College Counselor Wilson Lee Advises on International Schools and the Transition to US Colleges

July 28, 2020

Today we have special guest Wilson Lee, a college counselor at a prestigious international school. We sit down virtually with Mr. Lee, who shares his wisdom, based on years of experience in South Korea and Singapore, on how international students can make the most of their transition to an American university.

Can you introduce yourself and what your responsibilities are as the counselor of an international school?

Greetings from Singapore! My name is Wilson and I currently work at an international school as a college counselor. Prior to Singapore, I was fortunate enough to work in a similar capacity at another international school in Seoul, South Korea for 17 years.

Despite working at two different schools, my roles and responsibilities are very similar since both institutions primarily matriculate students to the United States. As a college counselor, I work with 11th and 12th graders in support of their aspirations for higher education. Typically, this involves counseling sessions with students and parents that focus on individualizing their college research while highlighting their strengths within the application.

This, of course, is generally speaking. Some of the finer details of the process involves helping students finalize their college list, arranging college visits, parent programming, essay writing support, and preparing the necessary documents (transcripts, recommendations, school reports) that our school is responsible for delivering.

What extra challenges do students from an international school face when applying to college in the US compared to the traditional student?

Frankly speaking, there are many. To begin, a simple logistical challenge is the inability to hop in a car and visit a college on any given weekend. Especially for us in Singapore, a direct flight to New York takes about 18 hours! Not an easy trip to make on a 3-day weekend.

So for many international students, they need to rely on experiencing a college campus online through virtual tours or other websites and blogs. And though the college experience may be new to every high school graduate, can you imagine if your first day on campus was your first time ever in the United States? Such is the case for many international students.

…Can you imagine if your first day on campus was your first time ever in the United States? Such is the case for many international students.

But to go a bit deeper, it is important to reiterate that most international schools have international students (non-US citizens). It is worth mentioning that the cost of college for any family can be a significant strain and burden. However, for those that aren’t US citizens, the cost of a US college education can be significantly more. As an international student, unfortunately, they are not eligible for most financial aid and scholarship opportunities. Similarly, the option of applying in-state and receiving the tuition benefit as a state resident is completely off the table.

Another major challenge that international students encounter are the restrictions that come with standardized testing. It isn’t uncommon for students residing overseas to travel hours to the nearest testing center or to even fly to another country to take the SATs. Let’s not forget that for all students outside of the US, the SATs are only offered 5 times a year as opposed to 7 times within the US.

And to finally bring things a bit “closer to home,” whether it was the Presidential Travel Ban in 2017 or the travel ban because of Covid 19, international students have undergone additional challenges in simply being allowed in the country. Unfortunately, these are issues we have seen for some time and I sadly do not see any chance of significant change soon.

From your experience, what practical issues should international students look out for when starting school in the US?

Focusing on the practical issues international students may encounter, they primarily focus on being away from home and being away from family. Some of these issues may be experienced amongst US students as well, but to a different degree and perspective for international students.

Two main issues come to mind: Money and Health/Safety. Prior to heading to the States, students should have a discussion with their parents and map out a plan when it comes to finances. How will tuition be paid? Which bank should I open an account with? Can I even open a bank account without a US passport? How will I receive/send money from my parents?

When it comes to Health/Safety, it is important to know where to go for your medical needs ranging from a runny nose to a serious emergency. Naturally, it is also important to know how you will pay for any medical needs.

It is also recommended to establish a personal contact (extended family or family friend) in the States that can help since your parents won’t be around or even in the same time zone. These issues similarly apply to US citizens, but the added wrinkle of being in a foreign land with unfamiliar laws and policies can be beyond overwhelming.

What cultural issues should they look out for?

This can vary depending on where the international student is coming from and where they are going. I’d imagine the cultural issues a Korean international student would face when attending the University of Southern California, where Koreatown is just down the street, would be different than if they went to college in the middle of Montana.

However, regardless of who you are and where you are going, it is always sound advice to be open-minded and culturally sensitive. For most international students, they are coming from a very diverse community. For example, my school in Singapore has over 60 countries represented on campus.

The thing for international students to keep in mind is that the student population on their campus might not have had the same international experiences. Being mindful of this is important, but it can also be an opportunity to share about your own culture and heritage to those around you.

Any other advice to help international school students succeed in college?

My advice for students has changed a bit over the years. However, I always begin by encouraging my students to “Embrace it!”

College is a 4-year experience that you will most likely never have again. So indeed, embrace it by requesting a roommate rather than getting your own room. Embrace it by saying hello to the person sitting next to you in your first class. Embrace it by signing up for an extracurricular that you were previously scared about. Just “Embrace it.”

College is a 4-year experience that you will most likely never have again… Just “Embrace it.”

This is sound advice for any college freshman, but when it comes to international students, many times, international students have this vision of what college in America is “supposed” to be like. The thing is that those visions or perceptions can be different by the time they arrive on campus. The graduating Class of 2020 can testify that their upcoming freshman year will be unlike anything they anticipated.

So when you step foot on your campus, be ready to engage with different people and encounter different experiences within that campus. All the while, prepare yourself for anything because your journey could lead you to study abroad in Europe, work as a barista to make ends meet, take a gap year to recalibrate or even end your college journey a bit early. Either way, it’ll be an experience worth remembering and appreciating.

Photo courtesy of JESHOOTS.COM, Yingchou Han, Ben Duchac, & Davide Cantelli.

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