Originally published in The Weekly Packet, January 30, 2014
From teaching calligraphy to dance, GSA’s international students give back
by Faith DeAmbrose
In 2005, George Stevens Academy opened its doors to international students. Eight students came to Blue Hill to attend the private academy that year.
Now, in its ninth year, the program is running at capacity, with 40 students in attendance. Half of the students live in dormitories maintained by the school, another half live in the community with volunteer host families.
While the students have primarily come from China, Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, the school has also accepted students from Italy and Switzerland. In January, five new students joined the school, including three from China, one from Rome, Italy and one from Switzerland.
To help integrate the international students, the school has made some changes, said Director of Residential Life Kathy Pelletier, since it literally helps to “act as the students’ parents.” Pelletier says that in preparing to accept the international students, the school had to think: “what would we want to do if these were our kids, what would we want them to learn about the community.”
The answer—initially—was to pair local students with international students, but from that concept grew a Student Ambassador program. The admission of the international students and the formation of the Student Ambassador program created an opportunity for the school to become more involved than it already was in the community, said Pelletier, opening up a number of volunteer opportunities for the students.
The school has adjusted in other ways, too. For instance, Christmas break is now two weeks long to give an opportunity for students to travel. The dorms are closed during the break, and many of the students who choose to stay are welcomed into the homes of community members and fellow students.
Ma Xiaoyve, known to her fellow classmates as Mary Ma, is one of the many GSA international students who are spending time in the community. Ma has even brought her culture to those living in Blue Hill by helping to teach Chinese to adults at Parker Ridge. Interested in the culture of churches, she said one of her favorite activities has been her work with the weekly free meals put on by the Simmering Pot. “We don’t have many churches in China,” said Ma, adding that most of her time in China is spent not with the community, but with her family. “It is amazing how people come together and donate time or money to help other people,” she said.
Gong Xingjian, or Jack Gong as he is called by the other students, explained that Maine is the first place he had ever been to in the U.S. and while he “expected to see skyscrapers,” he has adjusted to his rural surroundings.
Jack said he wants to go into the medical field and has spent time volunteering at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital. “There is not a lot I can do there,” he said, “but, I clean, stay with patients and bring them food and drinks.” He said American hospitals are very different from those in China and is grateful for the experience.
Gong and fellow student Peter Wu have volunteered their time to teach the art of calligraphy at area schools and at Parker Ridge. Charcy Ye has taken to learning dance and has formed a dance club at the school. Students have also learned a variety of American pastimes, such as sailing and cutting wood, with community members and host families.
Both Ma and Jack say that the primary reason for their attendance, and for many other international students, at GSA is a pathway to college. They say that American universities have high education standards and that spending two years in the states helps them get into an American college.
Ma lives with a host family and Jack lives in the boys’ dormitory. Both students have been studying English since primary school, and while the immersion in American culture helps to improve their language skills overall, there are still words or phrases that have little to no translation ability. “I was in a play,” said Ma, “and someone told me to ‘break your leg’ but that doesn’t make sense that you would say you hope a person hurts themselves,” she said as she giggled, now understanding what it really meant.
However, while sitting in Pelletier’s office, Ma dons a New York Yankees hat a little off to one side, and both teens are wearing the latest fashions. And as much as they have been transformed by their time in Maine, they, along with the other 38 international students, are taking the time to learn about their surroundings.
From maple syrup production (and tasting) to installing windows at a house project in Orland to taking in a show of The Nutcracker and getting a tour of the statehouse, the students are free to explore their surroundings and to organize school sanctioned trips every weekend.
International students have also volunteered their time at Blue Hill’s Kollegewidgewok Yacht Club, Bagaduce Music Lending Library, various farms in the area, Parker Ridge and Peninsula Metamorphic Arts and Learning, said Pelletier, as well as taken numerous enrichment trips from the school campus.