This is the first article in a five-part update on UC Educations, the third-party organization that organizes their stays in the States. Click here for the questions and problems that last year’s international students raised, which were published in the final issue of the 2016-17 Octagon.
In the Octagon’s final issue of the 2016-17 school year, current international students and alumni opened up about their experiences with the international student program and UC Educations, the third-party agency that arranges their stays.
Many criticized UC Educations for sending students to uncaring host families and providing little service at a great expense.
Soon after publication, Kevin Huang, ’17, said that students, families and even neighbors approached him over the content of his story.
“Most of them were shocked,” Huang said. “They couldn’t believe that such a story had never been unearthed.”
Seniors Crystal Jiang and Howard Yuan also said that some alumni and current students spoke to them. For example, senior Carlos Nunez apologized to both Jiang and Yuan for what they had been through.
Yuan said that following the publication of the stories, he felt thankful that he had been listened to.
Despite the release of the stories online, many families did not receive their print copies of the Octagon because they were recycled.
Head of school Lee Thomsen said that it was his decision to recycle the issues but declined further comment.
Now, some international students say that their situation has improved, but some problems remain.
Sophomore Ted Zhou said that UC Educations has been very helpful to him in the last few months. Zhou said that at the moment, he has no big problems with the program and that he enjoys working with the agency’s representatives, but there are minor areas of improvement.
On May 19, Zhou, Jiang, Yuan and Fred Xu, ’17, met with head of high school Brooke Wells, director of the international student program Lonna Bloedau, local coordinator for UC Educations Russell McCollough and Thomsen.
Zhou said that he organized the May 19 meeting primarily because he did not approve of the rule that required international students to fly out of Sacramento International Airport (SMF) when they travel to and from China. Whether or not the policy has been changed is unclear as many of the international students now have different ideas of what UC Educations requires when students travel. (See “What’s changed with international students.”)
Zhou said that he wanted to meet with Country Day administrators in particular because he wanted to work with them along with UC Educations to get more support for international students both at school and at home.
Thomsen said that a few of the students seemed frustrated and had some misconceptions that were cleared up by McCollough or Bloedau at the meeting. (Bloedau declined to be interviewed.)
Thomsen said that problems with the speed at which UC Educations addressed host family issues were brought up. Yuan, for example, said that when he requested a new host family, he was not moved or updated for a year.
Thomsen said that his takeaway was that UC Educations was in fact fulfilling its promise of solving any host family issues within a month of a complaint being issued.
“It seemed that UC Educations was living up to its responsibilities,” he said. “My feeling was that Russell and his group were doing their best.
“If you’re a student who’s struggling, every day is a bad day until the situation is resolved, so I can understand where kids might have felt like it might have taken longer.”
During the meeting, according to Zhou, the students also said that the agency does not communicate well with them or their families. For example, Xu told the group that he always received very little information about his host family very late in the summer before he traveled to the U.S. However, Zhou said that the agency now communicates better with the students and that he recognizes that the communication can’t be perfect.
Thomsen also said that during the meeting he recognized why students were hesitant to speak out about their problems.
“There seemed, at times, a fear on the side of the students that if they raised a concern, they would be labeled a complainer, and (a resolution to their complaint) would be denied,” he said.
Thomsen added that he has experience with handling these sorts of problems as he helped to manage a ski program (Rowmark Ski Academy in Salt Lake City) for 25-30 students per year. At the academy, Thomsen said that students brought issues to the administration’s attention.
However, Zhou said that following his meeting, communication between the students and the agency continues to be a bit concerning. The agency does not explain their policies to students and their families uniformly, according to Zhou. Therefore, it can be time-consuming to figure out the rules that apply to travel and host family affairs, as the only way to verify a policy is to ask around.
Yuan and Jiang agreed and said that because UC Educations does not lay out all of their rules at once, students find out about policies only when certain situations – such as a request to change host families or a transportation issue – arise.
While Zhou said that his host parents have a good handle on the rules UC Educations imposes, the agency itself does not have a central source for information on policies.
“My host parents are awesome,” Zhou said. “Everything I struggle with is just with UC (Educations).”
To solve this issue, Zhou suggests that the agency create an official website that international students, parents and host families can access.
The current UC Educations website has information on the company’s mission and values, basic requirements for prospective host families and students, and a list of locations that the agency services. On each of the website’s pages, viewers are encouraged to email for more details.
Zhou said that if international students had a site that they could check whenever they needed verification of a policy, they would not have to waste time contacting various representatives with questions.
“(Country Day) has a handbook, so we know what to do and what not to do,” Zhou said. “Why not UC (Educations)?”
Yuan said that such a source for information would be “very helpful,” and Jiang agreed that it would make her life much easier.
Thomsen said that improving communication is something that the administration would be interested in facilitating in any way possible.
Zhou also proposes that UC Educations dedicate more employees to monitoring their students, as he believes that the local coordinators are overloaded with students to care for.
Yuan, however, said that he believes in quality over quantity, meaning the number of local coordinators doesn’t matter as much as whether or not the local coordinators are helpful to students.
Another topic of interest for some international students is the monthly host family fee, which is currently $1,000. Zhou said that UC Educations should invest more in the host families to ensure that international students are provided with high-quality accommodations.
“I’m 16 years old,” Zhou said. “I eat a lot, and I do a lot of (activities). My host family is really generous. I cost more than $1,000 a month, but my host family loves me, so it’s OK.”
However, freshman Joanne Tsai, who said that she would prefer not using UC Educations and instead work directly with her host family, stated that the monthly stipend is excessive.
Yuan agreed with Tsai and said that “cheaper is better.”
While the payments don’t worry Yuan, he said that his current problems reside most with the behavior of administrators. He said that UC Educations does little to look after international students and does not genuinely care about students’ well-being.
For example, he said that though Peter Xie, director of operations at UC Educations, can speak in Chinese with students, he is not very sympathetic to their problems. (Xie said he was too busy to be interviewed by press time.)
“If I have a bad emotion or if I’m getting upset, (Xie) just starts saying I am not polite, but I actually (am) upset, and I did not say anything inappropriate,” Yuan said. “It feels like he is the boss, so I need to listen to him. There is nothing I can do.”
Jiang said that she was unaware of Xie’s indifference since he usually refers queries to local coordinators.
Xu, who declined to be interviewed because he would like to move on from the agency, said that he “is very disappointed about what UC (Educations) did and what they are still doing.”
Huang, now a freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, said that he still strongly believes that more host families from Country Day would dramatically improve the international student program.
Huang, who has lived with host families both from and outside of the school, said that there is a huge difference between the two.
Country Day host families allowed Huang more opportunities to socialize and connect with the community, to become involved in the school’s events and activities and to simply feel supported.
Huang said that some of the Country Day families who approached him over the content of his stories from last year’s issue also said that they were willing to host international students.
McCollough said that local coordinators use Craigslist and referrals to obtain most of their candidates for host families, though not every applicant qualifies after going through the background check by UC Educations.
He also said that because host families occasionally change their minds about hosting or decide to host for only a few years, local coordinators are very busy trying to find new host families.
Thomsen said that he does not know why the administration has not publicly solicited host families from Country Day’s own pool of families. He also said that the program and its need for more host families could be advertised in platforms like the Friday email.
Another solution that some international students said would hopefully ensure improvement to the program is making the agency immediately aware of any problems.
Jiang emphasized the importance of informing UC Educations of bad living conditions so that the agency can locate a new host family as soon as possible.
“If (an international student) doesn’t have a good host family, they can’t study well or function,” she said.
While Jiang said that it took a year for UC Educations to find her a new host family, she said that she thinks that the time varies, so in any case international students should make their feelings known.
For international students that aren’t happy with their host families, Huang said that he advises these students to not “be afraid to make your voice heard, as that is what caused the struggles of international students to go unnoticed in the first place.
“If you have a good friend, ask them if they have an extra room and if they are willing to host you,” Huang said. “Lots of Country Day’s families are willing to help!”
Junior Jacqueline Chao agreed with Huang that silence is not the best option for international students.
“If you have a problem, definitely go talk to your host family,” she said. “Communication is a big deal. Sometimes your host family does things differently. It’s better to talk it out instead of keeping quiet.”
Despite the hardships that he has encountered, Yuan said that he still considers his time at Country Day “a good experience.” He also said that his current host family is worlds apart from his previous ones in terms of how nurturing they are.
“As international students, we are on our own, but we are stronger than you think,” Yuan said.
—By Sonja Hansen