An American Council on Education report and a study by the University of Minnesota on best practices suggest the benefits of moving part of orientation for international students online. Presenting orientation information topic by topic through short videos and webinars with integrated comprehension quizzes and reflection questions enables students to approach and digest the information at their own pace so that they can better understand and retain the information. In traditional week-long orientation programs, students who have recently arrived are presented with so much new information that they are quickly overwhelmed and actually absorb little. Providing self-study modules also means that students can refer back to the modules time and again as needed.
Video is ideal for international students because it conveys meaning in multiple ways, with audio, visual and text highlights, and, with subtitles enabled, they are able to note new language and translate as needed. Doing the modules at home also allows students to share and discuss the information with their parents. Self-study modules can be combined with live chats on Google Hangouts, Twitter, Facebook or WeChat (video and voice-enabled platform that is very popular with Asian students).
Faculty, staff and American students, as well as current international students can be involved in the creation of these orientation and welcoming modules, whether videos, slideshows, or written materials, and the creation of these modules can even be integrated into the curriculum: Language Arts, History, Social Studies, Health, Math, Science (for example on local weather, climate and geography, local ecosystems, and introducing the school’s science lab and equipment), Physical Education (e.g., demonstrations and rules of some popular sports and an introduction to the school’s sports facilities), and Theology (essential foundations – especially important for Chinese students attending religious schools, as they will have little to no background at all on Christianity or other Western religions). Not only does this make the material more engaging and welcoming, it stimulates cultural awareness and creates empathy and understanding for newcomers’ challenges in the school community.
As a bonus, these videos or orientation modules can help to promote your school with prospective students and can be shared on the school’s website or social media channels.
Alternatively, or to supplement your school’s own materials, you can also create a recommended reading and video playlist using available existing materials and add your own comprehension questions, associated Q&A forum, or journal response writing.
Of course, pre-arrival orientation cannot wholly replace orientation when the students actually arrive at your school, but it can make it much more useful. For instance, you will definitely want to introduce new students to staff who can help them with different questions and needs and provide them with a made-for-them directory of this information.
Your returning international students are an important resource and can really help anticipate needs and questions and smooth the transition for new students. They need not be from the same language or cultural background, as either way, they will have had many of the same questions and fears when they first arrived. Whether domestic students or returning international students, making the peer-to-peer part of orientation an official program and calling them peer mentors or peer advisors can encourage them to participate and take the role seriously.
At least part of international students’ orientation should include general icebreakers alongside domestic students in the first few weeks, both in structured activities within the school day and curriculum and, continuing throughout the start of the year, in out-of-school activities such as field trips, intramurals, concerts, talent shows, and community service that help students bond.
Ongoing Orientation and Acculturation Support
Best practices show the benefits of ongoing orientation throughout at least the first semester, such as weekly or even monthly meetings of small groups of international students with trained faculty and/or a few domestic students and possibly with other, well-adjusted international students as well. Topics ideal for a such a program include note-taking, time management, dealing with culture shock, getting along and communicating about sensitive topics with the host family, seasonal holidays, study skills and useful study apps, extra writing support – in particular emphasizing how to avoid plagiarism, lessons on American slang, an introduction to popular music styles and musicians, and general Q & A sessions on academic or cultural topics. Again, not only faculty but also local students can be involved with this ongoing first-semester orientation and will benefit from the consciousness raising.
In fact, your faculty and local, domestic students could benefit from a little orientation to their new pupils and classmates as well. You might provide a forum via panel Q & A sessions, in class cross-cultural projects, a multi-cultural talent show, school newspaper articles, or an international students’ cultural information display area in a central area within the school.
All of these activities will set a tone of welcoming and intercultural learning for everyone in the community.
The Enrollment Management Association offers for download a very useful guide to orientation and acculturation of international high school students:
The Institute for International Education has several publications for international students studying in the US, their parents, international student advisors, and international educators: https://www.iie.org/publications
NAFSA offers some useful short publications, in particular, Introduction to American Life and Friendship with an American Host, which could be used as curriculum or discussion guides: https://www.nafsa.org/Professional_Resources/Publications/
The EduHub Students Blog has many useful articles that could be used as topics for discussion: LINK
USA - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture, by Alan Beechey
What Foreigners Need to Know about America from A to Z, by Lance Johnson