By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Ziyu “April” Huang is an international student at Assumption High School in Davenport. She’s been with her host parents, Nile and Carey Jones, for about six months now, and she’s already a valued family member. “She’s part of our household. She goes to church with us, and she has experienced the death of a pet (with us)… we play guitar together,” Nile said.
Because she is an international student, and not a foreign exchange student, April and her host parents will not have to part permanently when this school year ends. After spending summer back home in China, April will return to Assumption – and the Joneses — in the fall to complete her senior year, earn her diploma, and hopefully get accepted at an American university where she plans to study engineering.
April is one of 50 international students currently studying at a Catholic school in the Diocese of Davenport. Prince of Peace, Assumption, Notre Dame, Regina and Holy Trinity all host international students, a majority from Asian countries. International students differ from foreign exch-ange students because they are able to stay longer and eventually graduate. This hosts a series of benefits and challenges for the students, schools and host families.
Certified private schools, like those in the Diocese of Davenport, are able to host these students because they are not under the same restrictions as public schools, which generally do not allow foreign students to study more than 12 months in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Being an international student is advantageous for the student if their goal is to attend an American college, said Virginia Trujillo, administrative assistant to the diocesan superinten-dent of schools. Having a diploma from an American high school helps these students get accepted. She noted that the largest international student population in the diocese is at Regina Catholic Education Center, near the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The school will host about 32 international students next year.
The schools see benefits, too. International students pay full tuition. Diocesan Schools Super-intendent Lee Morrison said it is also an opportunity to share Catholicism with the students, especially Asians who are generally more familiar with atheism or Buddhism.
Still, the concept of the international student is not without challenges. Host families often have misconceptions about what the experience will be like, said Mimya Andersen, an independent coordinator of international students for Prince of Peace and Assumption. In 25 years working with international students and host families, she has observed that host families are usually “let down” when their student is more interested in studying than cooking ethnic food or sightseeing. “Foreign ex-change students come for the cultural experience … international students are (more) focused on academics,” she said.
Host families receive a stipend from the student’s agency or family. Host families must pass a background check and must also be comfortable with the idea of potentially hosting a student for multiple years.
Trujillo said more prospective international students exist than host families in the diocese.
Holy Trinity Catholic Schools in Fort Madison began hosting international students two years ago. Donna Borst, marketing director and international student coordinator, agreed that finding host families can be a struggle. However, she said it has gotten easier as awareness has spread. Next year, the school will host at least seven students, thanks to having “some great families lined up for them to live with. I have watched the international students thrive during their stay here and that is due in a large part to the families that they were staying with.”
Personalities can make a difference between a good fit and a bad fit. “The international students have different personalities just as the American students,” said Burlington Notre Dame Principal Ron Glasgow. April lived with two other families before coming to stay with the Joneses, who consider her a “great fit” due to similar personality and lifestyle needs.
Students make adjustments, too. Besides the challenge of learning in English, most of the international students The Catholic Messenger spoke with said religion classes are the most difficult because they are not familiar with the Bible. April joked that United States history is also difficult, “obviously!”
Additionally, leaving family behind for months at a time can be hard for students. “They leave so much behind. It takes courage. They give up a lot to come here,” said Nancy Peart, principal of Prince of Peace School in Clinton. She noted that for the students, even finding time to talk on the phone or video chat with family is difficult due to time zone differences.
Students said they find it comforting to be around other international students who understand the experience. April is the only international student at Assumption, but has become good friends with Julie Yu, a Chinese student at Prince of Peace. “They text (message) a lot,” her host parent Nile Jones said.
Despite an intense focus on academics, students do get cultural experiences through day-to-day life with their host families. They attend Mass and celebrate holidays new to them, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. Most memorable for Joe Manotamraksa, a Thai senior at Prince of Peace, was “Black Friday. You go to the store at midnight, people go crazy, everyone is bumping into each other,” he said, laughing.
At the end of the day, the international student experience is an opportunity to build awareness and acceptance of diversity for everyone involved. “It breaks down stereotypes. You learn that people are people. It opens up the world,” said Karen Witt, a host parent and employee of Prince of Peace School.
Anyone interested in hosting an international student should call their local school.