Expat Essentials

International School of Eindhoven represents everything we aspire to for our daughter

(Editor’s note: This post  is the first in a series documenting the highs and lows of being an expat in Eindhoven.)


Our daughter Lale graduated from high school Friday night in Eindhoven. At midnight.

It’s a Dutch thing … if a party doesn’t last till 4 a.m., it’s a total bust.

We didn’t make it till 4 a.m., but it was an unconventional night on our unconventional journey. We are no different from any other parents … this milestone is both poignant – our little girl is grown up – and validating.

Lale’s school – International School of Eindhoven – represents everything we’ve ever aspired to for her. Both of us come from such humble backgrounds in Kentucky that we never dared dream in the early days our daughter would have such a sublime international experience. We wanted something better for her than we had. ISE was better in every possible way, the best part of the international expat lifestyle in microcosm.


Viva la difference

Everything about Lale’s ISE graduation underscored the difference in attitudes between American public education we left behind and the approach at international schools, especially International Baccalaureate programs.

Lale came to ISE from a public school in Kentucky. In the U.S., the message we too often send to students is, “You’re impulsive and self-destructive. We don’t trust you. We’ll decide what’s appropriate … and by the way, educating you is a burden on taxpayers.” Oh, and throw in the omnipresent threat of a mass school shooting.

If students somehow survive, American graduations are designed to be endured: Hundreds of seniors graduate in the typical class at the typical public high school in the U.S.

There are the dry speeches by school system administrators. The platitudes. The perky optimistic speech by the valedictorian with the impossible task of delivering insights from the limited experience of callow youth.

Friday night was waaay different. Lale’s two years at ISE were waaaay different.

Friday, Lale celebrated with a small group of friends and the teachers and staff who unabashedly advocate for them.

At ISE, students are seen as not just responsible, but worthy of our trust and the not insignificant financial investment we parents make in their futures.

At the graduation ceremony, we were sitting behind two ISE teachers who exchanged a running commentary about the kids, and it was clear they knew every student and had a pride of ownership in their success.

These were high points of the graduation:

• Students decided who gave the commencement speeches – a young man and a young woman –  instead of teachers anointing a valedictorian.

• Before the end of school, the year tutor had all the students write one line about their classmates, observations he used to personalize the graduation ceremony.

• The evening began with sparkling wine at a reception. This being Europe, everyone got a glass or two. The message was clear: We treat students like adults.

• The reception was followed by dinner, featuring a creative menu of tapas and small plates, wine and dessert, all served by younger students – an ISE tradition.

• The speeches were brief and to the point. Mayor Elly Banksma of Helmond was the guest speaker. Banksma’s theme was a little confounding (“You’ll always regret it if an opportunity comes up to save the world and you don’t leave your children for months to take it”), but we get it; life will force you to make daring choices … don’t flinch.

The mayor made one great point: These are the graduates everyone is going to want from universities to employers. At Lale’s international school, the kids are different. There are only 50 students in her graduating class. Yes, most – certainly not all – are from affluent families, the ambitious daughters and sons of highly skilled internationals, both technical talent and corporate executives.


Lale has friends from Malaysia, China, Italy, Belgium, India, Russia, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Spain, England, France and the United States. Theirs is a shared experience, and the risks and rewards of growing up in a country not your own and, of course, the grueling IB program create a strong bond. It just does.

About that program: IB students must perform academically at a level that equals or exceeds university standards. And it wasn’t lost on us that ISE is a small-college-like campus of eight buildings. So, a lot of the university experience is built into IB and ISE, including pulling all-nighters, campus freedom and academic collaboration.

Did it work? Well, Lale found some of her notebooks from her American school and was shocked at how poor her writing skills were two years ago compared to work at ISE.

And then there are the teachers. During dinner, Lale’s favorite teacher presented her with a note and a gift.

The note read in part, “It was a pleasure teaching you. I’m very proud of what you’ve accomplished … you are a very special young woman.”

Then the teacher took time to tell Cheryl how much Lale means to her.

The IB mission statement is “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” At ISE, there is total buy-in by teachers and students, and you get the feeling that these kids will really live their lives by this mission statement.

How do they do that?

Here’s a sample of the world Lale negotiated as an ISE student.

I’m sitting talking to the family of Lale’s classmate and friend, and his family dynamic would seem crazy to the rest of the world, but it’s totally normal for expats.

Lale’s friend’s mother is a French-speaking Belgian. His father is an executive from Amsterdam. They’ve lived all over the world, from The Valley to Hong Kong to Shanghai to Paris.

They’re not just bilingual, they’re multilingual … even at home. The friend’s mom uses French at home with her son and daughter, but speaks English to her husband! Both parents don’t just speak French, Dutch and English, they’re eloquently fluent in each and switch back and forth effortlessly.

I’m bilingual, but I can’t segue effortlessly into another language. Unfortunately ….

We’re at the graduation, and the friend’s family invites us to sit at their table. So I spent the evening speaking English to the grandfather, who worked for an American company in Liege, Belgium. But his wife only speaks French, so I was trying (and failing) to switch back and forth between English and French.

I find it amazing when so many Dutch people – and Europeans in general – never skip a beat as they go from one language to another without thinking! And THAT’S what we want for Lale.

Going international

When we moved to Eindhoven in 2016, Lale was forced to leave behind everyone and everything. She was plunged into a world of young people far more sophisticated, worldly and, yes, wealthy, than anything she’d ever experienced. I’m convinced that’s going to make all the difference.

Richard Florida wrote recently on CityLab about new research into upward mobility. In it, Florida quoted research that shows while education is an important factor, more important are being in a job-rich environment and marriage, specifically “assortative matching” — the tendency of high-income people to marry other high-income people.

In other words, success flows from where you are and who you’re with. Going to an international school, then to a European university and finally to a tech center such as Eindhoven is a surer path to a spot in the global executive class.

A lot of people reading this are thinking about now, “Yeah, sending your daughter to a (relatively) expensive private international school is great. What about the rest of us?”

We’re not going to apologize for this. We really sacrificed and did without. But what a foundation for our daughter! Which is the essential expat mindset.

Here’s our take-away: If you’re considering making a big move and taking a big job but wavering because you don’t want to uproot your kids from their school and making them start from scratch in a new country, don’t hesitate. It’s like the mayor said … he who hesitates is lost.

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