EAL, programming) is an ethical requirement for any school admitting students whose home language is not the one of instruction. So too is training for subject-area teachers who may not initially understand why a student who can chat in English is struggling with the specialized language of biology or U.S. history. Explicit instruction in how to prepare for, follow, and eventually participate in the seminar-style discussion that characterizes so many independent school classrooms is critical for students from different educational cultures. International students and their families need help in understanding the culture of learning in independent schools. 
Academic placement policies. International students sometimes describe being subjected to language standards that restrict their enrollment in higher-level courses, with significant ramifications for the college application process. All of our students should have access to the full academic program, which means that language requirements for and supports in IB, AP, and other higher-level courses must reflect the needs of second-language learners. 
The college process. The academic stakes are high for international students. Those I interviewed expressed real appreciation for their families’ sacrifices—and a deep sense of responsibility to them. The terms of the international academic sojourn make school and especially the North American college process difficult, as international students seek to live up to high expectations. Independent schools admitting international students must be prepared not only to support students in adjusting to and achieving in their schools but also to help international students and their families navigate the college process.

The DEI Framework

Independent schools can draw on their commitment to and work in DEI to shape their practice with international students, and take steps that can have a profound and powerful impact on these learners:
  • Identify the team of people who will lead the work with international students in your school. Don’t limit team membership to professional roles—training in DEI, experience living abroad, or just interest and inclination can make a powerful difference as you begin to examine your school’s culture and students’ experiences.
  • Review your school’s policies and practices, including admission, academics, and residential life, through the lens of the NAIS Principles of Good Practice for the Education of International Students in Independent Schools. Conducting an audit of this kind can identify incongruous policies and inconsistent practices and highlight immediate steps that can have an impact on international students and families.
  • Understand the process of second-language acquisition and develop a coherent language policy that articulates the value of each student’s language(s), the right of all students to use their languages, and the right to support in learning the school’s language. A good language policy will also outline how classroom teachers accommodate and support international students’ language learning, how international students’ language learning is accommodated in grading, and how the school makes information available and accessible to international families. Such a policy can serve as a compass in designing communications protocols, classroom practices, and academic placement procedures.
  • Educate your entire school community about your approach to international students, highlighting this as part of your school’s commitment to DEI work. This allows faculty, staff, students, and families to see the experience of international students as an issue of cultural competence for the entire community.
  • Support faculty and staff in their work with international students. Providing training is important; so is creating a context for teachers to bring their questions and concerns. DEI work requires deep reflection and risk-taking, and teachers need a safe space in which to explore their own assumptions and uncertainties.
  • Engage with and learn from international students and their families. Develop communications that keep parents informed of happenings on campus and that provide them with the information they need to support their students. Survey international families about their needs and invite international students to give feedback throughout the year. Explore ways for international families to be involved in the school.  
International students contribute significantly to the diversity of our schools, and if we are to deliver the promise of our schools’ mission statements and values, we must provide these students, along with all our learners, with an equitable educational program that honors their experiences and meets their needs. Strengthening the experiences of these students can improve the quality of our school communities for all of our students and families. 

Supporting Faculty and Staff

Working with international students may not be familiar for all adults in our school communities, but it is critical that they become informed and engaged. Here are some key considerations for supporting faculty and staff members:
This is deep DEI work. Uncovering assumptions and surfacing stereotypes are critical to faculty and staff support. Be ready to address faculty members’ erroneous beliefs about the languages, cultures, and motivations of international students. Be prepared to respond to mistakes with empathy—and to provide accurate information.
Model personal vulnerability and cultural competence. The actions of leaders speak volumes in all kinds of diversity work. Think carefully about your own words and actions and reflect on your own biases. Share your reflections with faculty to model openness to learning and growth.
Ongoing professional development is critical. Support teachers with information about important topics such as school policies, students’ home cultures, and second-language acquisition—before problems arise. Make use of internal resources (the English as an Additional Language teacher, international faculty) as well as experts from outside the school.
Grading international students takes preparation and care. There must be a language policy in place for international students so that they are not penalized for their language learning. Take time with this topic before grades are due—every year.
Make it personal. Teachers care about their students and want them to do well. Ask teachers what they observe about international students’ needs, and what they learn from their students. Ask teachers what they need to know, and then provide it.
Make it matter. Value international students by evaluating teachers’ support of them in their classroom practice, highlighting achievements, and addressing issues as needed.
Engage students in educating teachers. Students’ narratives can be compelling. Consider creating an international student advisory council and having them present to faculty and staff.
Melinda Bihn

Melinda Bihn is head of school at French American International School and International High School in San Francisco, California. She has been a teacher and administrator in international schools in Europe and independent schools in the United States.