They learn about U.S. schools, swim at Ocean Beach
New London - Yu Rou Zhou of China is considering studying abroad when she is older and is trying to find out what country might suit her best.
That's why the 15-year-old chose to visit the U.S. through the Hangzhou Entel Foreign Language School International Education and Cultural Program this summer. The program gives students between the ages of 12 and 16 a two- to three-week tour of the eastern United States to help them understand America's culture and its educational system a little better.
Their trip included a five-day stay last week at Connecticut College, which made up the academic portion of their visit with a few field trips squeezed in.
The students toured the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and spent a few hours at Ocean Beach Park, which turned out to be the favorite part of the week for many of them.
"I was going to give them a guided tour of Ocean Beach and take them to the miniature golf, but as soon as they saw the water they ran to the beach and neatly placed their shoes on the edge of the boardwalk and raced to the water," said program coordinator Bill Dumas, a former associate professor of film studies at Conn College. "We had to drag them away for dinner at the concession stand."
Jia Gao, 15, of Hangzhou, China, said he really enjoyed going to Ocean Beach and seeing the water. He said another favorite moment of his was a scavenger hunt across campus, during which they learned how to navigate using English relational terms.
On Friday afternoon, the Chinese students gathered excitedly in the Student Center at Conn for a mixer with children from New London's Drop In Learning Center and The Williams School photography workshop.
"They want to meet Americans, and they want to meet Americans their age," Dumas said.
He said the hardest part of his job is getting American kids to go, but he was pleasantly surprised to see that about 30 students were in attendance Friday, nearly quadruple the number last year.
During the mixer, Angela Sheng, the creator of the exchange program, encouraged the students to mingle and learn something about one another while music played in the background. When the music stopped, she yelled, "Switch!" and the kids were urged to talk to someone new.
The young teens were hesitant at first, but once they began to talk and learn of common interests, their heads nodded in agreement and smiles stretched ear to ear. After a half hour, the students each described the hobbies, like and dislikes of someone they met to their peers.
The Chinese students performed a few songs and an impromptu musical theater performance for their American audience, who clapped along and swung their hands in the air as if they were at a concert. At the end of the mixer, homemade drawings, black and white photos and decorative pens were exchanged as gifts, something Dumas said is a popular tradition among the Chinese.
Sakina King, the Drop In Learning Center's administrative director, said her children were happy to come to the mixer and very excited to meet the Chinese students. She said she noticed the students seemed nervous at first, but once they started talking they began to relax and open up.
"When they realize they're not so different, that's when they get happy," she said.
Dumas said that during their stay at Conn, the Chinese students gained confidence in speaking English to native speakers and "a sense that they can indeed come to the U.S. to study, either high school or college."
As for the future of the Chinese summer camp, Dumas said it will certainly be at Conn College again next year and he is looking to expand to two sections with more field trips. He also has plans to set up another program by next spring involving The Williams School.
Dumas said the program was created by Sheng, originally from Shanghai, China, a few years ago in order to give schools from China the opportunity to visit the U.S. to explore and learn the culture.
Sheng said she organizes Chinese exchange programs at colleges all over the nation and plans to host a camp at Harvard University this winter. She said although Chinese students are good at math and physics, many have a hard time understanding American history and culture. What fascinates the kids the most, however, is learning how the U.S. educational system differs from their own.
Dumas said he wanted to bring the program to the campus because of the contacts he had. This past week was the second time the camp had come to Conn., but finding a campus sponsor this year proved to be a little tougher than he thought. Finally, he found Professor John Tian to sponsor the camp.
"If you don't have a campus sponsor you have to pay a lot more money," Dumas said. "I basically looked on the directory and looked for anyone with a Chinese last name that would be interested."
Dumas said it was also difficult to find Connecticut College instructors to teach the students because most professors were busy enjoying the summer. Luckily, he found several from The Williams School to teach them about the Secondary School Admission Test, English language and American culture and government.
Dumas said SSAT prep was included in the week's itinerary because it is an entrance exam used by American high schools for admission of foreign students.
"At least some of these students are interested in coming to the U.S. for high school," he said.
In China, Zhou said last week, the educational system is different from what many Americans are used to. The 15-year-old resident of Hangzhou said unlike in America, it is very hard to get into college in her country and very easy to graduate. She said the United States has more universities she can apply to and the schoolwork would give her the challenge she craves.
"In China we maybe work very hard and we go to not very good university," she said.