When more than two dozen international students came to a recent Rockford Board of Education meeting, the room took on the feel of a friendly United Nations summit.
One by one the students stood up to introduce themselves and their home countries: Brazil, China, Denmark, Germany, Thailand and more. “It’s nice to be back to Rockford,” said Zany Zou, one of two Chinese students returning from last year.
They were a representative sampling of the 35 foreign students attending Rockford High School this fall – by far the most the school has hosted. Thanks to two new agreements with international education agencies, students from 11 countries are studying alongside their American classmates and building inter-cultural bonds.
“What excites me about having foreign exchange students in our building is not only the experiences they’re going to get, but the experiences our students are going to have getting to know them,” Principal Dan Zang told the school board.
Superintendent Michael Shibler said the program could serve as a model for the state and reflects the reality of today’s world. “We are a global society now,” Shibler said. “Because of that we’ve got to have programs that get young people to interact with each other and learn from each other.”
Although they’re just getting their feet wet – including a dip in Lake Michigan for some – several students say they’re eager to improve their English and make new friends.
“I like America because I can learn something new that I didn’t try in China before,” said Crystal Zeng, one of 10 students from her country.
New Agreements Spur Enrollment
The surge in foreign-student enrollment reflects Rockford’s recent arrangements with two educational agencies, along with agreements in four other Kent County districts.
Last year Rockford hosted five Chinese students sponsored by Weiming Education Group, an association of private schools in China, while East Kentwood hosted five. This year Rockford increased its Weiming students to 10 and East Kentwood went to 20. The districts receive $10,000 per student in addition to state per-pupil aid.
Weiming also sends students to Holland Christian High School, Oxford High School, Traverse City High Schools and Eastern Local Schools in Beaver, Ohio.
A new agreement this year with Educatius International, a U.S.-based program with more than 200 partner schools, yielded another 15 international students for Rockford. In addition, Lowell has 11 Educatius students, boosting its total foreign-student enrollment to 26; Grand Rapids Public Schools has 10; and Comstock Park has seven. Those districts receive $4,000 per student.
Educatius wanted to expand into West Michigan this year, and reports from districts working with Educatius on the east side of the state were favorable, said Jeffrey Hayes, Rockford Mandarin Chinese teacher and coordinator of the Weiming program.
The remaining Rockford students come through the district’s long-term relationship with ASSE International Student Exchange Programs, a nonprofit that sends students from Scandinavia, Western Europe and Latin America. The district is also hosting a student sponsored by Rotary International.
It was a challenge to find host families for all the foreign students, so the district likely has reached its limit for now in the number it can accept, Hayes said. But the large enrollment has caused an excited stir at the high school, he said.
“The American students are really curious about these kids from other countries,” Hayes added. “They’re making friends with them.”
Learning English, plus Appendectomy
For their part, the international students say they’re eager to get to know their American counterparts.
“I really love it here,” said Emma Neuroth from Germany, noting the school provides ample academic and social opportunities. “I hope I find some really good friends here and learn something about the culture.”
For Emma and others, learning English is a key reason to study here. But they also relish the opportunity to see cultural attractions such as Chicago and natural wonders like Lake Michigan. Borja Gorina Riba of Spain said the lake was “freezing cold” but the shivers were worth it. “I always liked American culture,” he said. “What better way to learn it?”
Amaia Navascues, also from Spain, got more of a cultural experience than she bargained for when she was hospitalized for appendicitis. Though it was difficult to undergo surgery with her family overseas, she said she was impressed with the quality of her care at DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“All the nurses and the physicians are very nice, and they really care about you,” Amaia said, adding she likes Americans in general.
“They’re different (from Spaniards) but they are very nice. They are very grateful and they really care about you. In Spain they also do, but here they do with more love.”