Sherrie Shen is a bubbly, petite sophomore at The Bryn Mawr School who likes hanging out with her friends in her spare time when she’s not doing homework, playing one of several sports, participating in the school’s string ensemble or practicing piano. Her hectic lifestyle is not unlike those of her peers at competitive independent schools in Baltimore. But unlike most, Sherrie—whose Chinese name is Xierui—has left her family in China to attend high school in the U.S. She lives in a dorm at nearby Notre Dame of Maryland University with other international high school students who attend Bryn Mawr, as well as Friends and Roland Park Country School.
“We miss our family a lot. It’s the first time to live by ourselves. We have to do everything,” Sherrie says. After a pause, she adds: “It’s kind of exciting. It’s a totally different education system, a new life—especially without parents. We should be independent and live by ourselves.”
Sixteen-year-old Sherrie, adapting bravely to a foreign country and an entirely different educational system without the immediate support of her parents, is not alone. In 2013, approximately 48,500 international students were in the U.S. seeking a diploma from an American high school. Chinese students lead this growing trend, making up about 46 percent of all high school-diploma seeking international students in the U.S., according to research by the Institute of International Education.
The trend of international students seeking high school diplomas at American schools far outpaces the practice of traditional exchange students coming to the U.S. for brief cultural immersion experiences. The latter practice has seen only modest growth in recent years, while the number of international students studying in the U.S. for the express purpose of receiving a high school diploma tripled between fall of 2013 and fall of 2014 alone.
The underlying motivation of these international students? Not too different from many of their American counterparts, really. They—or, perhaps more accurately, their parents—are hopeful that attending a competitive American high school will serve as a springboard to admission at one of the country’s elite colleges. Because of visa restrictions that limit international students to attending public high schools for only one year, almost all of these international students are enrolled in private schools.
The cost of an American education
In many instances, the arrangement appears to be a win-win situation for the independent schools that welcome them. International students automatically increase a school population’s diversity, which has become a priority for many private schools in recent years. Also, the international students pay full tuition, which at many Baltimore independent schools exceeds $25,000, plus additional fees required to cover living and other expenses.
“Our international students don’t qualify for financial aid; that is not our mission,” said Talia Titus, director of Global Programs & Diversity at Bryn Mawr (which, incidentally, does offer financial aid to a percentage of its local students).
The bottom line, in terms of cost, is that Chinese families are paying an exorbitant amount of money to grant their children an American education. Even before they commit to the cost of tuition, many international families pay thousands of dollars to placement agencies that identify and connect their children to private high schools. Critics denounce this practice, saying that many of these agencies exploit Chinese and other international families who desperately want their children to study in the U.S for the competitive advantage they believe it will offer them.
“The problem is, in the Chinese culture, a lot of these arrangements are made by middle men. Even among families that don’t want to use [placement] agencies, the culture provides so much pressure that they normally end up using them,” said Richard Hesel, principal of the Art & Science Group, a Baltimore-based consulting firm for the higher education, independent schools, and the non-profit sectors.
“The Chinese families believe the agencies have an ‘in’ with schools. Some agencies represent educational institutions, and they get a share of the tuition. They have a self-interest in bringing students to institutions they represent. But they don’t let the families know that,” said Hesel.
Although he works primarily with families of college-bound students, Hesel suggests the exploitation of international families by international placement agencies extends to those seeking placement in American high schools. “There are some agencies with integrity. But I would say it’s a fraction of the entire market in China,” he said.
A phone call inquiry made to one such agency (with offices in several U.S. locations) about their recruitment practices was met with a hang up. Several follow-up phone calls resulted only in hearing the agency’s pre-recorded voice mail message.
The schools interviewed for this article reported using a combination of strategies to identify qualified candidates seeking admission to American schools, including recruiters from within their own institutions, third party agencies, and personal connections. These sources declined to share which agencies they use. But Titus did say this of the way Bryn Mawr recruits international students: “We’re being thoughtful, slow, and deliberate. It’s our sense that Chinese families don’t want to be one of many. We’ve kept our program small.” Of 30 ninth graders new to Bryn Mawr, three are international students.
Finding success in American high schools
Despite the questionable practices used by some agencies to facilitate American education for Chinese and other international students, the outcome for many such students is by no means exclusively bleak.
“There are some really good students who come through the system, and they do quite well,” Hesel said.
Titus concurs. “They are ambitious. Academically, they are successful,” she said of the international students who attend Bryn Mawr.
Representatives of the John Carroll School, a Catholic co-ed high school in Bel Air that formally began efforts to recruit international students in 2011, also seem satisfied with their international program. The school currently enrolls 61 students from 10 countries; 57 percent are Chinese. Most of John Carroll’s international students live with host families; 13 male students live in an on-site dorm, formerly a convent.
“Our international students are very much involved with our school community. They play sports, perform in music and theater programs, join clubs, and participate in academic competitions. Just this week, several of our students—international and domestic—were inducted into the National Honor Society,” reported Sandi Seiler, coordinator of the International Student Programs at John Carroll.
Comparing education systems
Bryn Mawr sophomore Sherrie took a moment from her busy school schedule to reflect on her experience as a Chinese native in an American school.
“Everything was new and exciting for the first month [at Bryn Mawr]. Then, in October, with all the tests and projects due, I became nervous and stressed out. After Thanksgiving, everything was on the right track,” she said, smiling and nodding her head.
When asked about the difference between school in China and the U.S., Sherrie was quick to respond. “In China, it’s mostly about academics. You don’t have time to do clubs. You spend your whole night doing homework. There’s no time to do sports,” she said. “The exam is your whole life,” added Sherrie, who hopes to try field hockey and lacrosse in America—two sports she never played in China.
As Sherrie explained, admission to selective high schools and universities in China is determined by students’ test scores on rigorous national exams. According to her and Xiao Xiao Taoli, another Chinese classmate at Bryn Mawr, these tests in China largely determine a student’s academic fate (somewhat like the SAT, but to a greater extent).
The girls also described an educational system in China that places great emphasis on students’ academic standing relative to those of their classmates. “In China, everybody knows your ranking. The teacher will say it out loud. Sometimes our feelings are hurt by this,” Sherrie said.
Sherrie sounded relieved to have found a more balanced approach to education in America. “School here focuses on everything: academics, sports, leadership—everything that will make you an important person in the future,” she said.
In addition to a more balanced and less competitive academic environment in America, the international students noted a discernible difference in the teaching strategies between the two countries. “Here, the teachers help you think deeper. In China, you’re just reciting things from a book. There’s not much analyzing,” Xiao Xiao said.
Chinese students sometimes must wrestle with a much more basic concern in America than foreign teaching strategies: a language barrier. While some international students possess a strong command of the English language upon arrival in the U.S., others speak only halting English.
Xiao Xiao admitted to being “a little anxious” before coming to the U.S. for high school because of her limited English language skills. But as her English quickly improved, so too did her confidence. It’s something her American classmates notice too.
“Although it might have taken them some time, the Chinese exchange students have completely immersed themselves into being ‘Bryn Mawr girls’,” said sophomore Bryn Mawr student Sydney Graul. “I have seen their leadership improve as well as their English.”
This increased confidence serves as a gateway to ‘international’ friendships, which have been met with openness by Bryn Mawr’s ‘local’ student body.
Bryn Mawr sophomore Sydney, for instance, described a growing friendship with one of the school’s international students whom she now considers a very close friend. “I feel like I have known her much longer than two years,” she said of her newfound pal from across the Atlantic.
Rebekah Robinson, also a sophomore at Bryn Mawr, invited one of the school’s international students to spend Thanksgiving break at her family’s home. In addition to introducing her international guest to a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, Rebekah invited the teenager to her first modern pop concert. “We had a blast and took a lot of pictures,” said Rebekah, who anticipates playing host to her international classmate again during winter break.
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