By Jill Tipograph, MBA, IECA (NY)

The landscape of summer program options for students is rich with opportunities, yet very overwhelming—even more so for international families that choose to send their children to the US for summer experiences. To share greater insights on this important topic, I reached out to IECA colleagues and supporters who also work with this population. Our combined input resulted in the following summary of key questions and considerations to use when evaluating US summer options for international students.

What are the top summer goals families have for their international students? The primary objectives we hear include prepping students for US boarding school and university admissions; improving English language proficiency; experiencing advanced coursework (e.g., research work and classes for college credit); developing stronger writing and communications skills; and experiencing life away from home, primarily in an academic setting. Those goals are often coupled with wanting better training in inferential reading and the opportunity to take TOEFL or SAT/SSAT tests in the summer.

Ideally, families want all of these. But international students need even more help in developing emotional and social skills. So often, parents do not focus on those areas of development. As part of our practice, IECs  stress those skills as critical components of effective youth development (for all clients) and seek to use summer experiences that will enhance those areas.

Another goal is character development, which happens more often outside the classroom than inside it. In our opinion, camps provide this skill training better than other programs. Outdoor adventure programs that focus on leadership building are another option, especially for preteens. Whether a student is biking, hiking, kayaking, climbing, camping, or participating in a collaborative activity where they need to tolerate and support others, team-building experiences personally challenge them and help to build character and 21st century skills. As Hamilton Gregg, IECA (China), noted, “For students in China, many have been deeply steeped in classwork preparing for the two main tests in the Chinese education system, (and) few have engaged in any meaningful extracurricular or outdoor activities (while this is changing there is a lack of experience beyond the intense classroom experience).”

What are the types of summer programs that international families seek out most? Boarding schools are very popular and are used to test out whether a campus or institution would be of interest for a student to attend. Jennifer Bush Evans, IECA (Singapore), said that families are looking for summer schools that will enrich their child academically and that have structured programs with nurturing environments and dorm parents. If a family plans to send their child to the United States for college, they’ll also seek out precollege summer programs at the top tier universities. Some families may feel comfortable with third-party academic programs (those run by outside organizations renting space) whose courses and activities are offered at well-known universities or other appealing locations.

Slowly families are looking toward actual summer camps; which we believe is a wonderful summer start for younger students and the optimal time for them to develop and pursue passions and extracurricular activities. For international students, who are so often focused solely on academics, summer camps may be even more important to encourage and pursue. Gregg, however, pointed out that many program dates start too early for international students; for example, many Chinese students are in school until early July and summer camps typically begin the last week of June. But there are many camps and programs that offer options during the second half of the summer.

What are the important academic skills that international students should work on over the summer? International students who are planning to study in the United States face a multitude of shifts and transitions, including different cultures; language barriers; and, most notably, the requisite academic skills. Lisa Jacobson, founder and CEO of Inspirica, said that many of the international students who are applying to or preparing to attend US schools have a very limited knowledge of the English language and no exposure to an American educational institution. Her company creates customized summer programs to ensure that those students are able to meet the new educational demands. Initially, much of the work centers on mastery of the English language skills required to succeed in an English-speaking academic setting, including writing, reading, vocabulary, and grammar.

The summer is an optimal time for international students to prepare for their US educational program and also for standardized testing. This includes basic familiarity with a particular subject or exam, an intensive program with a focus on expertise, or some combination of the two. Customized one-on-one sessions provide the perfect opportunity to work with students on their weaknesses and strengths.

For families with students who are beginning the school/college application process, requests for TOEFL, SAT, and ACT test-preparation programs are common. For families with a student who has already been accepted to a US school, college, or university, the focus may be on improving the student’s ability to effectively comprehend, communicate, and study within an English-speaking academic setting.

What are the greatest concerns for an international student attending a US summer program? Gregg’s perspective is that they are not entirely prepared for the experience. It’s hard to prepare for an English-focused program, “so they hang out with their Chinese peers.” It is a tough transition and completely understandable. When traveling so far away from home, it is natural for students to gravitate to the more familiar.

Evans pointed out that students and parents may focus on brand name over fit, although “the right fit is the key to success.” Considerations that play into the fit are program size and general age groupings. And especially for international students, it’s important that there is a sizeable sample of other international students (from different countries) among the US students in the program. Cultural sensitivity is important.

Jacobson’s concern is that they have limited English knowledge and US education exposure. She suggested, and I agree, that a summer immersion program is a perfect way for students to expand their academic skills, “as well as learn how to complete rudimentary assignments, such as writing a research papers or book reports.”

I would add that logistics and application requirements and sometimes visas, are more often than not a stumbling block for international students. Proactively educating families and monitoring the process are part of our work to help better ensure student admissions. Other considerations include student learning vs. teaching styles.

What information do families fail to ask about a summer program? There is so much more to planning a summer experience than it may seem at first. I often feel that families do not ask enough questions about the emotional, social, and residential parts of a program. They focus more on content and activities. International families are often more interested in the name brand of the program, the kinds of classes, and how their child will benefit from the knowledge gained. Evans noted, “Families often need further clarity about the degree of specific programs. For instance: the different ESL options available or the level of reading comprehension offered and balancing that with what their child really needs.” They also do not inquire enough about the size and structure of the program (e.g., what happens in down times?).

Some families are so single-minded and focused on “getting ahead” in academia that they forget to consider what their child’s true passions are (or can be). From time to time, I work with students who don’t even consider what they’d like to do, but rather focus on what they should do. Some students don’t realize that they can do a program that aligns with their true passions and integrate it with academics. It also helps to work with families early on about medical forms and visas and travel; many often leave those tasks to the last minute, which ultimately can affect their child’s enrollment.

What do international students feel most and least prepared for in their summer program? The IECs in this article work to prepare their students, so it is less likely they will feel unprepared; however, today’s children and teens are very anxious. They fear the unknown and they worry. Their concerns, ironically, often become some of their positive outcomes. They’re concerned they won’t make friends, then they leave their programs with strong relationships. If a student attends a service program, they may fear they aren’t experienced enough for the service, but then they leave feeling accomplished and confident. In our work, we’re all focused on the right fit and achieving that goal of matching the correct student to the most appropriate program. Each summer is truly dependent on the last, with experiences accumulating to benefit a student. When working with preteens and young high school students, I make sure each subsequent summer is built as a stepping stone from the last one.

What kind of summer experience feedback do you get from international students? Most students return from a summer experience satisfied or even having had it exceed their expectations. It is very important to manage the student’s and family’s expectations so the outcome is positive. We discuss goals with our clients and remind them of those goals pre- and postsummer. My students often tell me they couldn’t believe how the time flew by and that they found their experiences to be more rewarding than they anticipated. When I asked Gregg, he recalled a student from last year who went on a service trip in southern Montana and was surprised by the cultural similarities she shared with Native Americans. “They mature a lot during these summer months and it puts them in a very strong position academically, socially, and emotionally” said Evans. In her work, Evans found that students return with a sense of independence. I’ve also found that with my students, it’s the smaller accomplishments and successes that build confidence and independence.

Jill Tipograph, founder of Everything Summer & Beyond, LLC, can be reached at [email protected].