As high schools across the country experienced sharp budget cuts in recent years, a number of schools—both public and private—witnessed and seized a business opportunity: many cash-ready international students are willing to pay full tuition for an American education. However, while many of these students’ parents have deep pockets, they are not always prepared to handle the culture shock, succeed in academics, and immerse in campus life.
Many American high schools are eager to increase diversity and expand their international appeal. In a number of boarding schools such as The MacDuffie School, Miss Hall’s School, and Cheshire Academy, international students now comprise of over 30% of their student body. Despite the growing population of international students on campus, many high schools have not developed an orientation program specifically tailored to international students.
James Lu Morrissey, a graduate of Carleton College and co-founder of Shearwater International, saw the many struggles of these incoming international students, and realized the reason why they weren’t prospering was because the high school orientation programs are not enough to prepare these students for their future.
“Orientation at high schools usually lasts for a few days to a week,” Morrissey said. “It might be interesting, but it doesn’t cover all the things that international students need for the next four years.”
Morrissey said that many things that seem self-explanatory to American students are all new issues to tackle for international students. Some international students may not understand the intricacies and ramifications of plagiarism, or how to get along with a roommate, or how to do a presentation in class. He also said some international students find it difficult to branch out and make American friends because of their limited English and lack of cross-cultural communication experiences.
“Many students have told us: ‘I wish I was better prepared before I came to the United States,’” Morrissey said. “One student said he only made friends from his home country because those were the only students he met at the boarding school orientation, and that experience really discouraged him from branching out to make new American friends.”
Shearwater International provides a three-month virtual tutoring service to its clients, mostly perspective students who will be starting high school in the fall semester. Each student is paired with a tutor, who mentors the students for 1.5 hours each week. The program aims to teach the students skill sets they will need and benefit from for the rest of their high school education.
Morrissey said his business model is a win-win solution for both Shearwater International and high schools in America. “It actually costs the schools less to outsource their students to us,” Morrissey said. “They can save money on recruiting and training of mentors and developing curriculum. Most importantly, the mentoring begins in the summer, when a lot of teachers are on vacation. But we can take care of all that.”
In 2013, high school students arriving in the US on F-1 visa jumped from 6,500 in 2007 to 79,000 in 2013, according to Chris Page, director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, a Virginia-based non-profit that monitors the safety and quality of study-abroad programs.
With the high influx of international students coming to the U.S., Morrissey aims to get his service adopted by over half of the high schools in America in the next five years.
An entrant at the MassChallenge 2014 accelerator program, Shearwater International will compete with more than 1,600 startups from 50 countries and 41 states. The 2014 MassChallenge finalists will be announced on May 21.