PERRY -- For a few students at The Westfield School, their education is as much about local culture as it is about their classes.
That’s because the school, with an enrollment of about 500 from pre-K through 12th grade, is home to eight students from foreign countries, including five freshmen from China who just began a semester-long exchange program.
Head of schools William Carroll said he’s hopeful the experience will be good for all students. He talked about the changing “global environment,” where interacting with people of various cultures is more commonplace than it once was.
“We think it’s great for our students because it exposes them to a world they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise,” Carroll said.
For many school systems, including Houston County’s public schools, exchange students come through the initiative of host families, but Westfield has a different arrangement for the five freshmen: Rachel Huang, David Liu, Kirsten Tang, Christina Yuying and Raina Zhang.
They have host families, but they are at Westfield as part of a partnership with Three W International, a student management company. The company has similar relationships with schools across the country, including Greater Atlanta Christian.
The students just arrived for their semester at Westfield this month, and Huang said things are going well so far.
“I think everything’s great,” she said.
The Chinese students -- along with Hugo Franceschetto from France and Max Settele from Germany -- aren’t going to graduate from Westfield. Their school records aren’t dependent on which classes they take, which allows them some scheduling flexibility.
The exchange students often take fewer core classes and more electives than their counterparts, said Mary Jane Kinnas, Westfield’s director of admissions and marketing.
“They are here to learn the culture and improve their English and certainly to continue their academic work,” she said.
Learning the language has been the biggest hurdle, according to students and educators alike. While all the students took English classes back home, the more practical application of the language involves slang phrases that aren’t part of any course.
Carroll cited the phrase “like banging your head against the wall” as an example.
“Something like that is going to be very difficult at first, that kind of metaphorical language,” he said.
Mason Moreland, a teacher at the school who’s helping the students adjust to everyday English, said she faced similar confusion when she told them to “wait a second” while meeting with an administrator. Changing her phrasing to “wait a minute” met similar responses, with the students unsure how long to wait.
“You have to really take your time,” Moreland said of choosing more exact phrasing while the students adjust.
Liu said the language adjustment isn’t limited to just verbal communication. Liu, who often helps his classmates understand classroom instruction, said even reading their textbooks is a challenge.
“We also have a lot of very difficult classes,” he said. “The whole paragraph and whole page is full of English, so it’s very hard to read.”
Part of the transition process included a name change, at least for the students of Asian descent. Many of them picked up names during English classes back home, the way American students often do in their foreign language courses.
Several had their names chosen by English teachers in China, but David -- whose real name is Hao -- picked his own.
“I just took it from my English book,” he said, adding that there were no other options that compared. “For me, it’s the best name.”
The students have also had to adjust to American food. While Tang said she enjoyed the food back home more, Liu has become a fan of pizza and hamburgers, among other Western favorites.
“I like snacks, and the people here eat a lot of snacks,” he said.
A NEW HOME
One of Westfield’s foreign students, Henry Truong, is here to stay, at least for the next few years. He came from his home in Vietnam as an exchange student in Crawford County last school year.
After that, he did some research and discovered he could use a student visa and finish his high school career at Westfield as an international student.
“He wanted to stay in the United States and graduate here and go to college here,” Kinnas said.
Truong, a senior who hopes to go to college at the University of Kentucky, is a member of the wrestling and swim teams at Westfield, an opportunity not available at Vietnamese schools. He said he still talks to his family back in Vietnam weekly, but it’s been tough to schedule as he’s gotten more involved at his new school.
“The experience has been pretty good,” he said. “The feeling of homesickness, not so much any more.”
Truong is in a unique situation at Westfield because his American home is the Carroll residence. The 17-year-old said he’s enjoying it, even though the head of schools has some tough rules at home.
For Carroll’s part, he said he’s had to remember how much more teenage boys eat. His other children -- Ella, J.B. and Georgia -- are all in elementary school.
“I kind of knew that in theory, ... but you kind of forget,” he said.
All in all, the exchange or international student experience has helped the eight students learn American life, Liu said, and that’s one of the chief aims. Interestingly enough, he hasn’t seen many real differences.
“They always say actually the American culture is different than the Chinese culture,” the freshman said. “I think maybe a lot of American and China, maybe they are the same.”
To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.