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Diversity of the student population is key to making the experience truly international for both staff and students.

By Leigha Francis (UWCT 2020, Jamaica)

It is a fact—not all international schools are the same. Around the world, international schools come in many different shapes and sizes, with a wide variety of learning approaches and curricula.

International schools came into being as the world was becoming more globally oriented, and a need arose for expatriates working in multinational companies overseas, as well as diplomats, UN and EU staff to have their children educated in systems compatible with those of their home countries. The idea was to provide the families, and especially the children, a form of stability; knowing that the principles, teaching, and curriculum will be similar wherever they go, and that the transition from one “home” to another will have one less source of complication. 

These schools were “market-driven”, providing a national programme of education in an international setting, usually British or American, for example, the American School in Dubai. Since then, other, “ideology-driven” options have emerged. These options seem to promote a global mission which fits more with the “ideal” of an international school. This type of international school promotes diversity and fosters a global outlook that is not tied to a particular culture or education system. To better prepare students to live and work in an increasingly globalized world, these international schools aim to grant them intercultural understanding and appreciation, an awareness of global issues and an international mind-set. Many of them have also opted for the International Baccalaureate, as it fits well with their overall mission of international mindedness.

That being said, not all international schools are equal; some schools will just adopt the name or description to attract parents, conjuring up images of exoticism and high hopes for university, while only offering a superficial experience of international education. Many “international schools” will flaunt the concept of being international, but not actually strive for teacher, student or curricular diversity. These institutions end up being diverse by default, not by design.

Upon speaking with a graduate of an American international IB school in Jamaica, she explained that the concept of diversity did not seem to be weaved into the fabric of the curriculum, and did not feel the international experience, even being an “international school student”. She felt her school lacked opportunities for the students to showcase their cultures and capabilities as a community; mainly focusing on Jamaican and American celebrations and topical issues as opposed to learning about and accommodating other cultures and nationalities.  

If you contrast this with Kajonkiet International School Phuket (KISP) — also an IB school — in Thailand, though they could also be considered to be diverse by default, students there feel diversity weaves its way into classroom discussions and school celebrations acknowledge diversity simply because of the multitude of nationalities. 

That said, always check and see where the international school you are investigating falls on the pragmatic/ideological spectrum to guarantee that it seeks to prepare young people for adult life as responsible and capable international citizens in a globalized world. Consider the school’s governance structure, the international focus of the curriculum and whether it is internationally recognised. Often international schools are accredited by the host country’s Ministry of Education.

So what’s in a name?

Imagine this: A teenage girl walks into a boarding school fair. She’s in her fourth year of high school and is looking to take the next step towards her future. As she stops at various stalls, introduces herself and her interests, and takes a look at the school’s brochure. Her teacher, who has been supervising the students, notices that she has only one brochure after stopping at almost 20 booths, and leaves quite abruptly. “Why?” the teacher asks.

“If there is not more than one coloured person — coloured meaning anything but white American — then I don’t want to go there. I’m not going to college to be the token black girl they put on brochures to show “diversity” when in reality I’m treated like the class pet! That’s not diversity ma’am.”

But what is?

According to the Cambridge English dictionary, diversity is defined as “the fact of many different types of things or people being included in something”.

Most international schools promote and embody diversity in its truest sense; celebrating differences in culture, ethnicity, race, language, socio-economic status, religion and more, as well as engendering acceptance and respect. This is what sets ideology-driven schools above and apart, as places where students experience and understand that each individual is unique. These schools allow the exploration of these differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. International schools like these help students to move beyond simple tolerance to embrace and celebrate the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual.

This is because diversity is acknowledged in the classroom and in all extra-curricular settings. 

Students of ideologically based international schools learn the fundamental lesson that everyone should be treated with respect and that the acceptance of diversity should be promoted in daily life. Diversity is an important factor which helps to eliminate the lack of cohesion between races, sexes, and cultures; caused by mistrust, stereotyping, and language barriers. Bullying is also eliminated, because, with diversity, differences are taught to be celebrated, not mocked.

Students, therefore, emerge as protectors of diversity in their life journeys, promoting caring and freedom from prejudice, equity, synergy and mutual respect. As the world becomes increasingly more diverse and multicultural, equipping young people to be inclusive and culturally understanding is key. Diversity drives creativity and innovation, and the following quotes reflect how different people define it – as each person sees the world from a different perspective:

Lorenzo Davidson was born and raised in Italy until he was 10 years old, then moved to Wisconsin, then just outside of Philadelphia, and now lives in Vancouver, Canada. Two years ago, he moved to Phuket to complete the IBDP at UWC Thailand and defines diversity as “valuing everyone’s opinions, beliefs and ideas and accepting all cultures, religions and groups. I think it’s extremely important to be open to others and instead of shutting them down because of their differences, we should build upon those differences and work together. Because the world is so complex and the problems we face are so intricate, we need all cultures, however small and seemingly insignificant, to share their perspectives and work together to solve them”.

Thimali, a Sri Lankan, who has lived and studied at international schools in the UAE and Thailand, and will begin University at Yale-NUS in Singapore next month describes diversity as “a constant state of motion, this perpetual ‘tug of war’ of sorts in your head — intentionally letting your ideals, aspirations and life choices be shaped by the experiences of those around you, as well as by your ever-growing inner reflections. It is perpetual because experiences are infinite, and I think true diversity will allow any one person to understand and analyze infinite human experiences”.

As seen from these students’ perspectives, the diversity promoted by ideologically driven international schools allows each student to embrace and appreciate their own culture and country, and also to understand other perspectives, as well as the larger goal of world peace.

Diversity is an awesome way for students to explore their inner curiosities. It not only allows them to live outside their comfort zones, but also to enhance their learning. Through diversity, students experience the lack of privilege that comes with being a minority. This destabilizing experience then creates an authentic opportunity for reflection. For example, racism is an issue that has been ingrained in our society for centuries, due to post-colonialist mindsets and white privilege, protests have arisen all over the world to fight for justice, educate the public and state that all lives don’t matter unless black lives do. 

Studies show that students work better in a diverse environment, enabling them to concentrate and push themselves further when there are people of other backgrounds working alongside them. An international school offers a chance to be able to become more independent, for youth to think for themselves, and if their parents taught them to hate a specific ethnic group or condemn a specific sexual orientation, to question” why?” , and to be able to deconstruct the narrative themselves.  

Diversity promotes creativity, as well as better education. Those with differing viewpoints are able to collaborate to create solutions. Promoting diversity in staffing also enables students from different backgrounds to identify with teachers who are also like them, thereby enhancing their trust in a learning environment.

Sanaa Wong, from the island of Jamaica, attended high school there before attending United World College Changshu China. She believes diversity “means a lot especially to any minority group. For example, it’s the fact that I can now turn on a TV show and see a black girl; someone who looks like me, as up to five years ago even, that wasn’t so. I think diversity is also more than just skin colour but also background, socio-economic status and thought — it allows for a wide range of conversations. Going to a school with the maximum amount of diversity there is, you get to see world issues and political issues from many different perspectives and are able to have conversations that go beyond just what you know or think you know”.

Students then become more tolerant and understanding of differences and other perspectives, and appreciate the very differences that varied languages and cultures bring. This also allows students to understand their level of privilege in general and in their own country. With the “new world” order emerging with the COVID-19 pandemic as xenophobia is addressed and as racism is highlighted and condemned worldwide, international school students are better equipped to encounter them in the adult world and create an inclusive community. 

As a graduate of United World College Thailand, which I consider an ideology-driven international school, I can confirm that diversity can be a reality because I experienced it. It allows students to internalize and understand the need for world peace, environmental responsibility, and sustainable development; and, to not be afraid to advocate for them.

I experienced diversity, not just in the school population, but the very structure of the school’s organization, from the menu in the canteen, to the types of school projects, the holidays celebrated (Pride, Diwali etc.), the activities, even the visitors and presentations. 

If all schools truly embraced and promoted diversity we would be moving closer to peace,  tolerance, and acceptance. Perhaps international schools should be the norm across educational systems and should be the way of the future, in order to ensure the future of our planet?

Societies continue to become more diverse due to increased cross-border mobility, less-rigid gender roles, improved living standards and more! Because of that, it’s looking like ideology-driven international schools will continue to be in high demand, which goes to show that “diversity” — as well as “variety” — are the spice of life!

Sources: (Kurt Hahn – 1962), (Hayden & Thompson (UNESCO 2008), Terwilliger (972) Matthews (1989) Peterson (1987) 

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