hen the doors of Winchester Thurston School opened this school year, among the 675 students walking through were 22 whose journey to Morewood Avenue started in China—the largest number of Chinese students in WT’s history.
“I wanted to come to school in the United States because the educational system in China was too rigid to allow much room for individuality and creativity,” explains Jia ‘Karen’ Ou, a senior in her fourth year at WT. “The teachers were the authority and I was only supposed to do what I was told. We didn’t learn much about how to succeed in life except how to score well on tests.”
Karen found what she wanted at WT. “WT seemed like the perfect fit for what I was looking for: supporting creativity, the arts, values, critical thinking, individuality, and so much more. I liked the small-school environment where everyone knows everyone, so I could do things I liked and simply be myself.”
“I like this environment where both students and teachers engage in class,” proclaims Yijia ‘Eric’ Chen, who entered WT last year as a freshman. “In China, there usually are 50 students in a class and a lot of the time, only the teacher talks. Students just listen and take notes, and are not encouraged to share ideas in class.”
WT has enrolled international students for decades, says Director of International Student Recruitment Scot Lorenzi, noting that this year’s foreign students also include one from Russia, three from South Korea, and three from Brazil. Historically, the school’s international population was comprised mainly of foreign exchange students eager for a one-year dip into American culture. But during the past five years, demand from international students has increased dramatically, mostly driven by students from China, and largely the result of three things: a flourishing partnership between WT and Peking University Elementary School (PUES) that immerses PUES students in WT’s fourth and fifth grade classrooms each fall; WT’s relationship with recruitment agencies that place Chinese students in American schools; and last year, a trip to Beijing undertaken by Lorenzi, Head of School Gary Niels, Director of Lower School Ashley Harper, and fifth grade teacher Karen Gaul.
Students like Eric and Karen reflect a trend that is changing the enrollment landscape at WT and at secondary and post secondary schools across the United States. According to the De- partment of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program, the number of Chinese secondary school students in the United States soared from 632 in 2005 to 38,089 in 2014. Chinese students now account for almost 50% of inter- national high school students in the United States, and though WT could easily admit far more Chinese appli- cants than it does—fully 75% are turned away—Lorenzi says the school carefully manages the acceptance rate.
“We are highly selective in the admission process and only take the very best students. We are excited that the students can enhance the school’s culture and enrich the experience for all WT students, but we are mindful of the increased demand on our teachers, especially in classes like history and English, where the students are reading books and writing papers.”
The culture is something the Chinese students appreciate – and enthusiastically embrace.
“I like the whole academic environment,” declares senior Jiaying ‘Jessie’ Zhang who, like Karen, came to WT as a freshman. “It’s more about the relationships I have with the teachers. In the United States, we have smaller classes and it’s easier to connect with teachers. It feels nice when students and teachers can smile and say hello when they see each other.”
As the numbers have increased, so has WT’s support for students as they navigate their new lives. Chinese teacher Yian ‘Ming’ Rui serves as Dean of International Student Affairs, filling different roles by turn: teacher, advisor, big sister, surrogate mother. She is indispens- able in countless ways: bridging the language gap to augment communication between parents in China and WT faculty and administration; coaching students through cultural challenges with school, social customs, and homestay families; helping other faculty better under- stand Chinese students to improve their learning experience; fostering social and community connections, like regular Chinese-language-only lunches open to anyone who wants to speak Chinese; peer tutoring between native Chinese students and Mandarin learners; and overseeing the International Club of Cultures, where all cultures are honored. The club’s highest-profile event is the spring festival, or Chinese New Year, the significance of which can’t be overstated: for students 7,000 miles from home, the ability to celebrate China’s most important holiday goes a long way toward creating roots in their new community.
“There was lots of food—dumplings, rice balls, traditional Chinese snacks,” remembers Karen, “and games like Jianzi, Mahjong, Tangram puzzles, and many other activities. Almost everyone in the Upper School participated, and even the Middle and Lower Schoolers came to the event. It was such a success and the festivities in the community that day really made me feel at home. It felt like we were a big family celebrating the New Year together.”
WT has also bolstered support for Chinese students and their parents during the college process. Director of College Counseling Dr. David Seward, who speaks several languages, including Mandarin, meets with new students and their families upon arrival to discuss curriculum and the importance of getting involved (and keeping track of activities with an eye toward college applications). As students move through Up- per School, Seward continues relationship-building, and by the time Junior Seminar rolls around—a class where eleventh graders begin exploring colleges—college conversations begin in earnest, both with students and their parents.
Often, parents have only heard of a handful of schools, like Harvard or Stanford, and “… it used to be medicine or engineering, that’s all any Chinese student was ever allowed to major in,” says Seward, pleased that parents are becoming more flexible.
Rui is instrumental in these conversations, working closely with Seward. “I not only help to interpret for David, but I also help the Chinese parents by explaining the differ- ence in perspectives on good colleges and majors, and the importance of letting their children choose their schools and majors,” states Rui.
WT’s student-centered process results in an optimal college list
for each student, domestic or international.
“By and large our students have a really thorough look at their own schools and make up their own minds. That’s why we have such a low transfer rate, lower than the national average. Our students tend to stay where they go,” observes Seward.
Lorenzi says one thing that could improve the Chinese students’ experience is more WT families willing to host them. Most students work with placement organizations to find families with whom they can live. Currently, the ma- jority of international students are hosted by families with no connection to WT, and Lorenzi would love to see that change. “When we have a family who knows the school and the community, who is tied in with the life of the school and can host these students and get to know them, it contributes to a successful experience,” notes Lorenzi.
WT parent Amy Dominek, mother of sophomore Dominique Mittermeier, couldn’t agree more. Last year, she and her family hosted fellow sophomore Yanming ‘Anna’ Cui, an experience she treasures. “It helps our children see some- thing outside of their own lives, to understand there’s more in the world. It breaks down barriers and opens up the door to learning about different cultures.”
For Rui, watching these young people grow and change at WT calls forth a kaleidoscopic array of emotions: rewarding, exciting, poignant and, ultimately, uplifting. “I feel happiest when I see them integrate into the WT community, mingling with American students without being self-conscious of their own culture. I am privileged to be able to help make WT a truly global school that provides the best learning environment for all students.”