Foreign students bring benefits, but preparation needed

By Anne Ehringhaus and Michael Ehringhaus, Special to the BDN
Posted March 13, 2011, at 4:31 p.m.

It is interesting that a number of school districts in Maine have begun to think about attracting international students to live and study here. We see recent evidence of this in Millinocket and Guilford.

There are several benefits to school districts and host communities for attracting international students to live and study here. For one, the tuition these students pay to attend Maine schools will increase educational revenue and offset the decline in local student numbers. In addition, when international students live in Maine for a year, they will become a source of revenue for local businesses as they support themselves during their year of study. Last, having international students live and study in the state will provide cultural opportunities for host community residents, as noted in recent Bangor Daily News articles.

What have we learned from Millinocket’s initiative to attract international students to live and study there? In essence, we have learned that not only do local and international students have to be ready for the cross-cultural experiences, host-community residents, school districts and businesses in the host community also need to be ready. However, to ensure success, it is critical that host communities adopt a positive attitude and an organizational infrastructure that accommodate the needs and expectations of its “customers,” i.e., international students and their parents. In short, host communities  need to embrace change and value cultural differences.

So what would it take to ensure that the experiences of international students living and studying in Maine are successful? First of all, it’s critical to understand that the primary reasons parents of international students are willing to spend significant amounts of money to send their children to live and study abroad are to improve their children’s language skills and help their children develop intercultural competencies in order to increase their educational opportunities.

Accordingly, all parents considering sending their children abroad for a year will want answers to two essential questions:

What will their children gain from living and studying in Maine for a year?

How will they know if their children’s living and studying experiences in Maine are successful?

In approaching answers to these two questions, host communities will need to ask and answer several questions:

  1. Will the schools, community, and host families be prepared and have the organizational capacity for such a challenge?
  2. What will the host community and participating school districts need to do in order to ensure that international students, the community and participating schools have a positive, successful experience?
  3. How will Maine school districts, teachers and parents of international students know if the living and learning experiences are successful?
  4. How will “success” be measured and conveyed to host communities and to international students and their parents?

We believe that these questions need answers before international students come to live and study in Maine. This is especially true if success is the goal and if host communities wish to continue attracting international students. While there are clear financial and cultural benefits to attracting international students here, those benefits will evaporate quickly if the experiences of visiting students and of host communities aren’t successful.

Word of failure will travel fast, and parents of international students will choose another place in the United States to send their children. In addition, residents of host communities will begin refusing to welcome international students if their initial experiences are not positive.

With fiscal cutbacks a reality, Maine school districts need additional revenue. Clearly, attracting international students to live and study in Maine could be a viable source of revenue. Yet, is success from having international students live and study here guaranteed? No.

In order to assure success, host communities in Maine must be willing to reach out and listen to people “from away,” be intentional in creating an effective organizational infrastructure for providing excellent living and educational experiences for international students, be open minded in their efforts to understand and welcome international students, and provide clear evidence of success for parents of international students.

In the end, for success to occur it will take forethought, intentional planning and development and a sincere willingness to welcome and learn from people who come here to learn from us.

Anne Ehringhaus is an intercultural business consultant and lives near Rockwood.  Michael Ehringhaus is director of Partnerships for Reform, an educational consulting practice in Portland.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/03/13/opinion/foreign-students-bring-benefits-but-preparation-needed/ printed on October 24, 2014