The Untold Challenges of Studying at an American Boarding School


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For years now you have heard stories about friends and relatives attending boarding schools in the U.S.A. to learn English and become proficient enough in the language to be accepted to a competitive university. You know that if you go, you must study hard and achieve good grades. You will want be friendly and tolerant of those who are different, and you will play sports and join in activities to become a well-rounded individual that any college would accept.

You also know that you might have to overcome such obstacles as eating unfamiliar food, being homesick, or sharing a room and bathroom with those who may not be as neat as you. Clearly you have been armed and forewarned by friends and family alike...you are prepared for anything...or so you think!

What haven’t you been told? Perhaps no one has made you aware of the untold challenges that face many international students when they begin studying at an American boarding school. First, how will you feel when you must speak English all the time in the dormitory, classes, the dining hall, and on the sports field? In your free time why shouldn’t you be able to watch dramas or speak to your friends in your native language? Why should anyone care if you don’t want to speak out or express your opinions? How are you supposed to understand that you can’t complete homework assignments together with friends or copy exact words from a text? Instead you thought the only thing important was to listen carefully, follow directions, and be successful on final exams. Oh, but life in the U.S.A. is very different!

Statistics prove that students who completely assimilate into a new culture and are fully immersed in the language, matriculate into mainstream classes at a faster rate. That is why many schools have an “English Only” policy. The more you speak and learn the idiomatic language, the less you depend on translations. Before you know it, you are thinking in the language and even dreaming in English. This makes communicating with American students and teachers much easier.

Understand that part of a boarding school education is learning to solicit extra help from your teachers when you feel you don’t understand the material or need additional practice before a test or exam. It is your responsibility to ask for that help and you must be willing to communicate this. Additionally, communicating with classmates or students in the dorm is essential to your well-being. If your roommate is playing music after midnight and that prevents you from sleeping, you must be able to communicate your feelings openly and clearly.

Communication also takes shape in the classroom when you are engaged in activities and actively participating in class discussions. Teachers want you to share your experiences and voice your opinions without fear of repercussions. Let people know who you are, the values that you stand by, and the goals you want to attain. Tell your adviser or dorm parent when you are unhappy or confused, or share those accomplishments that you thought were beyond reach.

Time management is another pitfall for which most international students are not prepared. You know that your daily schedule centers on meals, classes, study halls, and athletics. You will also be encouraged to fit in other activities that may not be required. For example, boarding schools greatly emphasize the importance of leadership skills, in clubs, student government, or the dormitory and of becoming actively engaged in as many activities as you can. You could join theater productions, music performances, community service, and talent shows, or something as simple as supporting the varsity basketball team by attending a home game.

You also have to consider making time to complete all of your assigned long range projects and papers. When are you going to have time to work on them? When are you going to have time to see your math teacher for extra help and finish your sculpture in the art room? You have a flute lesson at 6:30PM, and you are organizing Culture Week and must meet with the planning group at 9PM just after study hall. But wait....as a dorm proctor you have room check tonight and you have a quiz and essay due tomorrow....will you have time to sleep? Time management is an essential skill for all international students to learn.

Finally, one of the most important untold challenges is adhering to an academic honesty policy that is ingrained in the U.S. educational system. Students here must produce original work that is of their own creation. Therefore no student should ever give or receive unauthorized help in completing an assignment. You are not expected to help another student with a quiz or test, let another student copy your homework, or falsify data, information, or citations in any formal exercise. Taking someone else’s ideas or words without giving them credit is plagiarism and will not be accepted in any U.S. school. So, if your friend asks to borrow your homework because he did not have the chance to finish his before class, you must be strong and learn how to say, No!” If you allowed this to happen, you would end up in as much trouble as your friend. Remember, be creative and use your own words when writing essays and answering questions. You don’t need help from another student. You can do it on your own!

Now you know a little bit more about the expectations of U.S. boarding schools. You may think that it is going to be almost impossible to integrate into the culture to truly feel comfortable. I will be truthful: it will take time and a great deal of perseverance and patience, but I haven’t met a student yet who isn’t capable of scaling these obstacles to become an integral member of the community. So pass along to a friend these untold challenges so they, too, will be prepared for life in boarding school.

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By Cinnie Wappel
Cinnie Wappel is Director of International Programs, Solebury School, New Hope, Pennsylvania