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To teach we must learn: how U.S. schools can better serve international students

Cultural integration support will be essential to international education in the 21st century
Cultural integration support will be essential to international education in the 21st century
Image courtesy of Ambro /

Co-written by Jackson Boyar, Yuvika Diwan, and James Lu Morrissey.

High school is a challenging period in every student’s life; new academic expectations and freedoms are constantly pushing students to venture beyond their traditional comfort zones. Add hormones and our culture’s sensationalization of the high school experience to the mix and you create an environment ripe for social-emotional pressure and academic burnout.

Now, imagine you are a student entering this environment from a different cultural background, equipped with imperfect English and burdened by high parental expectations. Sounds stressful, yes? This situation is that of thousands of international students studying at American high schools today. Drawn by the appeal of America’s greatest brand—its education—these brave international students are attempting to conquer the American high school experience with a major handicap: a very limited understanding of American culture.

A research study on international students published in the International Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies states that “learning has a lot to do with things that are not necessarily easily measured: experiences, cultural and cross-cultural learning, emotions, intuitive feelings, spiritual significance, morality, social skills and stages of learning.” Unfortunately for many international students, these are all things that are far outside of the scope of cram school and the Common Core curriculum. Only the most enterprising independent schools are offering their students specialized cultural integration curricula, and, even then, teachers are forced to condense over a decade of culture into ESL class or orientation seminars. Thus, the same Asia-Pacific Studies article ends with a question – “Are schools fit to adequately address the life-learning and cross-cultural skills necessary in the globalized world?”

A short response to this question is – not yet. According to an article in Bloomberg News, though the number of Chinese private high school students has risen from 65 in 2005-06 to 6,725 in 2010-11, few schools are helping Chinese students integrate in the classroom. One school of thought might promote this laissez-faire approach, as we might expect international students to naturally integrate by simple virtue of their presence in the American classroom. However, this approach risks a campus dynamic in which international students are left to confront their American experience with little support, ultimately gravitating toward preexisting comfort zones.

Instead, schools must find ways to empower their international students with critical cultural and social context. To accomplish this, high schools need to better understand the teaching and learning pedagogies of their international communities. The reality is that global harmony on campus will require bilateral investment; only after we learn how to provide our international students with essential cultural support will those same students learn to leap the culture gap, and engage their high school community alongside their American counterparts.

Cultural integration and comfort zone creation are never easy, but with the lofty goal of more integrated and globalized high school communities on the table, we must expect nothing less than full proactivity from American schools. As more tools and services become available, our high schools must equip themselves—and their international students—with the skills and context to cultivate multicultural success.

Jackson Boyar and James Lu Morrissey are Co-Founders of Shearwater International, a mentorship and cultural integration support network for international students. Yuvika Diwan is a recent graduate of Carleton College, where she majored in International Relations and Political Science.

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