An estimated 381,000 international students will come to Canada for schooling this month, based on numbers from Global Affairs for last year and recent rates of increase. The majority will study at universities across the country, but a significant percentage is also on college and high school campuses. Earlier this year, the Immigration Minister made it easier for international students educated here to become citizens, arguing that an influx of ambitious and bright multilingual immigrants will boost Canada’s economy. Critics say, however, that shrinking schools rely too heavily on high foreign student fees to balance their budgets.
High schools attract roughly 50,000 of the nearly 400,000 international students in Canada today. CC could not find data for how many foreign students are currently studying at Christian secondary schools across Canada, but it’s fair to say that those numbers are increasing along with the national rates. Programs to recruit internationally are common. As we interviewed students, parents and school employees for this article, other similarities to the national norm became clear: international student programs at Christian schools bring many benefits, and face the same criticism. Are these programs an opportunity for missions, a money grab or both?
For some international parents, sending their children to high school is a “backdoor” entrance for getting into Canadian universities. While the numbers fluctuate, for the past seven years within the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) there are 11 to 16 schools with more than 10 international students (indicating a program). These schools are hosting a total of 300 international students. From 2008 to 2015, the number of schools with an international student program doubled.
Missionary Wybe Bylsma resides near Cobourg, Ont. Last year he visited a Christian high school weekly to see how he could help its international students. One Chinese student in particular was struggling and Bylsma found a Chinese Christian psychiatrist to assist him. The student’s mother later decided he should return to China, and Bylsma is still connected to the family.
Bylsma wonders to what extent Christian school communities are interested in befriending international students. He calls it a friendship discipling vision, which involves getting to know the students deeply, including their hopes, dreams and struggles; it also includes sharing the gospel. Bylsma says his gut feeling is that schools are mostly interested in the money that comes with international students, and that “much more can be done, [which] may be a reflection of where we are as God’s people engaged in our culture or in our world,” he adds. In other words, much more needs to be done everywhere.
Aaron Harnden of Unity Christian High School (right) and Linda Wielinga of Durham Christian High School (centre) with an agent from Nigeria at the ICEF conference in May.
Fitting the school’s vision
In British Columbia, Christian schools face a different financial landscape, as the government provides partial funding for independent schools. B.C. is also seeing increasing foreign student enrollment in independent schools, especially in the lower mainland where a number of Christian schools have waiting lists. Marlene Bylenga is the International Program Coordinator for the Society of Christian Schools in B.C. (SCSBC). She has since 2002 cautioned schools to view international student education as a mission and not as a revenue stream. Each school has autonomy to run its own program, with SCSBC available to recommend best practices.
The B.C. Jobs Plan identified international students as one of the areas of growth for the province’s economy. Since then, international education has “exploded in a lot of areas,” Bylenga says, noting this also has to do with global emerging markets.
“We’ve always stressed that if you are going to have a program it needs to fit into the mission and vision of your school,” Bylenga says. Schools that have gotten into the money-making mindset often run into trouble, she adds, such as the international students having to return to their home country unexpectedly. Instead of seeing dollar signs, Bylenga cautions schools and host families to consider the Biblical perspective of hospitality and welcoming the stranger.
“International students add so much to the school, a whole different level of learning,” Bylenga adds. “It is amazing to see how we can make a difference in our schools when we hear and learn from each other’s faith perspectives.”
Hiring an international coordinator who ensures the students are welcomed in the classrooms and who enables them become an integral part of the school’s identity is important. Bylenga also suggests that a maximum of 10 percent of a school’s population are English Language Learners to ensure integration.
‘A gift of hospitality’
Hamilton District Christian High (HDCH) in Ontario has 46 international students, which is 10 percent of the student body. The school has an international coordinator who teaches ESL and has time to connect one-on-one with students to help with the transition to Canada. The school’s international guardian is also available outside of school hours to connect with homestay families, monitor students’ wellbeing, arrange weekend activities and keep in touch with the students’ parents.
At HDCH, the tuition cost for international students is about $5,000 more than domestic, with a significant added cost for the full homestay guardianship program and ESL teaching. Another reason for this differential is that Canadian families are involved in the local fundraising efforts which keep their costs lower. The program is about the students and “not money first,” says recently retired director of recruitment and advancement Harry Meester. “It’s a gift of hospitality. It’s a gift of Christian faith that we are able to give.” HDCH international students come from a variety of countries including Spain, Thailand, China, Nigeria, Korea and Germany.
Smithville Christian High School, located in Ontario’s Niagara Region, has always sought to be transparent and to treat international students the same as everyone else, says director of communications and admissions Marlene Bergsma. There is no difference in the base tuition cost for international students compared to domestic.
“Smithville is a largely rural community; it feels really good to be able to say our school has diversity,” Bergsma says.
Bergsma has been representing about a dozen Ontario Christian schools at an annual conference hosted by international recruitment organization ICEF. Participants have a chance to meet recruiting agents from around the world through a “speed dating for schools” environment. Following the event, Bergsma provides schools with a list of potential agents.
“This movement is in its infancy in terms of us as schools knowing what’s out there and the wider world knowing what we have to offer,” Bergsma says.
When asked why she thinks more schools are opening their doors to international students, Bergsma says there is a tie to enrollment – if a school has the room, why not? – but there is more to it than that. Today’s high school graduates will be meeting people from all cultures and parts of the world in post-secondary school or in the workplace, she says.
“It’s a beautiful thing when we can connect with people – brothers and sisters,” she says, noting that God’s Kingdom is diverse.
Krystal Chen and Katharine Luo enjoy a hamburger lunch at Smithville Christian HS.
Creating Canadian connections
April Cheng came to HDCH from Inner Mongolia in 2014 as a Grade 11 student. The first few months were difficult in many aspects, including the adjustment to a different language and new environment. For many international students studying is a priority, Cheng says, especially because of the importance of university applications.
Cheng says the school encouraged her to get involved in school activities, and for her Grade 12 year she was involved in Student Council. Her homestay family also provided her with opportunities to explore Canadian culture. She would have liked, however, more opportunities to communicate with her school peers.
“I was expecting my peers could be easy to get along with and we could easily become friends,” Cheng says, but because of a lack of shared interests, it was challenging.
Sandi Tigchelaar has opened her Ontario home to three international students over the past five years. She has also observed the difficulties that international students have in making Canadian friends. A lot depends on the individual, of course – including his or her English skills and interest in school activities. Tigchelaar says she chose to be a homestay family because when she was young her family hosted various people, and when she turned 18 she travelled the world for five years. She was also excited for the chance her children would have to get to know someone from a different background.
Asked what could be done to improve the program, Tigchelaar says providing more information to both the international students and homestay families regarding culture and expectations would be helpful. For example, when the student does something the homestay family does not agree with, it would be helpful to understand more about life for that teenager in their home country, to discern if it is an age, cultural or individual-specific action.
In B.C., the Ministry of Education in consultation with public and independent schools developed a K-12 International Student Homestay Guidelines document. The document outlines the responsibilities for the homestay program provider, international student program, host family, international student, parent/guardian and international student agent.
Bylsma would like to connect with people who are interested in a proactive strategy for discipling international students. “If we see the arrival of these students as a good financial boost to our schools, if that’s all we see, I think we are not being busy as Christ’s disciples,” he says. “These are neighbours that are coming to us from abroad. We have them here for a while; we really need to reach out to them in a very intentional way.”