Auburn High School looks just like the high schools Alex Alkandari had seen in movies and on TV, with banks of lockers lining the hallways and students decked out in hoodies and T-shirts.

The scene was very different from the school he’d attended in Kuwait.

Spending time with the American students, though, revealed hopes and concerns just like those of students he knew at home.

Alkandari is among a group of international students from the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute who are taking part in a new collaboration with Auburn High in Riner, Virginia, about 20 miles south of Blacksburg. Throughout the semester, the Virginia Tech students — who hail from countries such as China, Taiwan, and Kuwait — have been spending time with ninth-graders in Jennifer Ray’s World History I class. They share details about their native cultures while also improving their English proficiency and learning about U.S. life.

Ray said one of the goals of her class is to explore different cultures. “This exchange gives our students some practical exposure,” she said. “There was some hesitation at first, on both sides, but I think they’re really excited learning about what life is like in these countries. It gives them a chance to learn something that’s not Riner.”

Alkandari and his Virginia Tech classmates spent a day shadowing students at Auburn. “It’s been really cool to see what it’s like for American high school students,” he said.

Jiyu Niu said he appreciated the variety of classes available at Auburn, a stark difference from the system in his native China. “I even got to play guitar with students in guitar class,” he said. “The school is so beautiful, so clean, and the students have made me feel less shy, even though my English isn’t always so good.”

People talking around a table in a library
Jana Moore, center, assistant director for student services at the Language and Culture Institute, leads a discussion with students, including Junlin "Mars" Wang, left, of China, and Joey Duncan, right, of Radford.

Jana Moore, assistant director for student services at the Language and Culture Institute, helped organize the collaboration. “It’s important for us to educate international students about U.S. culture to prepare them for success in their academic and professional lives,” she said.

During another trip to Riner, the Virginia Tech students cooked dishes based on recipes from home and talked about the foods with Ray’s class. Later, the ninth-graders will visit Blacksburg to talk with classes at the Language and Culture Institute and then tour campus.

Donald Back, director of the institute, part of Outreach and International Affairs, said the program aims to foster an appreciation for other nations while also increasing understanding among students of different backgrounds. “This program opens up a part of American life that our students might not otherwise be able to experience,” he said. “At the same time, the high school students are learning about life beyond the U.S. and developing a keener sense of just how interconnected our world is.”

Ninth-grader Joey Duncan, from Radford, said the program made him eager to learn more about other cultures. “It’s been pretty interesting to see how other cultures are different from ours and to hear about their different experiences. I hope they can see what we do here and what we’re for."

Written by Rich Mathieson