Lancaster Mennonite School has long been a global community, with a 60-year tradition of drawing international students. Over the past five years, LM has had as many as 150 international students, or 20% of the student body.
In the late winter of 2020, the bonds of this global community were tested as never before.
When COVID-19 hit, LM had to shut down the Millstream Residence Hall, where many of the international students lived, and move to remote instruction.
Of the 28 international students, half returned to their home countries. The others chose to stay in the U.S. with family or host families. Students who went home returned to China, Ethiopia, South Korea and Vietnam and took classes remotely.
During three pandemic-altered semesters, the LM community discovered ways to connect virtually — in chapel, grandparents day and reunions, and as teachers worked creatively to keep students engaged.
While it was difficult, everyone learned it is possible to maintain a strong community across great distances.
Seunga Park, a student from South Korea, remained in Pennsylvania with a host family but missed her classmates, teachers and school activities.
“It was difficult to do school without face-to-face communication, but thankfully all of my teachers actively responded to my questions and were willing to help,” she said. “I was able to learn a lot and felt connected in class.”
During the 2020-21 school year, Park continued to stay with a host family and returned to school in person. (High school students had the option to go in person, hybrid or remote.) International students who had returned home were unable to go back to the U.S. due to travel restrictions. A number of them attended remotely from their home countries.
Christy horst, director of enrollment, and Kirk Benner, director of counseling and assistant principal, helped LM connect with international students no matter where they were.
“When we all went remote for instruction, Christy and I met via Zoom with all of the international students every two weeks as a group to touch base and see if they had any questions or issues,” Benner said.
Horst said: “Teachers did a wonderful job continuing to try to help students who were in different time zones or had language barriers. Guidance counselors were looped in if more support was needed. That personal touch really made the difference.”
Students from China used Zoom to join Alice Lauver’s classes in English as a second language.
“Some of my students really struggled, especially with the different time zones between China and the U.S.,” Lauver said. “I developed the practice of taking a few minutes to start each class to connect personally with students — to talk about their lives, the weather and create a safe place to express concerns and ask questions. We have so many amazing teachers who went above and beyond to connect with students studying remotely.”
Jinge Ma, a student from China who is boarding at the Millstream Residence Hall, said: “During the pandemic I went home to China and worked online for my classes. I want to go back to school and see people face-to-face. I miss classrooms, friends and teachers.”
This fall, LM staff are excited that the residence hall is reopening and grateful for an increase in international and domestic students. There are 21 boarding students, from China, Ethiopia, Vietnam and South Korea, and domestic students from across the U.S., including Oregon, Colorado and Maryland. There are 23 total international students; those staying with family or in local homestays come from Argentina, Bahrain, Colombia and Kenya.