In Tuesday’s article, we talked about the importance of demonstrating leadership if you are a student at a school with international students. After all, international students are in some ways uniquely vulnerable: they are away from their families, separated from their comfortable friend groups, pushed out of their routines, and are operating in a different language. They are trying to navigate not just the confusing social mores of high school, but the cultural norms of a new and confusing place. Because of this, it can sometimes be hard to make friends and easy to become the target of bullies.

This is considerably more rare than it once was. People have become more progressive and understanding about differences, open and curious. The internet and global communications have helped to smooth out many cultural differences, and it seems like kids are far kinder than they once were. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be shyness, awkward communications, and cross-cultural confusion.  That’s where a student leader comes in.

Student leaders

Be someone your classmates respect, turn toward, and want to be like.

It’s up to you, the student leader, to take the first step. You are a representative of your school, and, if the student isn’t staying with a local host family (if you are in a boarding school environment) in many ways you are a major representative of your country. Adults are always mysterious and distant figures to a teen, devoid of real motivations or an inner life. So the impressions international students have of their peers will be their dominant perception of the United States. That seems like a lot of pressure, but it is much easier than you’d think. Being a leader, and welcoming your international classmates, can be achieved pretty easily.

It Starts with a Simple Hello

Leading doesn’t mean rallying a group of followers and charging them into battle. It means setting an example. People can say whatever they want, but real leadership is in demonstrating the kind of behavior you think is best. When you’re in a situation with a new international student, simply go up, say hi, and introduce yourself. Sit down to eat lunch with them, or invite them to your table. This immediately lets them know that there are people they can talk to, and that they are not alone. You may not become friends for life, but it makes it easier for them to make other friends, especially if you introduce them to people.

It also makes it easier for your classmates to befriend them. They aren’t seen as an abstraction, the kid from what’s-the-place, but as a human being. Other people will follow your lead, if just out of the normal high school tendency to follow the example that seems to be working. Even if you think it is artificial, people become the masks they wear. If that mask is initially just trying to talk to someone because they think it is cool, it becomes real. That’s part of leadership: dragging people into the right place with your example.

Take Action if Things Aren’t Going Well

This is a bit harder. Suppose there is a bully around, and he or she decides to pick on an international student, perceiving them to be the easiest target (because few congratulate a bully on their bravery). The student body may be very reluctant to intervene, for fear of becoming a target themselves. And the international student probably won’t want to tell an administration official or a teacher, for fear of further social exile. Here’s where your help comes in.

You’re a leader. You can confront the bully, and just tell them to knock it off. Pop their sense of invulnerability. If you have to, don’t be afraid to tell someone in charge. You may feel like a “snitch,” but you shouldn’t worry about it. Part of being a leader is taking action and the willingness to do unpopular things. In the end, you’ll be more respected for helping out someone in need.  Going above and beyond is the true mark of a student leader.

Embrace Your Position

Shakespeare said “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and some other sage remarked that with great power comes great responsibility, but neither should scare you. You don’t practice “leadership” because you think it looks good on an application. You’re a leader because you were either born to it or decided to remake the world the way you think it should be.

Uncle Ben's Minute Wisdom

Pictured: Not Shakespeare.

There are great actions to take in a lifetime, and maybe in the grand scheme of things, making one person’s semester a little better might not seem like much. But it would mean the world for them, and be potentially life-changing. Impacting someone like that in a positive way is what leaders do. No man is an island, and if you change the world for one person, you’ve changed the whole planet.


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.