“You can learn a lot from each other”: International Club connects students around diverse experiences


Photo courtesy @wwhs_internationalclub

For students who struggle to forge relationships with their American peers based on commonalities, the International Club helps them find friendships and confidence in Whitman’s new environment and allows them to connect with one another on the basis of their similar experiences.

By Grace Roddy and Caroline Reichert

The comforting sound of rapidly-spoken Spanish fills Tomas Montoya’s ears, drawing him through the door of room 269. Montoya’s friends immediately greet him inside the bustling classroom, welcoming their club president with quick fist-bumps and light hugs. Conversations in multiple languages overlap, and for a newcomer, the atmosphere of the room seems chaotic. Montoya (‘22) doesn’t mind, though — he’s finally able to relax after a draining day of rigorous classwork and stressful tests. 

This relief overcomes many of Whitman’s international students, who’ve found a close-knit community among their fellow International Club members. For students who struggle to forge relationships with their American peers based on commonalities, the club helps them find friendships and confidence in Whitman’s new environment and allows them to connect with one another on the basis of their similar experiences. 

“Once you know people from other countries, you start noticing that you aren’t that different from them,” Montoya said.

The 70-member group welcomes students of all backgrounds and organizes events to involve new students in the social setting at Whitman. The club meets twice a week and — until the 2022-2023 school year — hosted monthly events under the sponsorship of English as a Second Language (ESOL) and English Resource teacher Laura Brewer.

For the past 21 years, the club has planned an International Night, a popular tradition amongst students. On this festive night, Whitman’s students prepare traditional foods and perform musical numbers to highlight their respective cultures. The event showcases a diverse array of food, traditional music and a fashion show. 

“International Club provides a platform for all these different immigrants to get together and then eventually [become] immersed in the Whitman community,” said Kevin Shao (‘22), one of the club’s student leaders.

The club also aims to create a safe environment for students to share their stories and connect with diverse cultures. This year, its leaders hope to make the club more tight-knit by facilitating more conversations between everyone in the club, Montoya said. 

Outside of school, the students connect with one another through the club’s picnics and socials. One of the most popular events was the club’s soccer tournament, which took place in June 2021 and again in May of 2022. Despite frigid weather during the events, many students showed up and had a lot of fun, Montoya said.  

To Brewer, International Club is a place for students to break out of their comfort zones. The club provides a much-needed platform for ESOL students to connect and relate to each other, she said. 

“You can learn a lot from each other,” Brewer said. “People only hang out with other people who are similar to them, which is normal and understandable. But, it’s good to put yourself out there and meet other people who are coming from different places.”

For junior Amelia Forner Lohan, a leader, the club has boosted her confidence and helped her talk to new people — a common difficulty among new students, she said. Lohan, who transferred to Whitman from a school in Germany last year, said that the International Club’s supportiveness has helped her transition between schools smoothly. While Lohan describes herself as outgoing and said that she didn’t have trouble making friends when she first arrived at Whitman, some find it more difficult than she does. 

International students also experience the ups and downs of the high school social scene.  While some feel it is easy to make friends, others find it difficult to get to know Americans because their culture is different from international students’, Lohan said. 

When senior Ray Boeckle first moved to the United States from Germany, his shaky English complicated the process of making friends, he said. Boeckle made a few friends before joining International Club, but he was able to find people in the club who had faced similar challenges, and eventually, he made lasting friendships. 

A common concern among club members is that curricula in many English and History classes at Whitman don’t adequately address different countries’ histories. Junior Imaan Jaffrey, a club member from Pakistan, said that the lack of representation of her own culture in the school’s curriculum has been disappointing, but culture-specific presentations at International Club meetings allow students to educate others about their countries. According to Lohan, the club serves as a space for students to talk about these frustrations and share similar experiences that range from navigating course requirements for international colleges to educating others on their countries’ histories.

For more than two decades, the International Club has been home to a thriving community of foreign students at Whitman. The club is treasured by both student members and facilitator Laura Brewer, she said.

“I love these kids,” Brewer said. “They make me laugh. They’re good kids and it’s really important that they have their space to get to know each other.”