EF Academy is Like a mini-United Nations
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Dr. Vladimir D. Kuskovski
Head of School

Dr. Hala Khalek
IB Biology teacher

This week’s School Voices belong to EF Academy New York’s Dr. Vladimir D. Kuskovski, Head of School, and Dr. Hala Khalek, IB Biology teacher. 

EF Academy is an international boarding school with campuses in Thornwood, New York and Pasadena, California, USA, as well as Torbay and Oxford, England.

Students from 75 Countries

“What makes us special is that we have students from 75 different countries. Fifty percent of our students come from Asia, and of course, half of the world’s population lives in Asia. And the other fifty percent come from the rest of the world: Europe, Africa, Middle East, everywhere else. The students are all very different, they speak different languages, they have different religions, different cultures, different heritages. We are like a mini United Nations,” says Kuskovsi. 

Managing Bias and Preconceived Notions

“Everyone comes with their own perspectives and biases. The good thing is that they come to us while they are still young, so we can still mold them and teach them, and their beliefs are not set in stone. They get to meet all the people they have a bias against and they realize that we’re all just people in the end.

Through classes and conversations they realize there is no reason for one nation to hate another one, or one religion to be opposed to the other. And they also learn that anything could be interpreted in many different ways and could be spun around to use as a tool of aggression. And we work deliberately to help them understand that.

When the virus started, everyone was against the Chinese. As if Chinese kids were somehow at fault for creating the virus! But our kids understood. Our non-Chinese kids would be the first ones to defend the Chinese kids against ignorance. They would say ‘wait a minute, what are you doing attacking a kid for being Chinese? How crazy is this?’ And it’s kind of cool to see when that happens.”

Learning About Race and Religion

“For students from Africa, they don’t necessarily understand racial discrimination because it simply doesn’t exist in a country where everybody is African. Of course, they can see it elsewhere, but in their own countries the divisions are between rich and poor, not based on skin color, because most people are the same skin color. But they learn the history of the Civil Rights Movement here, the history of slavery, and the root cause of what’s going on in America today. Then they have a different understanding of the rap songs they hear: They know the words mean something more than just a rhyme in a song, that they could actually be offensive. So they learn what’s offensive and what’s not. And that’s a big educational piece for everybody.

Then there is the religious context. We have a number of Muslim kids; some are devout, some are less devout, and we have a prayer room for them so they have the option to go and have prayer. That’s a big deal, especially in the month of Ramadan. We wake them up early to eat, and this is usually when the kids share with others. So they explain that no, not every Muslim is a terrorist, and in fact, terrorism has nothing to do with Islam; it’s the opposite. So that becomes a big educational piece as well,” says Kuskovsi.

What Does it Mean for a Student to Be a Global Citizen?

“It is learning about others. Getting to know others, how they live their everyday lives, what they eat, what sports they like, what kind of music they listen to — these are simple ways by which we can understand others and integrate other cultures. Because it’s one world. If there is one way we benefit from the pandemic, it’s that we now understand that what affects others also affects us,” says Khalek.

“I think global understanding means to have an open mind to everything and to be attached to nothing, no biases. And to be confident in who you are,” says Kuskovsi.

“There used to be a term “melting pot” to describe multiculturalism, and then we decided that, no, we don’t want everyone melting together. I agree that we don’t; we want people to be individuals, to be proud of who they are, and by the same measure, to be proud of everyone else. This is where we find harmony.

If we want to make this world a better place for generations to come, education is where we start. This is where we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mold our young and release them into the world so they can go and make the world a better place.

The kids who come out of our school, regardless of whether they are at the top of the class or the bottom of the class, take away a global perspective. I see when people walk into a room with a bunch of foreigners, there are some who think ‘oh my god, they look different, they speak different languages’ and they shy away. Any one of our kids from EF Academy would walk into that room and feel at home. They would be at ease communicating, they would feel at ease navigating the languages, and they would have a frame of reference like ‘OK, you are from Asia, this is what is common in your country’ or ‘you are Muslim and it’s Ramadan so I should say “Ramadan Kareem” to you.’ And they would know and say it,” says Kuskovsi.

Teachable Moments

“All our students come out feeling they are part of a global community. This sense of the small world really hits home because it becomes second nature for them to have people from 10 different nationalities sitting with them in class or around the dinner table,” says Kuskovski.

“And that comes up with any subject you teach. For example, when you discuss history or political crises, now you have people who can give you perspective from all of the countries that were part of this or that conflict. So when we talk about the Vietnam War, kids from Vietnam will say, “wait a minute, it wasn’t the Vietnam War; it was the American War. It was the Americans who invaded us.” And the American students in the room will be very surprised, which then starts a conversation, and so it becomes a teachable moment where everybody learns how history is made.

And it’s not just history; it’s every subject. In chemistry when they talk about the Periodic Table, it has a different name where I grew up: We called it the Mendeleev Table, because Mendeleev was the Russian scientist who first came up with the idea for it. And every Russian kid knows that story. So when it comes up in science class, there will be a Russian kid who pipes up to say ‘by the way, do you know how it came to be?’ They don’t even know chemistry yet, but they already know that fact,” says Kuskovsi.

Like Ambassadors of Their Own Country

“They have global perspectives on the world, so the world is not just one country or one continent; there’s a lot more to it. So the skills they take from the experience of being part of this international education lasts a lifetime. They can go and sit in any international company anywhere. When they go to university, they have already lived enough in the US to know the US way, but they still bring their heritage, and they still continue to be international, and they are like ambassadors of their own country,” says Kuskovsi.

Learning Through Diversity
“Last year, because of this diversity, I coordinated our school’s involvement in the Global Science Opera. It was a project that crossed subjects: It involved science and art and humanities, everything. Last year, 65 countries participated, and we were one of just two schools from the United States. Each year, students choose a theme such as caring for the environment and clearing the oceans. We made a presentation to the world, and our second-language learners developed their communications skills as they composed music, sang, and learned to present. Students from all subjects collaborated to have this involvement. These projects really show how our school emphasizes collaboration around global issues. It shows how we build confidence and the ability to express our beliefs. This is the IB Ethos. It’s how to live in the world, how to understand others, and how to communicate with them,” says Khalek.

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