A community for all: What it’s like to be an international student in Grand Rapids high schools. 

It’s 7:30 a.m., and all around town, Grand Rapids Christian High School students begin to get ready to go to school. Traveling by car, bus or bike, students all have different ways of making the morning commute. But for some, the journey to Grand Rapids Christian began thousands of miles away, weeks before the first day of school. 

Grand Rapids Christian currently has 37 international students, out of approximately 900 in the entire student population. The

Photo courtesy of Joelle Williams.
Grand Rapids Christian High School international students at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

students represent eight countries, with the largest number of students coming from China. This has not always been the case. 

About 6-8 years ago we went from having more South Korean students to more Chinese students,” said Joelle Williams, director of the international student program at Grand Rapids Christian. “We have about the same number of students each year, give or take a few,” she said regarding the total amount of students in the program. 

International students typically pay two to three times more than domestic students at Grand Rapids Christian. However, the amount they pay in tuition is actually the same. International students must pay for a variety of extra fees, such as insurance, academic test prep and university application support, transportation and host family stipend expenses. This cost can vary, based on the amount of scholarships given. 

Photo courtesy of Joelle Williams.
Grand Rapids Christian High School students welcoming Dutch visitors.

Williams also stresses the importance of building a community for the international student population. One way they try to do this is through giving the international students opportunities to build relationships with students in America. “We pair international students up with American students at the beginning of the year and then for weekly tutoring so they have a built-in relationship with an American student.”

Grand Rapids Christian also has a school group called global ambassadors. Global ambassadors seek to plan activities and events that highlight various cultures and celebrations from around the globe. This offers international students a way to participate in the Grand Rapids Christian community while also celebrating their own cultures and learning about others. “We do this as a way to focus on and celebrate our students and our world,” said Williams. 

International students are also encouraged to share their culture with the domestic students by sharing in chapel. This can be

Photo courtesy of Moses Yang.
Moses Yang with some of his friends from The Potter’s House High School.

through song, interview, or prayers for the world, in English or in their own language. 

Across town, at Forest Hills Central, a public school, international students are encouraged to join their community through attending optional events. 

Forest Hills Central has five international students this year, out of a student body of around 1,300. The number of international students is subject to change, but consistently stays around five. They are from Spain, Italy and Germany, with the highest number coming from Spain. 

“FHC invites all foreign exchange students to be part of all the activities provided to the population of students that are living here,” said Forest Hills Central registrar Keyla Acevedo-Hargis. “We start with a ‘New Student Breakfast’ at the beginning of the school year, where they get to meet other new students that may not be in the foreign exchange program and they also meet established students that are leaders in the different areas of our school population.”

Acevedo-Hargis pointed out that, like any other student, all exchange students have the option to opt out of activities they do not wish to attend. 

Since Forest Hills Central is a public school, exchange students are not charged tuition. 

Photo courtesy of Joelle Williams.
International students on Grand Rapids Christian’s High School drum line.

Just down the road from Grand Rapids Christian is the Potter’s House high school, a Christian high school with a passion for encouraging diversity. Their core values state that they are “committed to ethnic diversity among students and staff because we believe God’s Kingdom is most fully expressed when every tongue, tribe and nation praise Him as one voice.”

Moses Yang, a sophomore at Calvin from Beijing, China, attended the Potter’s House. At first, it was difficult to make friends and purchase things from stores, since English is not his first language. “I was too afraid to speak up,” he said, “and I was worried that I might say something wrong. This is probably the hardest thing for any international students that are English learners.”

However, at the Potter’s House he found a welcoming community of students who weren’t afraid to come talk to him first. “They

Photo courtesy of Joelle Williams.
Grand Rapids Christian High School international students in front of the high school.

don’t treat international students differently,” he said. “I was comfortable being with them.” The teachers were no different. “They would really care about you and would help you out if you asked.”

After graduation, Yang decided to attend Calvin University because of his love for the city of Grand Rapids, as well as the diversity. “I enjoyed the diversity of the Potter’s House and I found out that Calvin is really diverse too. I knew that I could fit myself into Calvin, which I did.”

Yang’s advice to international students? Don’t hesitate to step outside of your comfort zone. “Do not be afraid to speak up, even if you are worried about saying things wrong,” he said. He also emphasized the importance of having a willingness and readiness to learn. “Having the heart to learn is important: not just learning from the school, but also the culture difference and the people.”

Along with the programs provided to welcome international students into the community, Yang stressed the importance of maintaining a positive attitude and personally making an effort to reach out. “It really depends on the effort you put in to try to adapt to the new environment.”