By Christine Sampson
On a recent Friday afternoon, a handful of Ross School students sat around a table and talked about issues pretty common among high school kids: Favorite subjects in school, extracurricular activities, goals, friends and more.
The cluster of students included Albert Darchiev, a senior from Russia, Sunny Guo, a senior from China, Melissa Ibrahim, a senior from Brazil, and Jenna Kestan, a junior from Sagaponack. And as they spoke, it became clear that while they came from very different places, they all shared at least one common identity: Teenager.
“I’ve made really great friends here,” Melissa said. “I’ve been invited to Germany and Mexico by lifelong friends. It’s cool to see, when we’re all sitting at table and talking over dinner and you suppose it might be different with people from China, India or Ukraine, but you realize you’re not all that different actually. I think we would be more different, but we’re all just teenagers talking.”
When the Ross School opened its doors on September 7, its boarding program welcomed 165 students from 17 countries, a total which represents the most diverse population of international students the Upper School has ever had.
“Our boarding program is relatively young compared to a lot of boarding schools that are out there,” said Andi O’Hearn, Ross’s chief of student advancement, “but at the same time it’s grown quickly. We’re very blessed with that, and we have a nice mix of countries represented. It has taken a lot of work.”
That work, she said, includes international recruitment trips and networking among alumni on an almost constant basis. In a time when the political climate may not be as friendly to those from abroad as it has been in the past, Ms. O’Hearn and Jason Warnick, Ross’s director of admissions and financial aid, say it is an accomplishment.
“Most boarding schools were American boarding schools, private schools, who decided to take schools from other countries,” Mr. Warnick explained. “The first issue challenging boarding schools right now is finding American boarding students. That’s the first crunch. Ross is really different. Ross is always a school that was global and international at its core. Ross started with international boarding students, not American. The school has always traveled the world, brought our students to all different countries, and there is a really strong international network that we are already connected to.”
All three international students interviewed, Melissa, Albert and Sunny, knew a good amount of English prior to their arrival at Ross, but Ms. O’Hearn said English is taught at multiple comprehension levels for students in the boarding program should they need it.
And all four students agreed the level of diversity in the Upper School, where the school’s more than 100 day students mingle in classes, free time, lunch time and activities with the boarding students, benefits everyone in multiple ways.
“I think that being in classroom with kids from different countries gives a new perspective to your thinking because maybe in their home country they talk about things that wouldn’t necessarily be brought up here,” Jenna said. “I would say that I am benefiting from the diversity here. I like how there are a lot of kids from different countries. It gives a new perspective of thinking and learning and viewing other people.”
Sunny said diversity helps dispel students’ preconceived notions about other people and countries.
“I know there are sometimes stereotypes going around,” he said. “I have friends asking me about the environment in China. Is it super polluted? I can tell them most of the cities are clean.”
Albert said it helps with actual learning in the classroom.
“Some countries have their method of teaching and learning things. For example, in Russia in math, some Russian students help other students,” he said. “My Russian friend here helps me in math.”
Melissa said she has learned more about world events from her international peers.
“If something big happens in China, my roommate from China will tell me about it, or my roommate from Mexico might tell me about a problem with the president,” Melissa said. “You know what’s going on and how it affects the people from there.”
For some of the boarding students, the customization of the Ross School curriculum was what drew them to the school.
“In Brazil, you have one national curriculum,” said Melissa, whose mother is an education professional. “It doesn’t matter which school you go to, you’re going to learn the same thing. There’s math for grade 8, 10, 11. You don’t have math or language by level, but that’s a problem because people learn at different speeds.”
Sunny had a similar experience in China. “Every school had the same curriculum, but for me it was not the way I wanted to study. There was a lot of homework and practice tests, but it was not the way I liked to learn.”
Albert said he likes the options. “We didn’t have that many electives that we have here,” he said. “It was six classes per day, history, math, Russian. Here there’s more things you can take – art, music, psychology. A lot that you can take that are pretty useful.”
From independence to new languages and experiences to a new world view, the students said they are benefiting from the diversity at the Ross School.
“When I was in Russia, I was thinking in an absolutely different way. I realize there were many things I didn’t know,” Albert said. “Now I realized after coming here I want to spread democracy all over the world, especially in my country. I think the diversity really helped me and many people taught me things I didn’t know before.”