“Never forget that these are their kids and they care as much as any other parent.”

Of the many takeaways Shannon Swann brought home from the 2018 TABS/NAIS Global Symposium in New Orleans last month, this one stood out to her most.

Swann, who is a French teacher as well as University High School’s director of international programs, oversees the school’s growing international student population, which at the time primarily comes from China. This is in part due to the fact that University High School is a day school, not a boarding school, and China is one of the only countries in which parents feel comfortable with long-term homestay arrangements. This reminder struck a chord with Swann, as one of her responsibilities is to balance the dual needs to communicate with international students’ host families in Indiana and their birth families in China.

“We have midterm comments and mentoring letters translated into Mandarin, but we have not pursued communicating very much with our international students’ birth families about day-to-day happenings at school,” said Swann. “The information they do receive is through the Blazer Blast or email, which are written in English. This conference made me realize that I would like to communicate more. I want the parents back home to see photos of their students at prom or out on the golf course. They may be far away, but they miss their kids, and they want to know what’s happening. They want to see their kids thriving, just like any parent does.”

Some schools, as Swann discovered, use the application WeChat to communicate with parents in China as well as to attract prospective students from China. To date, international student recruitment at University has largely come from referrals.

“We’ve been pretty lucky with our international student recruitment so far because students have kind of come to us,” said Swann. “We’re a small school, so we aren’t looking for hundreds of international students, and I think word-of-mouth has been really effective. The students we’ve had so far have largely been very happy with what we do.

What Swann learned many independent schools do is hire agents to represent them in their target countries. Schools work closely with the agents to identify good-fit students in those countries, and those agents go out and sell the most attractive aspects of the schools to those students. While hiring an agent is not a priority for University, the concept did spark another idea for Swann.

“That session really got me thinking, not that we should hire an agent right away, but if we did, what would we want that agent to say about our school,” asked Swann. “What differentiates University High School to students in China? What is it that our international students like about us? And what do people not know about Carmel, Indiana that we could tell them?”

While several sessions focused on international student recruitment and communication, there were also sessions that discussed integrating international students into a school community and the intersections of internationality and diversity.

“At this conference I really made the connection between my work on the equity and justice committee and my work with international students,” said Swann. “I went to one session that looked at the intersection of diversity and international programs, and we talked about how you handle diversity training and diversity discussions with students who have no history of that. International students may have some vague ideas of what American groups, categories, and tensions are, but they might not have a nuanced view of it, and they might not think of themselves as implicated in it.”

“Among other things, I’d like to have our international students have some role in the cultural training of our faculty,” she added. “I like the idea of sitting down with the students and asking, ‘What do you wish your American teachers knew about you?’ Then they can visit a faculty meeting and explain the expectations in China and how they differ from expectations in the U.S.”

Implementing a “Many Voices Day,” starting an affinity group for Chinese students, and expanding our international programs to recruit students from other countries are some other ideas that came out of this conference. Additionally, Swann has worked hard this year to encourage American students to consider international study opportunities, and several University High School students are planning to study abroad this summer through programs like IU Honors and others.

“The ultimate goal is that every single student will have an international experience of some kind while they are here, whether that means hosting an international student, going abroad, doing an international service program, or just interacting in a meaningful way with a different culture,” said Swann. “What I would like is for everyone to understand that we are a school that values and champions the idea of understanding different cultures and being culturally competent, and this is a wonderful environment in which to build those skills.”