Like in many parts of the world, there is a growing number of international schools in the Middle East that cater to both native and expatriate students. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the region’s leading international educators, hosting 624 international schools, many of which are in Ras Al Khaimah.
These schools are unique in that they bring together a diverse range of students from different backgrounds and encourage them to integrate as part of the school community and learning process. However, students can often feel out of place because they bring their home culture and history into a space in which very few of their peers may be able to relate to them. This unusual situation brings with it a unique struggle for students attending international schools; principally, figuring out how to make themselves feel at home in a diverse student body when they are in a country and culture that is not their own. To figure out how to make the country feel like home, they must figure out what home means to them.
A recent research case study in Ras Al-Khaimah explored how students experienced ‘home’ at an international school. It found that students identify ‘home’ as a place, feeling, or a mixture of both depending on what they associate with home. Importantly for educators at international schools, it was uncovered that the international schools themselves can be imbued with these associations by students.
For example, some students who associated home predominantly with a sense of feeling claimed that they felt more at home in international schools because of the diversity of the student body and the strength of relationships, both with students and teachers, that could be formed in a climate where everyone is from everywhere. On the other hand, students who associated home predominantly with a sense of place claimed that they did not imbue their international school with a sense of home because their countries of origin, and the schools within them, were too culturally different. If students at international schools in the UAE, and potentially other countries, are struggling to feel a sense of belonging in their schools, these findings highlight an important issue for international schools and educators to tackle. Part of the solution seems to be in understanding how home matters to individual students to better discern how to support them.
The task facing international educators dealing with this problem is to figure out what makes their students feel at home and what does not. This varies per student. Is it the diversity of the student body and their relationships with peers in this type of climate? Is it remembrance and celebration of their country of origin? Or is it something beyond these facets of home? Figuring out how home matters is an important way to understand what makes international students feel like they belong and eventually to put the appropriate measures in place that allow students to feel at home both at school and in their country of residence at large.
If, for example, a certain group of students feel that integration among the student body is what would make them feel most at home, then conversations about how to promote cohesion are necessary to find out how this could develop in practice. If, on the other hand, a group of students feel that being able to share their culture with the classroom is important, then conversations about how to provide this kind of environment are necessary to create a space in which the students can feel at home
If possible, educators should have these discussions with their students one-on-one, given the sensitive nature of what home means to students that are highly transient. Based on these conversations, educators at international schools can generate initiatives that address students’ need to belong and encourage students to participate in the programs that best address their needs.
To learn more about what home means to students at international school, check out Abdulla Omaigan’s open-access policy paper that this blog is based on: https://publications.alqasimifoundation.com/en/diversity-and-cohesion-in-international-schools-in-the-united-arab-emirates