School Ties

How international schools develop lasting bonds with their alumni

By Julie Bourbon

School Ties
Lunar New Year celebrations at Hong Kong Academy include school assemblies with national dress, dragon dances, and performances by each grade.

Although more than two decades have passed since Claire Matern attended Zurich International School, she can still remember the warm embrace she felt as a newly transplanted second-grader from Brooklyn, New York.

"I got sung the song and I sang the song [to others]," Matern says of the welcome anthem serenaded to all newbies during school assemblies. "It was a nice indication that you're one of us. And when you left, everyone sang ‘Happy Trails,' which was so touching."

That Matern still recalls those details despite attending ZIS for just three years is an outcome any international school would welcome, too.

International schools typically follow a national or international curriculum different from the host country. They educate a highly transient, multinational, and multilingual student population for global citizenship. Since 2000, the K-12 international school market has tripled, as more wealthy local families seek the Westernized education and career opportunities that come from it for their children.

According to the U.K.-based International School Consulting Research, there were 2,584 international schools in 2000, serving barely 1 million students, the vast majority of whom came from families of expatriates or members of the diplomatic corps. By 2018, that figure had grown to about 9,600 international schools teaching more than 5 million students, 80 percent of whom come from the local country, although there are many schools in the world that still serve a predominantly transient population.

As a result, international schools must deploy a variety of interwoven strategies that speak to both sets of new arrivals.

And that starts by making sure you feel like you're part of the family the moment you arrive and long after you're gone, says Christina Busso, advancement director at the Rochambeau French International School, just outside Washington, D.C. 

"What I say to newly arriving families is, ‘We're really good at welcome. We do this all the time,'" says Busso, noting that about 250 students come and go throughout the course of each academic year. "There's no such thing as the new kid. It doesn't happen, that doesn't exist."

Students from UWC-USA representing (from left to right) Paraguay, Ukraine, Kingdom of Eswatini, Democratic Republic of Congo, Albania, and Kurdistan

Students from UWC-USA representing (from left to right) Paraguay, Ukraine, Kingdom of Eswatini, Democratic Republic of Congo, Albania, and Kurdistan.
Building Relationships While They're Students

Last summer, ISC Research released a survey it billed as first-ever research of international schools well-being. Conducted by International Educational Psychology Services and Cardiff University School of Psychology, the survey interviewed 1,000 international school teachers and leaders across 70 countries on their well-being and the well-being of their students.

Small wonder, the survey found that strong interpersonal relationships were key to reinforcing the type of learning environment in which everyone thrives.

"We know relationships in education are really important for resilience and mental health, however, we were struck by just how fundamentally important they were for the people in the international school sector," Angie Wigford and Andrea Higgins, the study's authors, told ISC Research.

Indeed, their findings corroborate what research has long suggested about the way humans develop and evolve, particularly within an educational setting which, outside of the home, makes the biggest mark on a person's life.

A wide body of literature across many disciplines supports the critical role relationships play in cultivating a sense of belonging among students. Because of their unique set of challenges, international schools must be even more purposeful about creating that warm and fuzzy feeling across campus.

"It's great being an international student, but it is very different," says Pamela Pappas, communications manager at the International School of Kenya, located in the capital of Nairobi. "You're transient, not as connected."

Pappas should know.

Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—her mother was a local businesswoman while her father worked for the U.S. State Department—Pappas attended the American School of Kinshasa in DRC, moved to Arizona, and graduated from the Harare International School in Zimbabwe in 2001. Two of her ISK colleagues taught her in Harare and her son is an ISK kindergartner.

To counteract the disconnect and disorientation felt among their high mobility population, Pappas says all students received yellow and blue "ISK your future is looking bright" sunglasses on the first day of school this academic year, while seniors received stoles with their name, graduation year, and ISK logo at the graduation barbecue.

Similarly, ZIS has 11th-graders design a T-shirt that the school prints and distributes at the beginning of their senior year. Seniors put together care packages for members of the class that just graduated that include personal notes from students and a cookbook from a three-hour class all seniors take to learn basic cooking skills for the transition to university life.

"We try to make a connection to their experience at ZIS," says Jennifer Wyss, the school's head of development. "It's an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we want you to think about this as your school and to be in touch with us later.'"

Students at the American International School of Budapest. AISB educates students from age 3 to grade 12 and the student body is currently comprised of over 900 students representing more than 60 nationalities.

Students at the American International School of Budapest. AISB educates students from age 3 to grade 12 and the student body is currently comprised of over 900 students representing more than 60 nationalities.
PHOTO CREDIT: American international school of budapest
The Ties That Bind

There's no doubt that strong leadership sets the stage for creating an atmosphere in which students feel part of a community that extends beyond their actual time on campus. But a significant part of creating that lasting impression falls to teachers, which numerous studies have shown are the most important in-school factor in helping students navigate their academic career and social relationships.

A 2016 study of nearly 200,000 15-year-olds from 41 countries found that when controlling across numerous variables, teacher-student relationships were the strongest predictor for students reporting a sense of school belonging.

ZIS capitalized on the fond memories many alumni have of their former teachers when it created the John Mattern Award for Alumni Faculty six years ago. Named for the school's founder, all ZIS alumni may nominate a teacher and a committee of local alumni from different eras makes the selection.

The award carries a prize of 1,500 francs, Wyss says, but the real emphasis is on bringing the recipient back to campus, if possible, for a reception and to address upper school faculty and students.

"It's a nice way to involve more alumni and have them share their memories" she says. "Faculty are the ones students most connect with at the school."

Savvy international schools also recognize that parents are as much a part of the school family as students and work hard to bring them into the fold.

Founded as a missionary school in 1928, the Dalat International School in Malaysia may not have the resources that other schools have but one thing it does possess is a beautiful seaside campus that is an enormous asset for community building. Recently, the school began hosting open Friday nights for students to play games or hang out with friends while parents mingle with each other. The basketball court serves as the setting for tables to seat 400 and the school has been bringing in food trucks for dinner; culturally, big community events always involve food.

"We're trying something new," says Cheryl Franceschi, the school's director of development. "It's working really well. Because this is such a melting pot of a community, parents look to other kids' parents as new friends."

At Rochambeau, alumni as well as parents are invited to make classroom presentations about their professional life, which serves a dual purpose: educating students about future career possibilities and building word of mouth, which is something international schools rely upon for growing their student body.

"For us, part of our motivation is looking at alumni engagement for new student recruitment," Busso says. "Parents who are seeking out a school are thinking long-term—what's the end game, what's the value proposition?"

In a tight-knit international Francophone community—Rochambeau is part of the Agency for French Education Abroad—parents talk to other parents around the globe about which are the best schools.

Dalat International School’s open campus evenings. Students got to dunk favorite teachers after successfully raising money for the annual fund.

Dalat International School's open campus evenings. Students got to dunk favorite teachers after successfully raising money for the annual fund.  
PHOTO CREDIT: DALAT International school photo team
Offering Meaningful Ways to Engage

As part of building that brand, Rochambeau hosts a number of events to keep alumni and their families involved, such as a spring family picnic and a campus choral group reunion for former participants and their teacher.

The school has found particular success with a 10th-grade, two-week internship program, based on a similar French model. "We tap into our alumni network and say, ‘Remember how somebody hosted you as a 10th-grader? Would you organize this at your company?'" Busso recounts.

Finding ways for alumni to give back in ways that resonate with them while serving the institution's larger goals and mission is one of the hallmarks of a successful alumni engagement program, according to a recently released CASE white paper.

The first deliverable from a task force of advancement professionals that CASE convened to develop an industry-wide framework for measuring alumni engagement, the paper lays out a model that will soon be field-tested for validity, although a number of international schools could easily serve as test cases, since they already employ many of the recommended best practices.

Take UWC-USA, the American campus of the United World College system of 17 schools and colleges across four continents.

Located in Montezuma, New Mexico, the small school with a global footprint—it educates about 225 students annually from more than 95 countries—steeps about 10 students each year in the culture of philanthropy. Through a crash course in giving, the Student Organization for Alumni Relations learns what a 501(c)(3) is, how an advancement office works, how an annual report can be used as a cultivation and stewardship piece, and why annual funds are important.

There are global gatherings of alumni on the second Saturday of each month, part of UWCx, an initiative through which the UWC network endorses programs created by community members, be they city-based, professional, or other interest-based activities.

"We, the schools, collaborate with these groups when we are coming near," says Jose-Pablo Rojas-Brewer, director of alumni engagement, himself a UWC-USA alumnus.

In February, Rojas-Brewer will be conducting a study with 12 focus groups of alumni in 12 cities around the world, as part of a new strategic plan.

"The undertone," he says, "is we're getting ready to take our school to the next level and want to hear from alumni."

Zurich International School alumni event at the villa where the original school was located. Clare Matern at a ZIS alumni event.  ZIS educates more than 1,450 students (pre-k to grade 12) on four campuses. The school has more than 6,000 alumni.

Zurich International School alumni event at the villa where the original school was located. Clare Matern at a ZIS alumni event. ZIS educates more than 1,450 students (pre-k to grade 12) on four campuses. The school has more than 6,000 alumni.
PHOTO CREDIT: zurich international School
Old School, New School Ways To Keep in Touch

Rojas-Brewer connects with alumni all over the world through Facebook, WhatsApp, email, and a bi-annual print magazine as well as through class agent volunteers around the world who send him "bits and pieces." He also sends out about 250 birthday emails each month and gets about a dozen updates back, "that I happily receive."

International schools must be ambidextrous in their efforts to keep in touch with multiple generations of alumni, since print is expensive to mail. Plus, mailing addresses are even harder to come by than email addresses, which tend to follow one across job, location, and name changes.

The International School of Kenya supplies students with a school email address that they can keep "in perpetuity," says Pappas.

Dalat International has hired a millennial alumnus to create compelling video for its site, while the International School of Guatemala (CAG) has hired a triple-threat alumna/legacy/parent to head up its engagement effort. With no advancement office until 2016, the staff there quickly realized they had to communicate better and more often with alumni, most of whom are native Guatemalans who leave for universities and life abroad after graduation.

"The school hasn't had a lot of communication outreach," says CAG General Director Patricia Marshall. "As much as people love the tradition and the past, they didn't understand where the school was going."

In just two years, CAG has made significant headway using WhatsApp's messaging feature and the Graduway platform, which resembles Facebook and connects to LinkedIn but can be branded to match the school's web and mobile presence. Both allow the bilingual school to publicize events and news, and alumni to communicate with the school and each other.

Laura Mitchell, director of institutional advancement at the Hong Kong Academy, started that school's advancement operation from scratch when she took the job in 2013. It took one of her colleagues six weeks of "dredging," as Mitchell calls it, on LinkedIn to find the names of nearly all of the families that had passed through HKA in the 13 years since its founding and ask them to be a part of a LinkedIn alumni group.

"There's just no substitute" for a personal invitation, she says.

The school is completely paperless in its outreach to students and alumni, including a quarterly e-newsletter. "We do not even attempt to track snail mail addresses. Our Holy Grail is an email that is likely to stay with them their whole lives or at least a long time," Mitchell says. "Cities? Useless. They move too much."

They've had some events in cities around the globe—London, Singapore, and Melbourne are popular cluster cities for their alumni—but not back on campus.

"Nobody's ever going to come back to Hong Kong for a reunion," Mitchell says, acknowledging that geography is a bit of a handicap for their families, who come there primarily for stints working at multinational corporations. "Hong Kong is not their home, it's their perch."

Zurich International School—the product of a merger of two schools—has existed in its present incarnation since 2001 but celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original school in 2012.

Having alumni with vastly different recollections of the campus, depending on their age and class year, has presented a challenge to the school's outreach efforts, says Wyss.

"First and foremost, we want to foster the idea that we are all part of one community—current and past students, families and faculty," she says.

To build that affinity, the school sponsors ZIS Meets—events with both a learning and a networking component—that are publicized on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using a variety of ZIS hashtags and usually featuring an alumni speaker. Recent ZIS Meets in New York have attracted 40 to 50 attendees.

Matern, the Brooklyn-based ZIS alumna who remembers the welcome and send-off songs of her youth, now runs a lifestyle cooking company called A Cheesemonger's Daughter. Her father, who ran a food hall in a Swiss department store during her youth (thus the three years in Zurich) taught her to cook. She has attended at least three ZIS alumni events in New York in the last few years—"basically any time they do a speaking event," she says—and is in talks with the school to present a cooking demo at a ZIS Meet in early 2019.

"ZIS as a community feels like you can just pick up where you left off," Matern says. "And that's the nature of international schools."

Best Practices for Continued Alumni Engagement

International schools strive to continue engaging with students once they've become alumni, whether they graduate or just move on to another school elsewhere. Here are some ways that advancement staff are building and maintaining connections between the campus and an often global community of alumni.

Be True To Your Mission.
The UWC South East Asia in Singapore, part of the global United World College system, has a mission "to make education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future." Dave Shepherd, director of college advancement at UWC-SEA, engages prominent alumni to return to campus to address students. He's specifically looking for "people who are doing something really meaningful besides being successful in business," he says.

Be Consistent in Messaging.
Tim Fuderich, director of alumni and constituent relations at the Washington International School in Washington, D.C., says it's imperative to weave together the concepts of "broad and lifelong engagement, lifelong learning, and strong support for volunteer initiatives." That plays out in event planning and outreach. "Any talking points, any collateral, should reinforce the message of giving back and what it means to be part of this community," he says.

Tap Into Existing Networks.
Often, clusters of alumni end up living in the same city and finding each other without help from their alma mater. But that doesn't mean the school can't be part of the experience. Many alumni of the American International School of Budapest, Hungary, end up in other major cities in Europe, says Magdalen Grey, the school's advancement director. "There's a lot going on unofficially," Grey says, such as a weekly alumni gathering in The Netherlands. This year, the school will focus on enabling class and location reps to "harness" the energy of those informal groups.

Member of the Carol Morgan School in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic's "Sharky Club"Appeal to the Next Generation.
The Carol Morgan School in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, has created a "Sharky Club," says Vielka Morales, community relations director, in honor of the school's mascot. Each time an alumna or alumnus has a child, her office sends a shark plush toy with a note of welcome to the community. "We are developing special activities for this group," Vielka says, "and encourage their parents to consider their alma mater when their children are ready for school."

About the Author

Julie Bourbon is a former CASE senior content creator.