Interview with an international admissions officer: insights into US academic culture and diversity in action.

Current ILI board member Brittany M. Weiss is the Director of International Admissions at Stoneleigh-Burnham School (SBS) in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Founded in 1869, SBS is an academic community that fosters an international perspective, guiding students in grades 7 – 12 and Postgraduate to become active agents of their own destiny.

Brittany is a voracious reader, an aspiring yogi, a world traveler, and a small-town explorer. We talk about her job working with international students at a gender-inclusive girls’ school, universal writing tips for killer essays, and how being a teenager is a great equalizer across cultures. 

Tell us about your job working with international students and building a multicultural academic community at Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

As director of international admissions at an independent boarding and day school in the state of Massachusetts, I cooperate with SEVIS, the agency in the US that issues Form I-20. I engage  with important  F-1 Student Visa details, which are constantly changing, especially due to the pandemic. As principal designated school official (PDSO) for the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), it is my responsibility to ensure our international students are set up for success and that the School remains in good standing. 

Pre-pandemic, I would travel to both emerging and established markets. At Stoneleigh-Burnham, examples of our established markets include China and Mexico, among others, whereas  examples of our emerging markets are Vietnam and Brazil, among others. I would spend several weeks a year focused on international recruitment in an effort to connect with students pursuing boarding school in the United States.

Thanks to digital recruiting due to the pandemic, we participate in numerous virtual events with partner agencies and consultancies abroad. These virtual events have become the new norm, and are typically well-organized Zoom events that cycle students and their families in and out of various sessions with individual schools.

This year,  Stoneleigh-Burnham is thrilled to have all of our international and domestic students on campus (after a remote and hybrid period during the 2020-2021 school year) . We have 15 states as well as 9 countries (Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Honduras, Kenya, South Korea, Spain) represented, truly demonstrating our commitment to a diverse and multicultural student body. The best thing is that even during the pandemic students still discovered and pursued Stoneleigh-Burnham. We have a handful of new international students who we had never met in person and who had never been to our campus, but they’ve taken the leap with us. We’re ready and committed to supporting them and their families!

What about Stoneleigh-Burnham School attracts international students to study in the US generally and Massachusetts specifically?

As an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School, Stoneleigh-Burnham encourages students to think and to draw connections across disciplines of study and prepares students to succeed in our globalized and interconnected 21st century society. This is a unique differentiator when it comes to international (and domestic) students seeking a curriculum that explores globally significant ideas and issues in each subject area. TheBrittany Weiss featured with her horse Worthy. International Baccalaureate, or the IB, is the international equivalent of Advanced Placement, the AP.  

Stoneleigh-Burnham is the first and only girls boarding school in New England to offer the IB, a liberal arts approach to secondary education. The IB curriculum is taught world-wide; if you’re a 10th grader in the IB program at your school in Munich, Germany, for example, you could transition well as an 11th grader to the IB program at Stoneleigh-Burnham. 

At Stoneleigh-Burnham, we are and remain a school for girls, but we’re a gender-inclusive girls’ school, which is significant, and differentiates us from other all-girls schools in the United States and elsewhere, demonstrating our commitment to helping every member of our community feel seen, heard, supported, and empowered to thrive. 

Additionally, Stoneleigh-Burnham is an equestrian boarding school. And our state-of-the-art equestrian center  is right on campus, so our students literally just walk across campus and they can get to the barn and paddocks for their lessons or shows.  Excitingly, we’re the only secondary school in the United States to offer the British Horse Society, a prestigious international certification program.

Could you talk some more about the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion commitment? In particular, could you share your experiences with international students studying in the USA who may be encountering these concepts for the first time.

We are proud that our Land Acknowledgement was written by our students and that our Gender-Inclusivity Statement was informed by our entire community. We endeavor to be an anti-bias, anti-racist, and culturally responsive educational environment, and we value lived experiences, diversity, and wisdom in all forms. These two initiatives–gender inclusivity and land acknowledgement–are student-driven. It’s an example of our students using their voice and reflecting their values. 

Personally I rely a lot on the Stoneleigh-Burnham faculty and staff, who are brilliant and nuanced in their delivery. They’re able to connect with international and domestic students who are at different stages of their understanding of certain concepts or who may come from various cultures or religions. Educating our community is done with intention. We have a dedicated advisory period as well as designated community workshops built into our academic schedule to practice and reinforce our commitment to each other to speak and act with humanity, integrity, justice, and compassion toward a shared goal of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We practice what we preach. 

An arial view of the Stoneliegh-Burnham school campus.

How does your job come into play when cultural questions or misunderstandings arise? Are you more like a facilitator who connects people? Or do you do direct counseling with international students?

It’s a really good question. I would say… facilitator. I might take what I’m noticing through my lens as director of international admissions and bring it to the residential life team, or the director of the health center, or the  academic dean — the experts in student wellness and success. I might share, “This is what I’m noticing from my viewpoint, how can we work together to improve this experience for our international students and families?” Or “How can I set up students for success prior to their arrival so that they are equipped to advocate for themselves and others once the school year begins?” We also cooperate closely with the program, agency, or consultancy from which the international student came from. Often, international students have a point of contact, other than their family, in their home country whom we absolutely partner with to best support the individual student during their entire Stoneleigh-Burnham experience. 

At Stoneleigh-Burnham, we integrate all of our students and do not separate international students from domestic students. We can do this successfully because we are small but mighty, with approximately 150 students in grades 7 – 12 and Postgraduate.  We offer personalized support to each and every student, finding the right means of support for what that individual student may need. Regarding international students specifically, we have experts on campus who anticipate needs and ensure follow-up so that no student falls through the proverbial cracks. 

It’s great that all students get the same support. I imagine domestic and international students face similar issues.

Other than legal and certain cultural concerns specific to international students, at the middle school and high school age pre-teens and teenagers are just that: pre-teens and teenagers. Really broadly, no matter where they’re from, you have to remind students to make their bed and make sure they’re eating some broccoli every now and then.

Interests such as robotics, music, athletics, fashion, coding, languages, riding, dance, etc. are true equalizers. At Stoneleigh-Burnham, it’s often not obvious who’s an international student and who’s a domestic student since all of our students truly do connect and engage authentically. 

That gives us hope for world peace through shared global dislike of broccoli. That should be the new UN flag.

It’s wonderfully grounding. It doesn’t matter if it’s a TikTok video or the new K-pop song, if it’s the thing, all the students know it. 

What challenges do students face in terms of Academic English? What advice can you give to a young international student who needs to learn Academic English?

What I see from the admissions side of things is mainly the verbal interview and written application. Many international applicants  say or write what they think wants to be heard or read versus using their own authentic voice.  

At Stoneleigh-Burnham, we teach students that their voice is both unique and important, and we hope that their authentic voice will shine through. Yet, on the initial interview or within the application, applicants often fall short by trying too hard to make what they think is the best first impression. For example, applicants might use a lot of big, fancy English words in an effort to dazzle their interviewer or their application reader. I am not impressed by big, fancy English words. I’m much more interested in a string of little, meaningful words.

The key to participating in a great interview or writing an effective application essay is to be authentic. It’s incredibly cliche, but it’s absolutely true.

Once students are accepted and enrolled at Stoneleigh-Burnham, they receive Academic English support according to their individual needs. Danica Messerli [former ILI instructor] serves as Stoneleigh-Burnham’s  ESL teacher and she supports students with academic English. 

As a grade 7-12 school, we have a vast array of English language abilities. An important note is that our domestic students are not homogenous either. We have students whose first language is not English as well as students who learned English colloquially versus students who learned English academically, so there’s a whole range of students from the US and abroad with differing English language abilities and backgrounds.

Can you give an example of a killer English application? What are the keys to an English interview or English essay for international students who want to apply to a school in the US?

The killer interviews and essays are the most memorable, and this is typically because they are personal rather than ‘perfect’.The personal submissions convey humor, empathy, silliness, or vulnerability. It’s unbelievably refreshing, as well as endearing, to connect with an applicant through their authentic conveying of themselves.  An imperfectly written but compassionate essay is far preferable to a ‘perfectly’ written but stale submission. 

Along the lines of a not-too-perfect essay, a similar tip goes for the interview — don’t have your interview memorized. Admissions officers can identify that immediately. Instead, be open to wherever the conversation flows and remember that the interview goes both ways–ask questions of your interviewer, too. The best admissions interviews are flowing and nuanced conversations rather than perfunctory, scripted exercises. 

Again, emotion, individuality and authenticity are more important than the “right” answer in ‘perfect’  English. 

Those are great insights into what admissions officers look for in the application essay, whether it’s for university, college, or boarding school. Students often ask me how to write academic English essays for US schools.

The feedback I shared is specifically dependent on the level and type of school/institution the student is applying for. Remember that the application essay isn’t exactly an academic English essay. The application essay conveys who you are as a person, it is not a formal writing sample that demonstrates your academic writing abilities (at the independent school level, there is no MLA or APA formatting, no works cited, etc.). The student and their support team should research the individual program(s) the student is applying to in order to appropriately tailor their application – and don’t hesitate to ask the admissions officer for clarification, we’re here to help!  

Do you have any final comments about what it’s like working with international students at a socially progressive all-girls boarding school?

It’s a gift to work with the students, faculty, and staff of Stoneleigh-Burnham School. I am truly privileged to contribute to the School’s 153-year history and its future. 

Thanks to Brittany for sharing her time and expertise on international admissions.

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