Borderless #1: Day in the life of the program director

As promised, here’s the first interview for the “Borderless” series! First I talked to Todd Bacon, the director of the international program at my school, about what his job looks like on a day to day basis. In this interview he explains what exactly he does, and why and how he does it.

Describe your job. What does your schedule look like at work?

As the International Program Director, my job covers several important areas but in essence, I help recruit and integrate international students from around the world into the life and academic community of CHCA (Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy). I do this alongside Mrs. Kim Vincent, our International Admissions Director, and Laurel Fiorelli, our Administrative Assistant. In 2007, CHCA received its first international student from South Korea and for the next five years we had a number of international students attend our school. However, we didn’t have a strategic program to help welcome, orient, integrate, and support them as students at CHCA. Three years ago, I was asked by Dr. Nicholas and the Board of Trustees to help create and run a new International Student Program that would intentionally reach out to and integrate international students from around the world. Having lived in South East Asia for 10 years, I have always appreciated and loved working with people from other cultures and backgrounds. Within any educational context, this is especially important as we better understand an increasingly complex and global multi-cultural world. At CHCA, we strongly believe that international students in our community enriches and enhances all of our lives and helps us see the world and each other in richer ways!

In my work, I travel to countries like China, South Korea, and Guatemala, developing relationships with schools, communities, and families who might be interested in an American education. We also do our very best to stay connected with families of current international students so that they feel informed and valued as parents. We help coordinate large groups of potential students who visit CHCA and experience a short-term stay. After extensive interviewing, candidates are selected and those selected are carefully paired with host families within the CHCA community. We then provide a two week Orientation Course to help the students acclimate before the fall semester begins. Once school begins, much of my time is used to help mentor and assist all our international students in their academic studies and within host families in addition to helping them integrate socially into the CHCA community. Administration with details like medical insurance policies, monthly host reports to families in their native countries, meetings with teachers, planning with Guidance Counselors, and college and university visits takes up much of my time. What’s most important to me, however, is that our international students feel welcomed, loved, and nurtured within our CHCA community! In order to stay connected with CHCA students, I also continue to teach a Bioethics course each fall.

What is some of your main criteria in choosing which students can come study here?

Finding academically qualified students who have a sufficient level of English is a given as we never want to bring students who would struggle in their studies. With a sufficient academic and English ability as a baseline, we then look for particular qualities that will allow a student to really flourish at school and within their host family. In our selection process, three key words guide our interviews and assessment: intentional, engaged, and relational. We want students who are intentional about why they want to study at CHCA and in the United States. Our hope is that they are intentional in the way they will pursue their studies, create friendships, and jump into the broad range of extra-curricular opportunities CHCA provides. Engagement also points towards students who will participate, build relationships, and apply themselves within school and within their host families. Lastly, relational – we look for students who are not overly shy but are excited and have the maturity and social skills to develop cross-cultural relationships.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

By far, the best part of my job is getting to build friendships with students and families all around the world! What is also particularly rewarding seeing students thrive with the right support, love, and encouragement at CHCA. When an international student is lovingly embraced within a host family and literally becomes part of the family, it’s awesome. When an international student feels the courage and support to try out for choir, the school musical, one of the sports teams, we are very excited! For all of this to work, it takes many hours of administrative work behind the scenes. This is just as important but it’s certainly not as fun! By the way, we are always looking for new host families. I’d love to encourage any of your readers to explore the possibility of hosting an international student in their family!

What is your education and background? How does that help you with your job?
I have a Bachelor’s degree in history from Wheaton College, a law degree from Hamline University School of Law, and a Master’s degree in Theology from United Theological Seminary. I practiced law for many years before deciding to teach and work with students. For the last 16 years, I’ve taught within the Christian Studies Department at CHCA in classes such as History of Christianity, Bioethics, and Ethics and Justice. All of these backgrounds have been very helpful in my current role. In helping to create, develop, and administer the International Student Program, a variety of legal issues come up and it’s certainly helpful being an attorney. In working with 35 international students, years of teaching and relating to High School students certainly comes in handy! A background in Theology has also given me a perspective in how to relate to students and families that may come from a variety of world views and faiths.

Do you speak any other languages? Are you planning to learn any?

Sadly, I don’t speak a second language fluently and would love to work on this! For the first 8 years of my life, I grew up in northern Japan and then spent several additional years in Singapore and Malaysia. As a child I was fluent in Japanese, however, years later much of my Japanese has disappeared. During my early years I studied French, German, and Spanish but unfortunately, not long enough to develop any competency. I am hoping to begin learning Chinese as I am in China once or twice a year and we have so many Chinese students. Interestingly, my mother was born in China in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. My great uncle and grandparents worked and lived in China and were fluent so this would be a wonderful family tradition to continue!

Which country’s school system is most different from the United States? Why?

I’m definitely still in the process of learning this. Many of our students come from China and there are significant differences between Chinese and American educational systems. Some of the bigger differences involve the philosophy of education for high school students. In China, the focus is preparing to take a large exam called the Gaokao. As a result, all of high school is oriented towards this test. Group dynamics and courses that push creative and critical thinking is less of a focus which makes an American education attractive.

Where have you travelled for work, and which have been your favorite destinations?

Taking students on Intersession trips have ranged from Japan, Italy, Greece, Kenya, and the wilderness kayaking trips in the Caribbean. On behalf of the International Student Program, I’ve travelled extensively throughout China and South Korea. In early April Mrs. Vincent and I will be travelling to Guatemala which I really look forward to. One of my favorite locations so far is a village in southeastern China where I had the opportunity to visit my host daughter’s mother and grandparents.

You work at a Christian school. How does your faith play a part in your daily interaction with these students?

Our international students come from a wide range of backgrounds from religious to non-religious. Many of our Chinese students come from families that don’t have any religious experience other than nominally being Buddhist or Confucian. The combined effects of the Cultural Revolution and secular atheism have created a context in which many of our students simply don’t have any knowledge or faith traditions. However, we’ve found that they are curious and understand that Christianity is deeply and historically connected with Western Europe and the United States. To be a candidate at CHCA, the students don’t need to be Christian. We simply ask them to be willing to learn and explore the idea of Christian faith with us. It’s important that they feel the freedom to learn and grow at their own pace. Over the years, we’ve had some international students accept a faith in Christ and for others we are grateful to be conversation partners on their own faith journey.

Wow! Talk about a cool job! Even as a freshman in high school, people are always asking me what I want to do with my life. That one question determines which classes I take, what my extracurriculars look like, and potentially what college I’ll go to. This is definitely something I’d love to do with my life, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it as much as I have. 🙂 Thanks again to Mr. Bacon for providing such a great insight into the daily life of an international administrator.

Be sure to check back often for the latest edition in the “Borderless” series, or subscribe below to get the month’s posts delivered right to your inbox.

Sydney Sauer • February 23, 2016

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