A WORLD AFFAIR: For Chinese international students, the only way to get to Country Day is through UC Educations

(Graphic by Mohini Rye)

In the following installments are the experiences of international students (seniors Kevin Huang and Fred Xu, juniors Howard Yuan and Crystal Jiang, and sophomore Jacqueline Chao) and the Ryan host family with UC Educations, a third-party organization that facilitates students coming from China to the United States. 

Some members of the Country Day community may be surprised to find that the school uses a third-party agency to organize its international students. This agency, UC Educations, orchestrates the behind-the-scenes action that allows international students to study in America.

But Country Day hasn’t always used this agency. Sue Nellis, former head of high school, said that before 2012, Country Day admitted only a few international students into the high school, such as three siblings from Hong Kong in the mid-80s and Nancy Zhou, ’87, from Beijing. Former headmaster Stephen Repsher said that students also intermittently came from Korea, Vietnam and Germany. These students lived with their families or organized their own host families, so the school was not responsible for their housing but individually tutored those with poor English skills, according to Nellis.

But about 10 years ago, Repsher said that the school saw much more interest from mainland China and that students were using agencies to enroll in public and private schools. According to Peter Xie, founder and director of UC Educations, this interest resulted from China opening its economy to the world in the ’70s, a swelling Chinese middle class, increased competition for college admission and the growing desire for a different education system. Repsher said that at the time American schools in the Midwest took advantage of this and admitted many of these new international students because they had trouble filling their classrooms.

Country Day was also attracted to the new trend; however, according to Repsher, it was not because of the financial lure. Repsher said that SCDS wanted to increase the diversity of the student body without becoming a solely Chinese international school.

“We didn’t want to change the character of the school, so we limited the numbers,” Repsher said. “We were always shooting for 10-12 (students) from Asian countries and a few more from various parts of the world, so 10-15 total. We’ve pretty much stayed within that.”

Xie agreed and said that Country Day wanted international students as sources of enrichment rather than as moneymakers. He cited the fact that other schools ask for 30-40 students every year because international student tuition is a large portion of their incomes.

Given the limited size of the admissions office and how it was already overloaded with admitting local students, Nellis said that the administration and high-school faculty began discussing how to take in qualified Chinese students while maintaining a student body of high academic caliber.

Nellis said that the high school needed to address questions such as how many international students should be accepted, how they should be screened, how they should be supported, and how they should be housed.

The solution was a partnership between Country Day and UC Educations, a limited liability company in McLean, Virginia that recruits Chinese students through its Chinese partner, the UC Educations Beijing Company, and helps to enroll them in high schools in North America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. The staff of about 100 currently services 200 schools, including Valley Christian Academy and Woodland Christian School, according to Xie.

Originally UC Educations was dedicated to just organizing trips for Chinese company executives who wished to attend courses or meetings in America. These executives would stay for a few weeks or months while UC Educations attended to the details of their trips. But in 2009 UC Educations made a major change and opened to high schoolers.

According to UC Education’s website, its mission is to “provide American education opportunities to international students, together with guidance in understanding American culture in order to make a successful social transition so that students can adjust to the American education system while sustaining their Chinese cultural roots.”

After some research and negotiation, Country Day proceeded with a deal with the agency in 2012.

Under that contract, Country Day is required to stay loyal to UC Educations and admit international students from China and Taiwan only through the company, Xie said. He added that this rule came from the fact that because of their partnership, UC Educations knows the school’s standards better than any other agency.

Nellis said that she and admissions director Lonna Bloedau met with representatives from UC Educations as they pinned down exactly what kind of student Country Day wanted.

The program hit some bumps in the road in the first couple years, according to Xie, because three or four of the admitted students had excellent English skills but could not keep up in their English and history classes, and they eventually left the school.

Repsher said that the school had to work on maintaining communication with UC Educations since the administration was no longer directly dealing with the international students’ parents.

“It was a challenge, but we’ve had many wonderful students from China who contributed (greatly) to the school and gained a lot from it as well,” Repsher said. “I felt we were able to (fully) meet the needs of the host family, (the) family overseas and (the) student.”

Bloedau said that in the beginning students also asked to change their host families more often because they didn’t like the food, chores or their host families’ distance from the school.

Bloedau would have to keep up with the students’ frequent host family changes because she handles student visas and informs the Department of Homeland Security when an international student moves or travels. She said that it is extremely important to know where a student is because she needs to know that they are safe and because the federal government could end the international student program if the school doesn’t provide such information.

But Bloedau also said that things have settled down since those early days because she gave the agency more guidelines on selecting host families.

“In the last three years, we’ve found the perfect formula for the perfect Country Day student,” Xie said.

The role of UC Educations in an international student’s life begins when the agency reaches out through one of its advertising campaigns. According to Xie, UC Educations has spent $150,000 on advertising Country Day to over 750,000 students in 200 Chinese schools. They use trade shows, educational publications, the internet, government agencies and a biannual road show to publicize Country Day and UC Educations.

For interested international students, UC Educations then uses a pre-screening system that coincides with the school’s current application process.

(Photo used by permission of Xie)
Associate director of admission Dana Vargo, Peter Xie (director of operations for UC Educations) and director of admission Lonna Bloedau stand outside of the Matthews Library in 2012.

Xie said Country Day’s requirements for applicants are very high compared to those of other schools, so SCDS receives some of the best and brightest. The agency pays special attention to applicants’ standardized test scores to choose four or five applications (out of the annual 60-70) to hand over to Bloedau.

On top of the agency pre-screening applicants, head of high school Brooke Wells, Bloedau and even other high-school teachers Skype students to test their English skills. Xie said this is one of the most intensive application processes.

Another one of the agency’s responsibilities is to handle student placement into host families. Xie said that local representatives can track down potential host families because they know their communities well, but they also rely on recommendations from the school and word of mouth.

The company completes a thorough background check on every family that takes about two weeks, according to Xie. UC Educations looks into credit and criminal records, occupations, references and living situations. The local representative visits every house to ensure that a student has a private bedroom and to “see if they would be comfortable with their own child living there,” according to Xie.

“The most important thing we want is for the family to love the child (as if they were) their own,” Xie said.

A host family is usually notified if they have been accepted a week after the visit.

After this process, Bloedau said she invites the family to take a tour and attend the New Parent Dinner to gain familiarity with the school; most accept her offer.

By mid-July Xie said that an international student will know their host family assignment. The student will receive a PowerPoint presentation on their host family to learn the names of the family members, their occupations, the children’s ages, what kinds of pets they have and the home address, among other facts. Pictures of the house and the student’s room are also included.

Two weeks before their arrival in America, the student will Skype with their new host family. Xie said that in this meeting the families and kids bond effortlessly.

In the case of an international student needing a new host family during the school year, Xie said that since the agency has a pool of 20-30 families ready, a new one can be issued within a couple days or a week. Xie said a new host family might be warranted if a student can’t get rides to school events or lives too far away from school. However, he also said that Country Day’s international students rarely face issues with their host families, unlike those at other schools.

If a student were living in a bad housing situation, Repsher said that Country Day would “make an effort” to help, but the obligation lies with UC Educations. However, he also said that most of the time, the host families “work out pretty well.”

The local representative stays in touch with international students, visiting their homes every month to ease their adjustment to American culture and ask about their social and academic welfare, Xie said.

The 50 representatives across the country do not speak Chinese with the students because of the agency’s philosophy of immersing a student completely into American culture and goal of getting students to speak English well by the time they graduate. Repsher said that the school also checks in with host families to make sure that they are providing “a home that is conducive to helping the student succeed at Country Day.”

UC Educations also liaises with Wells and Bloedau at least weekly to ask about the students, Xie said.

Another way to monitor a student’s living conditions is via the monthly homestay reports. A host family is asked to fill out a one-page survey containing questions such as “For many hours is your student online?” or “Are they doing their chores?” and ranking their student on a scale from 1-10.

But these services come at a cost to international students. Outside of Country Day’s annual international student tuition of $27,700 ($30,500 in the 2017-18 school year) and the monthly host family fee of $1,000, UC Educations currently charges a monthly fee of $1,200, according to senior international student Kevin Huang. Xie said that this fee covers the costs of finding a host family, doing a background check, monitoring the student and paying for insurance and other international student forms and procedures.

According to Bloedau, refusal to pay this fee is grounds for expulsion. Students have questioned paying the fee, Bloedau said. But whenever Country Day tells them this rule and the consequences of not paying, the students comply.

But Xie said that for the most part this is not a problem and that parents are usually aware of the costs before agreeing to the deal.

But there are a few other rules students must follow. One states that when students go on vacation, they must travel with an adult who is 25 years or older, submit a release form signed by their parents, and tell the school and agency where they are going as required by the Department of Homeland Security, according to Xie.

Another procedure causing conflict between the agency and students is the question of transportation from Sacramento to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) whenever students fly home to China. Xie said that UC Educations encourages students to fly out of Sacramento International Airport (SMF) instead of having their host families drive them to SFO because flying is considered safer than driving. Xie said that this began after other agencies’ host families got into car accidents en route or when other students would fly to other countries instead of China. Besides flying from SMF to SFO, a student may take a free van service hired by UC Educations to the airport, he said.

Yet Xie said he prefers students to not take the van service and that he would like to eliminate the option altogether.

Xie said that when students complain about stays, they go to local representative Russell McCollough, Wells or Bloedau, but the parents of international students can turn to UC Educations’ Chinese customer service.

“At any given time we are ready to hear our students,” Xie said.

Bloedau agreed and said that the agency, Country Day and concerned students can easily find solutions together.

“(UC Educations) endeavors as well as I to make our relationship open and always to the benefit of the student,” Bloedau said. “I would step in wherever I saw something that needed to be rectified for the student. I remain open to suggestions from students all the time, and I hope they know that my door is always open to them in order to problem-solve and make things better.”

Xie said that because Wells, Bloedau and the rest of the UC Educations staff have done such a great job so far in handling the 15 international students admitted through the agency, the best way for the program to improve would be through the students.

“(International students) could be more involved in the school,” Xie said. “It’s not going to help them if they aren’t involved. We’re always trying to get our students involved in activities and to be part of the Country Day family.

“But our biggest concern is safety. I want them to grow at Country Day. We want them to have fun!”

Bloedau said that she plans on including the host families more in school activities next year.

“(Host families) get lost in the shuffle sometimes,” Bloedau said. “They should be treated just like any other Country Day parent.”

By Sonja Hansen

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