August 2012 issue

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Supportive orientation

Many US high schools offer comprehensive orientation programmes for international students embarking upon their studies in the USA. Such programmes are essential to prepare students for the ups and downs of living in a different country. Gillian Evans reports.

Studying in a high school in another country can be a daunting prospect. Being away from family and friends, coupled with the strains of dealing with a foreign language, culture and study philosophy, can all represent challenges to students aged 12-to-18. “Each student arrives with her own individual hopes and expectations,” observes Carolyn Newton at Ashley Hall in Charleston, SC. “Common problems include language barriers and lack of inclusion in the general student life.”

“Most of our new international students are studying in [the] USA and/or leaving their home country for the first time, and naturally they need more time and support to transition to their new school than their US peers,” says Michele Levy at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, MA.

The majority of high schools try to prepare students before they arrive by sending them information packs that cover everything about the school and practical issues such as visa regulations. Others also provide student contacts. At Tabor Academy in Marion, MA, for example, each new international student has a US ‘Global Partner’ who contacts them via email in July to build up a relationship with the overseas student prior to arrival.

Many high schools now also provide an orientation programme for international students once they have arrived. These vary in length – usually from one day to a week – and content, but generally cover academic and social issues, and are usually included in the student’s tuition fees.

Tyler Kreitz at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, CA says many students do not know what is expected of them in the USA. “The largest misconception tends to be that they will not have to work hard to succeed in school,” Kreitz relates. “Some subjects are easier, but some are not, and when you add in the language learning, it is a lot of work and effort. Adjustments to things that they have not anticipated also include unsupervised homework, enquiry/exploration style of learning [and] labs in science.”

Parnell Hagerman at Oldfields School in Sparks Glencoe, MD, also says the school prepares students through an orientation programme. “International students go through [an] intensive orientation programme about the school and how to get things done, what teachers expect, what constitutes plagiarism – very different from country to country – and cultural differences,” Hagerman explains. “They teach us and we teach them. It is a very productive couple of days.”

But high schools not only focus on academic preparation but also on helping students get to know their surroundings by, for example, organising excursions and helping to set up bank and mobile phone accounts. Some also include meetings specifically for the parents of overseas students. According to Steve Downes at Tabor Academy, around three quarters of international students arrive with their parents, so the school organises a welcome ceremony for both students and parents, and a dinner for parents with the headmaster and faculty members while students eat and mix with their peers. “After dinner we require parents to leave the campus for good so that their children can focus on adjusting and making new friends,” he adds.

Although orientation programmes undoubtedly play an important role in helping international students to settle into their new life overseas, Kreitz explains that orientation is an ongoing process. “For academic support and continuing language learning, we continue programmes through the year, because we have found that for many students the initial orientation before school is not enough. We do not rely on the ‘before school’ orientation to do it all.”

Downes agrees. “We see our International Orientation as the start of a process that goes on for several years for each student. Orientation is a good and necessary part of a successful adjustment, but it is only the first step,” he says.

Making friends

Homesickness and integrating with domestic students can be the biggest challenges facing international high school pupils. Orientation programmes go some way to help them adjust to cultural differences, but many schools also work hard to ensure international students mix with local students.

“We have student ambassadors who attend the classroom activities and go on the field experiences with the international students,” relates Carolyn Newton at Ashley Hall in Charleston, SC. “We also have small socials at the homes of domestic students and these events are also attended by parents. We hope that these opportunities allow the international students to get a full introduction to American culture and make connections.”

At Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natwick, MA, there are leadership students who work with the new international students throughout the orientation and school year. “This group is made up of international students and at least one domestic student. During the orientation, the student leaders in other areas of school life also participate in the orientation activities and accompany the new international students on trips,” says Michele Levy.

At Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, CA, a group of US student “buddies” participate in the international student orientation. “When school starts, the internationals already know people and as part of the orientation, they can enjoy some ‘exchange’ of sharing cultural and academic experiences across cultures,” explains Tyler Kreitz at the school.

While these initiatives cannot completely eradicate feelings of homesickness, they help students become better equipped to deal with them constructively. “During the orientation, we discuss how to overcome the challenges of being homesick and reaching out to students and adults on campus as resources,” confirms Levy.

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