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Building connections between international students and local communities

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Co-written by Jackson Boyar, Sawyer Middeleer, and James Lu Morrissey.

One obstacle facing many educators is the need to help international students overcome issues relating to cultural displacement. Due to a wide range of cultural differences such as language, values, and social expectations, international students often feel disconnected from their school community.

In the early stages of study abroad, this problem most visibly extends to international students’ ability to make American friends. When asked about this, one student explained:

“It seemed like all the Americans knew each other already. They all had their own friend groups”

“I get tired speaking English, and generally can’t express what I want to”

“Comfort is speaking my own language”

Making American friends can begin to feel impossible, and like many others, this Chinese college sophomore found it easier to socialize with other Chinese students than to reach out to American counterparts. Chinese friend circles can help build security, but clinging to them ultimately squanders many of the opportunities that come from an international education.

While it is true that many international students integrate themselves into American schools without any trouble, it is important for schools to recognize that there are many who do struggle. Regardless of whether one views this dilemma as a matter of disillusionment or apathy; institutional failure or lack of effort, it is impossible to deny that social and cultural gaps are a problem for American educational institutions. In our nationwide zeal to expand education to the world, we have managed to bring students from a wide range of backgrounds together, but we are still left with a salad bowl instead of a melting pot. Given this undesirable status quo, what solutions exist?

The first obstacle to be overcome is the linguistic difficulty that many international students face. Teachers must be better equipped to support students who may struggle with their English skills and lack confidence working in groups. However, cultural integration is a more complex issue that requires complex solutions.

Many schools are already taking the next step toward organizing cultural events that celebrate international holidays and increase awareness about the multicultural nature of the student body. Beyond more comprehensive ESL classes and cross-culture initiatives, high schools with international students may do well to consider adding more community service activities to international student curricula.

Research has shown that students who participate in service-learning in school are more likely to have increased self-esteem, improved communication skills, and academic success. For international students, class community service trips have the added benefit of helping to forge a link between the students and their local school community.

There is no one thing that will draw international and American students with vastly different backgrounds together into one thriving student body. Schools must begin to utilize a variety of programs designed to combat cultural displacement and create ties between local communities and the international students, helping them adapt the local campus as their home away from home.

Jackson Boyar and James Lu Morrissey are Co-Founders of Shearwater International, a mentorship and cultural integration support network for international students. Sawyer Middeleer is currently a sophomore at Carleton College.

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