Over the past few years, I have been asked to take on consulting assignments for boarding schools that are anxious to build robust international programs. These institutions want to educate for a globally connected world and they see the wisdom in bringing in students who will represent international diversity.

It is hard to argue with this goal but I have found that many schools don’t ask the right questions as they set out to accomplish this mission. Let me pose a few questions and share with you some thoughts about what I have learned.

From where should the initiative come?

This can be a fairly complex question and I have seen a broad range of responses. First, we should ask: is the initiative to begin an international program board mandated, financially driven, academically inspired, or admissions motivated? In my experience, the schools with the most successful international programs are the ones in which the academic leaders took the lead. The administrators and teachers were the ones who developed the plan–the imperative, rationale, curriculum, and support. And, frankly, without it coming out of the academic side of the institution, the program will likely find very little traction. If boards try to start international programs, they must cross a boundary into operations. If the development office seizes the initiative, it can be seen as a cynical panacea for philanthropic dollars. And if the admissions team tries to solve its enrollment deficits with international students, it can be accused, albeit sometimes unfairly, of trying to undermine the culture of the school. For programs to truly flourish, the head of school and the school’s administrative team should be the ones to keep it sustained and nourished.

How does one begin to find students?

A few years ago, I consulted with a school in the South that had a small international program, about 10 students, and they wanted to expand it. The community support was strong and so was the faculty endorsement. What to do? The head of school felt patience was indeed a virtue and that her international program leader needed the funds to travel overseas so he could talk directly with schools, consultants, students, and parents. The program leader was ideally suited for the job because he was not only a seasoned and charismatic teacher but he could also tell compelling stories about the international students who were already enrolled in the school. This gave him credibility and gravitas with whomever he met. In fact, I remember meeting him in a Beijing hotel and introducing him to other IECA members. Not only was he expanding his network by meeting with schools, parents, and students, he was building the brand of his school. Now, the school continues this “meet and greet” plan every year as it moves into new markets and the program keeps growing. 

Where do schools fall short in developing a successful program?

First, be sure that the program has a designated leader and a superb team of professionals who have the time and resources to be effective. This is not a coaching assignment or one more class. Bringing in students from diverse cultures brings a whole set of issues that schools need to be fully prepared for.

Among the many questions that need to be addressed are: 

  • Who will be responsible for the visa and health forms?
  • Who will be responsible for logistics to and from school?
  • Will the dorms be open during long weekends and short vacations?
  • Will there be language requirements for international students?
  • Who will work with the food center for dietary needs and preferences?
  • Will the school provide ESL support? 

This is only a partial list of concerns that need to be addressed before beginning an international program. However, if the school is intentional about making sure that there is a core of devoted faculty members who will oversee all these issues and more, the benefits to the community will be significant. 

How does one sustain an international program?

This question is an easy one to answer. A school needs to be in the position of stewarding its international students and families. By stewardship I mean taking care of the relationships that the school has with its international families and students.

A New England school that has an outstanding program and a significant number of Chinese students makes sure that its program director and head of school both go to China once a year. Their goal is simply to thank parents for sending their children halfway across the world and entrusting them to the school’s care. Not coincidentally, the school has also done extremely well philanthropically because the parents feel appreciated. It just makes sense to combine a goodwill tour with recognition of the importance of philanthropy to the livelihood of independent schools. 

Another way to sustain relationships is to use social media and technology to stay connected with international families. For example, keep connected with occasional live video feeds from classrooms, send photos of a school play or an athletic contest, or encourage teachers and coaches to reach out with heartening words at times other than formal reporting periods. These are just a few of the creative ways to show care and concern.

What is the board’s role?

As an IECA member and a board member of an independent day school, I think about this question a lot. The answer goes back to the first question posed in this article. If the schools we work with are looking to start or to invigorate their international programs in order to seek more diversity in their communities, then shouldn’t they be doing the same thing with the composition of their boards? Shouldn’t boards reflect more closely their school communities? And shouldn’t boards consider how their current students and families would feel when they know the school is staying true to its mission by making sure that its board is truly representative? Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a head of school who has a current parent from China on its board. The parent has provided much needed insights on the academic ambitions of its Chinese students and been especially effective in helping the international families understand the importance of the annual fund and capital programs within the school. Additionally, the parent has helped the school establish a strong following in China by hosting events and receptions in Beijing when the head of school visits. A board that includes representation from all constituencies is a central element of a successful international program.

I encourage schools to consider these sensible questions. They will generate creative and innovative reflection which, I hope, will lead to the formation of a successful program or to the practical enhancements of an existing one. In the end, responding to our clients’ needs with astute and provocative questions will help them design programs that will improve the quality of the experiences of current and future students. 

By Jon Harris, MA, IECA (PA)

Jon M. Harris, Griffin Global Education Network, LLC and Partner, ShangNancyFriends, can be reached at  [email protected] or [email protected]