For years, the international program for most schools looked like a youth-reflecting mirror of a conference of global powers: mostly European, maybe with a few “exotics” thrown in. But it is clear that there has been a distinct shift in the balance of power over the last few decades. While traditional Western powers, like the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany haven’t lost much absolute economic output, their relative share has been declining. 

Global GDP Shifts

The playing field has been leveled in the last few decades.
Image from

If relative economic output is declining, that clearly means someone is rising. People have tried to put a name to this phenomenon, to group the rising powers. For a while it was the “Asian Tigers”, and while that group certainly is important, it is also limiting- and for many of its members, their economic influence is also limited. There seems to be a rough consensus around the BRIC nations- Brazil, Russia, India, and China.  These are where the students of today and tomorrow are coming from. It is vitally important for any international program to understand these countries and to learn how to entice students to leave home.  There are many things you’ll need to know, but here are four of the most important.

How did the country rise?

Obviously, to understand any country, you need to understand its history. But we don’t need a PhD in Russian studies to understand that its post-Soviet rise was due to its nearly limitless supplies of energy coupled with the explosion in prices this century. That is the kind of knowledge that is vitally important, and not just to impress at dinner parties. It is crucial in the recruitment of students. Is the upper class (the one most likely to send their children abroad) part of one segment of the economy, or is it evenly spread?  Is the economy subject to a boom-and-bust cycle, or is it more stable? Is studying abroad an investment in the future, or a luxury?  These are all important questions you need to ask when planning the next 5-10 years of your international program.

What obstacles does the country face?

This perhaps seems cynical, but when planning a long-term program, you do have to think rationally about economic viability. For a period in the 1990s and early 2000s, Ireland was known as the “Celtic Tiger”, with a booming economy that was the envy of Europe. You could be forgiven for aggressively tailoring your program to recruit Irish students, who were being sent abroad more and more. But, as we saw, their economy was a house of cards, and promptly collapsed. The best way to build your program is to remain clear-eyed.

What are students looking for?

There are two parts to this question: 1) what are the dominant fields they will be studying, and 2) what will they need to make them comfortable. This is part economic analysis, part cultural. You might create advertising that promotes your school’s ability to teach tech skills and place international students in the finest university programs, but if you also say that your town has “the most hamburger stands in upstate New York!”,  you might not appeal to Indian students. It sounds cheesy, and even trite, but it is true: you can’t look at the students as numbers. Students and their families need to know they are being catered to as people.

How can we help them adjust?

A student from England will be homesick just like any other teen, and might find the food weird, but there won’t be a cultural gap that is seemingly unbridgeable. While it’s important to be of the mindset that there isn’t a gap that can’t be bridged, students from different countries pose different adjustments. It is important to develop a reputation for making students from the BRIC countries as comfortable as possible. This can be addressed in offering a preparatory academy before the semester starts, or in creating culturally specific programs to help with the transition.

Clearly, this article just scratched the surface of this vast topic. Over the next few months, this blog will take each BRIC country and analyze these four questions in depth. Every school is eager to have students from these rising nations. It is a matter of prestige, and a great way to help create cross-cultural understanding. After all, there is nothing alien about the kid next to you in the lunch line. Your school can help mold the next generation of leaders, including those from across the globe. It just takes preparation and knowledge.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.