Written By: Sawyer Middeleer of Shearwater International, a mentorship and cultural integration support network for international students.

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The issue facing many educators now is the need to help international students overcome issues relating to cultural displacement. Due to a wide range of cultural differences like language, values, and social expectations, international students often face difficulties connecting to their school community. This is a serious problem that can be addressed through support systems and strong mentoring relationships.

The problem of cultural displacement most visibly extends to international students’ ability to make American friends. As one Chinese sophomore named Mei told me recently:

“It seemed like all the Americans knew each other already. They had their friend groups. Comfort is speaking my own language. I get tired when I speak English and I can’t say what I want to.”

Eventually, making American friends began to seem impossible and she found more enjoyment with other Chinese students. She came to school here with the goal of making international friends, but she soon came to the conclusion that initiating relationships was more often frustrating than rewarding. The easiest group to fit into was other Chinese students. While these cultural comfort zones build security, never leaving them ultimately squanders many of the opportunities that come with an international education.

Another effect of Mei’s lack of confidence speaking English was frustration in the classroom. Group discussions are common activities in many classes, but she often felt uncomfortable and unable to participate.

“I feel like I don’t know anything, even though I did all the readings. The class is fun, but I hate discussion groups.”

This prompts many questions that may not have concrete answers. What is an international education? Can an international student receive a fully international education simply by being in the United States? How much extra help should be afforded to support our schools’ international students? Mei’s story indicates that there is certainly something missing from the equation that most schools use today.

It is not uncommon for international students to arrive on campus before the rest of the students get there in order to receive a crash-ESL course and cultural orientation. This model for integrating international students into school life is employed by many high profile boarding schools such as Deerfield Academy. By following this model, the school can be assured that its international students will perform well in their coursework, but no more. Any further success is left up to the individual student’s emotional maturity and desire to take risks.

As we all know, teenagers are often unequipped to handle difficult social problems alone. Cultural issues are no different in this respect. A student like Mei would be better served by a program that recognizes that the issue of cultural displacement is deeper than the score on her English placement test.

Here is where mentors come in. A mentor can provide Mei with the support and extra “soft-skills” training that she needs in order to truly make the most out of her study abroad experience. Her test taking skills may be fine, but when it comes to communicating her ideas effectively and engaging in classroom discussions, a little help could go a long way.

A mentor is also someone who has experience dealing with many of the social situations that Mei might struggle with. Even the comfort of having a lifeline to fall back on in a foreign country could do a lot to boost her confidence. Studying abroad should not be a scary experience. International students should be equipped to make friends and engage in class with confidence. Effective mentoring programs can be initiated by schools or undertaken as independent services. Regardless of how it is implemented, a mentoring program is a must for any school that wishes to cultivate a strong international community.