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Each time Suhyun Kim returned to her university dorm after class, she shut the door behind her and collapsed on the floor with a sigh of relief: “Thank God I’m still alive. Thank God I made it through today.”
Kim, a 28-year-old international student from South Korea, recently graduated from law school at the University of Southern California. Like other international students, she had passed the required TOEFL exam (an English proficiency test for nonnative English speakers), yet still struggled each day to understand what Americans were saying in their fast-rolling tongue.
One day, her professor asked the class what everyone did for winter break. Fueled by sudden bravery, Kim raised her hand with a pounding heart. “I went to Europe,” she answered. But because she pronounced the continent as “Yoo-rup,” the professor couldn’t understand her, and she had to repeat herself several times until her eyes burned with tears of frustration and humiliation. That was the last time Kim voluntarily spoke up in class.
The market is booming for international students such as Kim, thanks to foreign families desperate for American education and U.S. schools eager for tuition money. Yet many young people arrive with a glamorized view of American school life, expecting it to be like High School Musical or Hannah Montana: gossip time at the lockers between classes, giggly note-passing in class, and enough relationship drama to make life interesting. Many don’t foresee the reality of living as foreigners in a new land—and they come unprepared.
To improve her English, Kim tried to befriend native English speakers, which required tossing out everything she knew about basic social cues and etiquette. For two years she obsessed over every English word, double- and triple-checking whether it sounded wrong or rude or stupid. Even seemingly innocuous comments such as telling a classmate she looked tired—a show of care in Korean culture—turned out to be offensive to some Americans.
While other Korean students looked enviously at the sight of Kim laughing out loud with a group of American friends, nobody realized laughing was her default response whenever she couldn’t understand a word people were saying: “Nobody knew how stressed I was. I was always tense, never relaxed. I felt like I was performing onstage without any rehearsals, exposing all my mistakes to the public.”
When international students such as Kim fail to assimilate into American society, they aren’t the only ones who lose out: Americans themselves miss an opportunity to befriend young foreigners, invest in their lives, and gain valuable cultural perspectives from around the world.
To prevent that from happening, some Christian schools are working hard to improve the American experience for international students, helping them develop English skills, gain confidence, and learn up-close how American family members live and relate with one another.
KERTES HENG, a 20-year-old sophomore at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., loves classroom debates. When her American classmates deride China as an undeveloped communist nation, she swiftly defends her home country.
Heng didn’t used to speak up in class, though. Back in Chengdu, China, her teachers encouraged a rote-memory education and discouraged the questioning of authority, to the point where Heng says she “always felt oppressed and shut down by teachers.” She sees those effects in other Chinese students at Wheaton: During discussions, the international students quickly back down when challenged—partly because they lack confidence in their English, and partly because of the education system that formed them. For students who come from shame-based cultures, making mistakes in public is social suicide: They play it safe by keeping their heads down.
That’s a common issue that administrators try to redress at the Summer English Institute (SEI), an annual, monthlong preparation program for international students ages 11 to 18. The Wheaton Academy network (WAnet), an association of private Christian high schools that accept international students, runs the program. (All international students attending a WAnet school are required to attend.)
The program consists of three weeks of intensive classroom instruction and a week of travel and college campus visits. Besides English lessons, SEI preps students on American culture and education and reinforces the ideas that there’s no shame in failure and that no questions are wrong.
This year, WAnet hosted 183 students at its fifth SEI at California Baptist University in Riverside, Calif. A week into the program, students were already tanned hazelnut-brown and indulging in all-you-can-eat ice cream cones at the cafeteria.
During a “Personal Speeches” class, a group of about 10 students practiced their English by engaging in a trivia competition, game-show style. The two teams conferred in English on answers to questions such as “What is the highest mountain peak in Asia?” When one Chinese student called out, “I think it’s in Taibek,” his teammate good-naturedly corrected his pronunciation: “You mean Tibet!”
Ricca Lan, a 14-year-old, pixie-featured fan of Japanese anime from Xiamen, China, has gone to SEI three times and next fall will enter Wheaton Academy, a private Christian high school in Wheaton. Her English is good enough to hold a long conversation, and a taste of American life has changed her in other ways as well: “Before, I didn’t know who I was. I just followed what other people do and think. But now, I have my own thoughts and opinions and can even argue my case.” That may turn out positively or negatively, as Ricca now questions her parents’ Christian faith: She is “finding my way in Christianity” and hopes Wheaton Academy will help that process. Her mother, she said, is especially praying for that.
MOST HIGH SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES recognize that international students help diversify their campus and prepare other domestic students for a globalized age. But as schools accept more students from places like China and South Korea, it’s become easier for these students to segregate into ethnic groups, which can create barriers to assimilation and perpetuate stereotypes. Students who carry much value into U.S. campuses with their diverse experiences, knowledge, and cultures are engaging less with the rest of the school body.
Withdrawal can also be the result of stress, homesickness, and loneliness that drive some into depression. Amber Ji, a 22-year-old student from Baoding, China, who is attending UCLA, told me all she did after school was watch Korean dramas alone at home: “That was all my life. … I didn’t want to make American friends, because I was always very shameful about my broken language.”
One way to prevent isolation is to assign international students to live with American families instead of in dormitories. Caroline Kirchner, who for six years directed the international students program at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, Calif., said such homestay programs are “most critical” in setting up students to be successful and offer opportunities to reach students with the gospel message: “Two Christian parents, one or two international kids: That’s a much better model of the gospel in both word and deed.”
Having a homestay program limits the number of international students a school can accept, but Kirchner likes it that way: It prevents the program from turning into “a profit center” and deepens the one-to-one impact on students. She feels so strongly about host families that when Oaks Christian School decided to add a dormitory option to its hosting program, she resigned, saying she “cannot in good conscience stay on.” (An Oaks representative told me the school added the dorms because students requested them and in order to expand its international student program.)
Kirchner’s conviction solidified from her previous work experience as the ESL department chair at another Christian high school, where she said she saw some typical bad effects of international student dormitories: The kids conglomerate into their own ethnic groups—“It’s like a Chinatown here, Koreatown there”—and barely interact with other domestic students. With the lack of parental figures, one student inevitably ascends as the leader. Should that top dog happen to be a non-Christian with questionable character, the whole environment turns poisonous.
At Oaks, all host parents are required to be Christians active in church, and they must be staff members or parents of Oaks students. Every host family also goes through a summer orientation, in which members learn how to relate to other cultures, address homesickness, and teach the gospel in everyday life.
Ana Maria Kilpatrick, an Oaks Christian School host parent, called the homestay program “an opportunity for our family to bring the mission field into our doors.” Random conversations about God pop up when she’s driving her students to school, preparing dinner, or wiping the kitchen table. Once, her husband apologized to a host “daughter” from Beijing for a mistake he had made, and the girl burst into tears: “I’ve never had an adult apologize to me before!” she said. Another boy, also from China, peppered Kilpatrick with deep questions from Bible class. He later got baptized.
Peter Wang, during his first week in America as an international student from Beijing, did not have his own bed. His host family didn’t have enough beds, so his host father gave him nails and a hammer to build one. The already homesick 15-year-old—who has a flair for dramatics—forgot he was the one who had cajoled his parents into sending him to Wheaton Academy. As he fumbled with the tools, Wang remembers thinking, “I’m abandoned, all alone! How can I survive here for the next three years?”
He not only survived, but enjoyed the next three years. It helped that his host father asked one of his four children to also construct a bed together with Wang, even though the kid already had his own. Wang later recognized that act as a demonstration of love from his host family: The Christian family, by prizing discipline, equality, and hard work, had given the boy a taste of classic American values. Wang also learned to do household chores—a family rule uncommon in many Asian homes.
Wang’s host families helped acculturate him to American life, including American food. The first time Wang opened an American fridge, he was astounded by the rows of sauces and dressings. He still remembers a restaurant called “King Wok” that his first host family frequented. The “Chinese” food there resembled nothing like the dishes back home—what was it with Americans and their penchant for sauces? He soon learned to distrust any self-advertised Chinese restaurant with “Panda” or “Express” in its name.
Today, Wang is a well-adjusted sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley. He now appreciates American-Chinese food, and his English is excellent. He credits his host families for his assimilation into America: “It’s a home away from home. When you get homesick, it helps. There’s somebody to talk to, somebody to tell, ‘I refuse to have dinner tonight because I’m not happy!’ In a dorm, nobody cares that you’re not eating dinner.”
Quality over quantity
One source for assimilation problems is when international students cave under cultural and lingual hardships. Another is when schools view such students as dollars signs and make little effort to guide them through their transition.
The potential for exploitation in this field is rife: Schools sometimes oversell themselves to families overseas and too readily accept students unequipped for a rigorous American education. Administrations jack up tuition fees, knowing most parents will still pay, and cut corners. Often, services that impact student life are the first to be chopped: programs improving language skills, living situations, and personal well-being.
Jon Keith, the founder of WAnet and chief operating officer at Wheaton Academy, has seen that happen to numerous Christian schools: “They begin to realize, ‘I can fill up my schools with full-paying, rich Chinese families who are willing to pay anything.’ It’s not a healthy mix.” After 10 years of directing international student programs, Keith has met many families who told him they were duped into buying promises that schools and agencies failed to deliver.
WAnet helps recruit, vet, and match international students to its network of Christian schools that agree to uphold Wheaton Academy’s standards for academics and student services. Within the last few years, Keith has removed several schools from WAnet because of their slipping standards, such as failure to properly monitor their homestay programs.
“We have to be very, very careful that money isn’t the primary motive,” Keith said. “If you’re going to [run an international student program], you have a moral and spiritual obligation to care for the child.”