CHARLOTTESVILLE — Carol Kinser remembers the feeling of excitement.
It was late one night earlier this month at the airport. She and a handful of other local families met a crowd of Chinese teenagers gathered around the airport’s baggage claim. They were bleary-eyed but clearly eager to begin their stay in the United States.
That, Kinser said, was the start of a three-week adventure that’s now wrapping up — a collision of two cultures as families from Eastern Hancock Schools hosted a group of nine foreign exchange students visiting from China to learn about life in America.
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The students’ visit marks the first time the school district has welcomed such a large group of foreign exchange students to its high school and middle schools at one time, Principal Dave Pfaff said. Traditionally, Royals open their doors to a student or two who stay for the majority of the school year.
Exchange programs are vital in a rural school district, where opportunities for students to experience diversity are scarce, Pfaff said. And having such a large number of visitors in Eastern Hancock’s halls means more of the student body, of all grades and ages, will have an opportunity to get to know children who are different from them, he said.
The 10 students, whose ages range from 10 to 16 and who fall between sixth- and 10th-grades, traveled with a short-term exchange program called America Project Hope, Pfaff said. They came to the United States with a teacher, who helped shepherd and guide them through their travels, serving as a translator and mentor along the way.
America Project Hope serves as a full-immersion program, said Jimmy He, the Chinese teacher who also called Eastern Hancock home this month. Many of the students who participated have plans to study abroad during their high school or college years. This short period of time abroad lets them get a feel for life in America before committing to a longer exchange program, he said.
Some of the students in the visiting group had come to the United States before on vacations with their families, while others were visiting the country for the first time, He said.
Language is typically the biggest barrier the Chinese students face, as many don’t speak English, He said. But they learn different ways to communicate with those around them and end up making the most of their time.
Kinser said she and her two children learned quickly that some English words and phrases don’t translate to Chinese.
She and her family relied on translator apps on their cellphone and “a lot of charades” to communicate with 14-year-old Sicheng Chen, who stayed with them. They quickly formed a bond with the boy despite their language barrier.
Fifteen-year-old Yao Shunyu visited America for the first time this month and said he was surprised by the little things that make the U.S. different from China.
First – and most importantly, he said — there’s the food. Americans eat lots of spaghetti and pizza and hamburgers, and none of the spicy noodle and tofu dishes he’s used to back home, he said. And it’s strange to be living in a house, he added. In China, everyone lives in apartments, surrounded by big buildings and seas of other people, he said.
Like the other students in the visiting group, Yao is from the Sichuan Province of China, which has a population of more than 81 million – a sharp contrast to the roughly 600 who call Charlottesville home. Yao said he sees far fewer cornfields and farms where he’s from.
During their stay in the United States, the Chinese students split their time between sight-seeing and spending time with American children their age.
They explored Indianapolis, visited nearby colleges and universities, saw a Colts football game and an Indians baseball game, and went camping, among other activities. They also attended classes at Eastern Hancock, got involved with extra-curricular activities and spent quality time with their host families.
Other school districts from across Hancock County also have welcomed foreign exchange students from Asia this summer.
In late July, a group of a dozen educators, business leaders and government officials from South Korea visited Mt. Vernon schools to learn how the district was integrating technology into education.
Earlier this month, a group of girls from Kakuda, Japan — Greenfield’s sister city – toured Greenfield-Central schools, meeting with students of all ages and visiting spots around Indianapolis.
America Project Hope brought a group of students to New Palestine in 2014 to stay with families in the Southern Hancock Community Schools district. This was the first year the program brought students to Eastern Hancock, officials said.
Having foreign exchange students share their classrooms for a few weeks can be a wonderful learning experience for local children as well, Pfaff said. As the Chinese students learn about America, they can teach their new friends about life in China.
Kinser said the students’ visit has been an unforgettable experience for her family. And as the Chinese students return home this week, she hopes their counterparts back in Charlottesville keep in mind the lessons about other cultures they’ve learned.
“I think we all realized the world is a lot bigger than our own backyard,” Kinser said. “I hope they have an appreciation for other culture and other lifestyles.”